Tomorrow is Easter. And it always brings memories flooding in. Happy ones. I don't remember anything bad ever happening on Easter.
Our home was broken and not in a way marked simply by divorce. There was so much wrong it would never be righted. But there were also moments when the gears of life clicked into place with a steady, smooth sound; the kind of sound you hear when a roller coaster climbs its ascents and you get to lean back, catch your breath, and listen to the rhythmic ticking before the next plummeting rush.
Easter was always an ascent day. And our little white clapboard Baptist church was the anchor that held me fast. It was a constant for me in a teetering world. Most of the people who showed up on Sunday, or for special events, weren't the same people living life in the world the rest of the week. They put on their Sunday best. And I loved to lose myself in the perfection of it. I was unable to discern duplicity. It would be years before I would watch many of the congregants go down in flames, devastate the innocent, or walk away from the faith. I knew little, acknowledged less, and was happy for it while I was there.
Children have a marvelous way of compartmentalizing. And life got locked outside the big double doors of the church. MIne was a world of tight bodices and full, calico skirts filled with the perfume of being freshly dried in the sun. Safe skirts. Skirts I could hide behind when people spoke to me; a bastion to peer around and retreat into.
And on Easter, our hands were afforded the luxury of silky smooth cotton gloves, stitched with delicious raised seams that followed each finger. I don't remember a defining word spoken from the pulpit but my finger would follow the road map of those seams while the preacher delivered. And when I clapped my hands together it gave a sound like very distant muffled thunder. The crisp report my hands usually provided was gone and I was left with this enticingly muted percussion.
Most Sundays I occupied myself with careful examination of my mother's fingernails during the sermon. I occasionally grew too twitchy and fidgety. That would be followed by the brisk walk of shame down the center aisle and past the watching faces, as my mother hauled me behind the church for a sound spanking. She worried very much that people would think she was a bad mother for having children who did not sit still or were uncontrolled. The irony of trying to sit still on a stinging bottom occupied my ponderings. But I never got a spanking on Easter.
Our mornings always began in the dark, reaching for Easter baskets set out the night before. It was positively magical to think you could set this empty receptacle beside your bed and then wake up to find it filled with candy, and maybe that coveted box containing a hollow, chocolate rabbit. The childish holy grail. We would dress quickly in warm clothing and pile into the car, three children clutching Easter baskets in a death grip, and drive through the darkness many miles to a river.
Grandma Miller, as the whole congregation called her, lived on bottom land near the banks of the San Joaquin river, in a little ramshackle house accessed by a long winding, dirt road. Age-weary and sagging barbed wire fences flanked both sides as we motored slowly down, car lights piercing the dust the cars kicked up. On Easter Sundays she offered up her land and her grove of Eucalyptus trees at the river's edge as a backdrop for our Sunrise Service. We could count on doughnuts and hot chocolate to fortify and warm us after the preaching. Until then we blew warm breath into our cupped hands and stamped our feet. An old wooden picnic table that claimed its permanent residence among the towering forest, guarded our food and Easter baskets as we piled them on top of it. These had to come along for shared excitement with other lucky souls.
As we gathered by the river, a quiet hymn or two would usher in the early light. Rocks and bushes and fine details on the leaves would slowly creep into view. The quiet traveling of the water and the occasional snap of a twig lulled me in the reverent morning air. The preacher would tell the story, once again, of finding the empty tomb where they had laid the body of Jesus and about his victory over death. I would rock on my heels and try to focus. The sun would peek over the edge of the horizon and send a million glittering crystals dancing down the river on top of the water. That cocoon of beauty and wonder would stay with me for life and be inextricably woven in with the Resurrection.
When we headed for home the outfitting would begin. New dresses, frilly socks (for me), gloves and hats, white patent leather shoes. Some attempt would be made to comb my wild and unruly hair and force it into submission, if only for a few hours. Curly, wispy hair always framed my face and drove my mother to distraction. My hair made her insane. (Well, there were a few other contributing factors.) But I loved all the pomp and circumstance and felt oh-so-beautiful for a day. One Easter, when I was eight, my mother even made us all matching dresses. (My brother opted out.) I was so excited I refused to go to bed the night before Easter when she was still sewing at the dining room table. Dinner was understandably late and I gave up and fell asleep with my face in my empty plate. I slept great and loved looking like everything was perfect the next day.
In reality, the two years before had been filled with a remarriage and annulment (he was a homosexual seeking cover), more violence, a fourteen-year-old brother sent to juvenile hall, a desperately troubled sister, three more moves, three changes of schools, loss of pets and friends, and more sexual abuse. But this was a space between those things and there were other spaces like this, and they were magnificent. And I lived for them.
And somehow the truth and beauty of what was real in the meaning of Easter permeated my heart. And it removed me and saved me from the craziness of my world. I developed some pretty strange ideas about God and I had been taught to be afraid of him. But through it all the truth burrowed itself into my being, and clung to me, and refused to be uprooted by the evidence of distortion around me. Years later it would reveal itself to me having shed the cocoon of twistedness. And I spread my wings and soared with it.
And at Easter I am once again reminded of the gladness and hope this day always brought me as a child. I keep it like a treasure and am grateful beyond description for the hope it offered, for my rebirth in Christ, for children to love, nurture and learn from, and for a heart of joy.
Happy Easter, my dear friends. May you be filled with wonder and blessings afresh when the sun peeks over your horizon tomorrow morning and brings you the promise of Easter.