The Resurrection of Easter Lunch
We see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable.
—William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom
I have lived in the suburbs of the District of Columbia for over thirty years. Like a foreign correspondent, a missionary, or a returning Peace Corps volunteer, I am sometimes invited to describe the eccentricities of life in the strange land of my birth, the American South. I usually respond with a story. Veracity is irrelevant.
One of my favorites is about the young woman from North Carolina who married a man from a large metropolitan area in the North. They both had good jobs and were adjusting to married life in the city of his birth. As spring was approaching, she decided that she wanted to prepare a big Easter lunch with all the trimmings. She invited two other couples and told her husband she was going to duplicate the meal her family had each year on this occasion. He just shrugged, saying that his family always went out after Easter services. She insisted that she wanted to prepare a traditional meal and serve it on her new china.
She bought groceries, and was shocked at how it all added up. Unsure how much meat she needed for six people, she ordered a whole ham from the gourmet butcher. When she went to pick it up, she asked him to cut off the shank and wrap it separately. Back at the apartment, her husband stood in the doorway, watching her unpack the sacks.
“That’s a whole lot of food,” he said.
“I know. Just help me put it away,” she told him.
She handed him vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and other items that needed refrigerating. Just when he thought there was no room for anything else, she handed him the ham. He shook his head. She shoved him out of the way and began rearranging. Miraculously, it all went in.
“What about that?” he asked, pointing to the smaller package wrapped in butcher paper.
“That goes in the freezer.”
“What is it?” he asked.
“That’s the shank.”
“What’s a shank and what is it for? I think we have plenty of meat.”
“It’s for cooking beans, or field peas, or collards.”
“I don’t eat beans, or field peas, or collards.”
“When we buy a ham, we have the butcher cut off the end, and we put it in the freezer to use later.”
“I don’t understand why you bought the whole ham and then had the butcher cut off a big hunk of it. That makes no sense.”
“That’s the way my mother did it, and my grandmother did it. That’s the way I’m going to do it.”
“That’s nuts,” he said. The argument escalated. The husband grew sufficiently aggravated that he opened a beer and went into the bedroom to watch sports.
The bride was in tears as she dialed the phone to call her mother. Why, exactly, was it necessary to remove the shank, particularly if one had a husband who did not want to eat any vegetables cooked with pork? Her mother told her that she had always done it that way because her mother had always done it that way. Her husband, she assured her, would learn to love vegetables cooked with ham, but it was best not to tell him what made the beans so tasty until after their fifth anniversary. “Why don’t you call your grandmother and ask her why she did it?”
Her grandmother said, “I don’t know, honey. That’s the way my mother did it. Call your Memaw at the nursing home and see if she can tell you anything.”
When Memaw answered the phone, her great-granddaughter put the question to her. She started laughing. “Honey,“ she said. “It was the Depression. That was the only pan I had to cook a ham in. It wouldn’t fit unless I cut the shank off.”
Tradition, rituals, cherished values, and outdated beliefs—it is hard to distinguish one from the other. These are tools we use to keep loneliness at bay. We spin a web, connecting ourselves to others, past and possibly future. In the most positive sense, rituals and traditions remind us that we live on a continuum. We are descendants—biologically, philosophically, geographically, spiritually. Rituals and traditions are ways of acknowledging our gratitude. We honor them, with the hope that those who follow us will remember us with an equal measure of respect. We want to be included among those who were good, or wise, outstanding, or just plain right about things. Consciousness of our ancestry can engender a sense of tribal continuity, of belonging and inclusion. Placing ourselves among those we respect can nurture gratitude and humility, but can also feed the embers of resentment, hatred, arrogance, and prejudice. At their worst, traditions and rituals encourage exclusion, ostracism, and excommunication. They define the Other in ways that create barriers. They can be containers for self-righteous, stubborn, egotistical beliefs. We allow ourselves to feel entitled to our revered beliefs, elevated by our identification with others, and, at the extreme, ennobled by our willingness to die for our beliefs. Warriors always consider themselves to be heroes.
Rituals include the creation of sacred space, the repetition of actions, and adherence to a protocol. They evoke a sense of the numinous. They can be part of a religious tradition, but are also practiced by organizations that pride themselves on exclusivity. Those who practice rituals are initiates in a select group. Even when eligibility is determined by birth, there is usually a ceremony of inclusion.
Traditions are more accessible. Holiday traditions, particularly those without religious associations such as Halloween trick or treat, Fourth of July parades, Mother’s/Father’s day lunches, New Year’s Eve celebrations, Valentine dances, and Super Bowl parties are practiced by many Americans, even if the group itself has some degree of selectivity. Traditions include us, and allow us to find people with whom we share affinities.
I’ve participated in them all. I’ve carried on with traditions. I’ve been initiated into a wide variety of “members-only” human clusters. I’ve harbored my share of out-of-date beliefs and allowed my ego to foolishly defend them until they were unmasked as silly before going down in the fiery destruction they deserved. I have been included and excluded by reason of sex, birth, beliefs, color, predilections, and allegiances. Worst of all, I have been excommunicated, ostracized, and exiled, usually for changing, thereby disqualifying myself from membership. Fear of being an outcast is fundamental. Human beings do not thrive in isolation. Nevertheless, as we grow and become more conscious, we leave behind the unexamined ideas of our youth, and we form new affiliations beyond the ties of blood. Here is a story about my own dance with traditions and rituals.
The season of Oestre, or Easter, as the Christians refer to it, was at hand. I did not go to church, sing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” or hide eggs in the backyard. I did not buy a pastel dress, or bring out white high-heeled pumps to make their first appearance of the year. I would not be sharing a meal with my children, parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, and in-laws. We would not be retelling “remember when” stories of childhood, after the wine softened our moods and sharpened our memories. I do not live in the same Texas town that was our family’s home for five generations. I would not be engaging in those traditional behaviors that held us, year after year, in a tapestry of connection.
During my lifetime, everything about my family and community has changed, at a speed scarcely believable. Not only do I live thousands of miles away from that small Southern town, but experience, education, and time have also made me an exile. I do not belong to the tribe that both contained and protected my mother, my grandmothers, and their mothers before them. There are moments when this realization wounds me deeply. I feel the loss and momentarily question the wisdom of the choices the younger me made with such confidence and resolution.
But that year, I had a longing, a deep desire to somehow reconnect with at least one tradition of my childhood. I wanted to have Easter lunch. I needed to revisit the ritual of that meal, one more time.
I polished silver flatware until it gleamed. I laid it on a damask cloth, long enough to cover a dining table with seating for twelve. I folded starched linen napkins, white and monogrammed, and inserted them into napkin rings bearing the names of people long dead. I took dinner plates from the cabinet, and the dessert plates, and the salad plates. Each one of them had a forty-year-old coffee filter between them, placed there by my grandmother to prevent scratches on the surface. Their gold bands require that each one be washed by hand, rather than loaded into a dishwasher. When the meal was finished and the plates were dried, I would return those pieces of paper to where I found them, and in my mind’s eye, I would see her hands doing the same. At each place, I set a water goblet and a wine goblet, the crystal refracting the sunlight, throwing rainbows on to the white linen.
I created a flower arrangement using tulips, jonquils, hyacinths, daffodils, and lilies. I added ferns and leafy branches, sprays of flowering shrubs. They leapt up with color and drooped forward, scenting the air. Flowers are symbols of rejuvenation and resurrection. Quickening, they emerge from the dirt, warmed by the return of light. This rebirth happens every year, and I am part of it.
I know that this elaborate preparation was “too much.” I know that no one bothers with these kinds of holiday luncheons anymore, but I was, and continue to be, beguiled by the process. It brings something in me to life, and for a brief time (well, not so brief; it takes days) I am part of a tradition of feminine nurturing. I remember the gifts of love that arrived in our dining room every Easter Sunday. The flowers grew in our yard, cultivated by my mother, and were brought to our table as a glad offering in celebration of our family’s life together. I can taste the lime in my mother’s soufflé. I remember molded salads, deviled eggs, whipped potatoes, homemade rolls, and steamed asparagus. While I may not be serving an identical menu, I put as much love and care into my preparations she did.
It did feel as if I were creating a sacred space, preparation for the sacrament of hospitality. My table was a bouquet for the senses, an array of tastes, smells, and textures. To sit at my Easter table was to be welcomed, cherished, honored, and loved.
The doorbell rang. I opened my front door to a collection of people who live in my adopted city. None of them are Southern. None of them are related to me by blood. For most of them this extravaganza of a lunch is as exotic as a Russian feast on the tsar’s table. We live in a metropolitan area where money and power are the driving forces. We all came here from somewhere else. This is nobody’s hometown. I do not know their parents, their siblings, or their high school sweethearts.
They found a place at the table by locating little cardboard tents scrawled with their names. They were not seated next to spouses or lovers. They would not be talking politics or business at my table. I diverted them when they tried. They engaged in civil discourse, or at least observed, while others who were more fluent conversed.
They are sophisticated foodies. They inquired as to the caterer, and were surprised when I told them that I prepared the meal. Their eyes grew wide, as plates were set before them. That Sunday afternoon, they found themselves relaxing, forgetting that they are Democrats or Republicans, laying aside issues and passions. They told stories of their families, hometowns, past romances. Humor, that rarest of Washington commodities, made a charming appearance. There was sweetness, kindness, and pleasure.
From my place at the end of the table, I decided that I had created a good thing. They were enjoying themselves and each other. They were satiated, cherished, nourished. I realized, as I watched them, how very different my life is from my mother’s, my grandmothers’. Not one of my guests, for reasons of geography, race, family, sexual preference, religion, and other irrelevant factors, would have been at my family’s table. They would have been the Others, the Not Us People. I have created an ephemeral family from people I genuinely like. I was able to celebrate them, to rejuvenate them, to partake of this ritual of rebirth with them with the tools and the skills I learned from my foremothers.
This is a woman I do not get to be very often, an archetype I do not frequent. This meal is a celebration of the Divine Feminine, of the power to nourish another’s soul, to include in a way that allows them to feel a part of something greater than themselves—the family of living beings.
I am not sorry I did not spend my life cooking, gardening, and taking care of the home. I’m glad I only occasionally polish, starch, iron, simmer, and garnish. I am equally glad that I know how to do these things, for they are becoming a lost art. I am so thankful that I have these family heirlooms, bits of china and silver and glass, which have graced the tables of women who came before me. I am also grateful that I am not a slave to them. They belong to me now, and their symbolic meaning, the values they embody, are only those that I attribute to them. I have transformed the ritual, resurrected it to suit my own desires.