church

Easter eggs full of lore

red_eggAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, April 21, 2019.

Candy eggs were always awaiting my brothers and me on Easter morning but, as kids, we missed the symbolism.

Rob, James, and I would thunder down the carpeted stairway to the living room in our house on River Avenue in Providence to confirm an annual visitation even more outlandish than that of Santa Claus: a rabbit had somehow hopped into our home the night before and left us all kinds of goodies.

The origin of the Easter Bunny is a mystery. One explanation points to the springtime pagan celebration of Eostre, named for a Germanic fertility goddess whose symbol was a rabbit or hare, although the historical proof for such a connection is thin.

Stronger evidence exists concerning the Easter Bunny’s arrival here in America. According to Time magazine, German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s introduced the folkloric tradition of an egg-delivering hare to the colony. The custom eventually spread throughout the United States.

My brothers and I were oblivious to all this as we scoured our house in search of foil-wrapped chocolate eggs. We found them perched on picture frames, tucked inside bookcases, and set on windowsills behind drawn drapes. Sometimes a hidden egg would elude us for days or even longer; once, in the middle of summer, Rob found one nestled in a plant urn. Score one for the Easter Bunny (and Mom)!

Our mother ran a tight ship as a single parent, but on Easter morning, house rules were suspended. Breakfast included colored jellybeans and sickeningly sweet yellow marshmallow Peeps.

“Just make sure you brush your teeth before church,” she told us.

Ah, church. On ordinary Sunday mornings, sitting still in the pews for an hour-long Mass at St. Pius was a challenge; on Easter, when the length of the sermon seemed to double, as did the lines for Communion, I longed to hear those seven heavenly words: “The Mass is ended, go in peace.”

Christian fasting traditions contribute to the prevalence of eggs at Easter time. On the day before Lent, known as Fat Tuesday or Pancake Day, it was customary for the faithful to use up all the eggs and dairy in their household and then abstain from them for 40 days. There was a catch, however: no one told the hens. By the end of Lent, a family’s store of eggs would be larger than usual, necessitating quick consumption before they spoiled. Easter eggs to the rescue!

Since ancient times, eggs had been a symbol of rebirth and renewal in cultures around the world. Through a Christian lens, they came to represent the Jesus Resurrection story. And what a striking totem they could be.

Among Orthodox Christians, eggs are dyed red as a reminder of the blood Christ shed on the Cross. The hard shell is thought to represent Jesus’ sealed tomb, while cracking the egg open on Easter morning symbolizes his rising from the dead.

This tradition ties to the legend of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar after Jesus’ death. Holding an egg out to him, she announced “Christ is risen.” Tiberius replied that Jesus had no more risen than the egg in her hand was red – at which point, the shell turned crimson.

Eggs of a more temporal nature appeared in Russia between 1885 and 1917. Crafted by Peter Carl Faberge, these lavish, bejeweled orbs were commissioned by the Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II as Easter gifts for their wives and mothers. In 2007, one Faberge egg sold for $18.5 million.

Back on River Avenue, house rules were reinstated on the Monday after Easter.

“No candy until you get home from school,” Mom announced to my brothers and me in the kitchen at breakfast.

So to the pantry we trudged and reached for our favorite cereal: Sugar Pops.

Praying for our dog’s return

georgy girl001_2

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 18, 2018.

I wasn’t happy about my family’s move to Narragansett three weeks before I started second grade. I missed my best friend and next-door neighbor, Chris, in Providence. Instead of walking with him on the first day of school, I now had to take a bus, surrounded by strangers.

But things got better when my mother came home one afternoon with a shaggy black puppy with tan and white markings. Mom named the pup Georgy Girl, after the lead character in a recent popular movie.

My brothers and I loved to watch Georgy chase rabbits in a field near our new house, leaping and then disappearing in the tall grass. We laughed when she licked our faces, even though her tongue felt like damp sandpaper.

Thank God we got a dog because there weren’t many kids to play with in our neighborhood off of Point Judith Road. The area’s sparse year-round population prompted St. Mary Star of the Sea Church to recruit my older brother, Rob, and me to become altar boys. It didn’t matter that I had yet to make my First Holy Communion, normally a prerequisite to serving on the altar. Father Hughes, St. Mary’s kindly pastor, granted me dispensation; he needed help, and we lived nearby.

My debut was memorable, though not for spiritual reasons. When it was time for Father Hughes to prepare for the Consecration, I somehow dropped the silver hand washing basin, and it rolled in circles on the green-carpeted altar floor. Attempting to grab the bowl, I looked like Georgy chasing her tail.

Once I settled into my altar boy duties, the language of the liturgy captivated me, as did Father Hughes’ sonorous voice. With his incantations about angels and archangels and “the mystery of faith,” he sounded to me like God Himself.

That made it easy to accept things that might otherwise have vexed an 8-year-old mind, such as bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Christ, and God hearing me when I said my prayers.

The last of these, however, was put to the test later that fall when Georgy disappeared.

“I let her out this morning, and she never came back,” my mother told Rob and me after school one day. Her voice was filled with worry.

Rob and I set out for the leafless woods across from our house. Mom and my younger brother, James, jumped in her red Opel Kadett to comb the streets. When my father got home from work, he joined the search, heading toward Salt Pond. But at bedtime, Georgy was still missing. Unable to sleep, and as upset as I had been in my life till then, I prayed for our dog’s return.

The next 24 hours brought more of the same: anxious walks through the woods, drives through the neighborhood, and calls of “Georgy!” into the evening quiet.

There was still no scratch at the door. On this second night of separation, I tossed in my bed, whispering words to the darkness again.

And then, early the following morning, as my mother drove to the market across from St. Mary’s for a quart of milk, there was Georgy, sitting on the front stoop of a vacant summer cottage. Mom, who said our dog sprang into the car as happy as ever, honked the horn when she got back to our house, and Georgy greeted my brothers and me with leaps and licks and wags of her tail.

Had my prayers been answered? Did angels intervene? Or was it random luck that my mother had run out for milk at just the right time to find our missing dog? I would wrestle with such mysteries when I got older, but not on this day — not with Georgy safely delivered home and curled up on the couch in our den.

That night, after crawling into bed, I whispered a simple, two-word prayer to the darkness and beyond: “Thank you.”

Sunday best, especially for Easter

vincents002_rw2The author’s grandfather, mother (front), and aunts in the backyard of their house in Providence in the late 1930s. As published in the Providence Journal, April 16, 2017. 

Pilgrims came for 73 years, thanks in large part to the retail Holy Trinity of Christmas, Easter, and Back to School. Those were the biggest selling seasons at the children’s clothing store on Federal Hill that bore my grandfather’s name: Vincent’s.

During the run-up to Easter, the store’s showcase windows displayed finely knit shawls, classic blue blazers, and delicate cotton baby bonnets, while racks inside catered to another beloved rite of spring: first holy Communions. Young girls in silky white dresses twirled in front of full-length mirrors, eliciting oohs and aahs from adoring mothers, grandmothers, and aunts.

As an entrepreneur, Papa’s eureka moment came in the mid-1920s when he recognized that most of the Hill’s Italian immigrant families, his included, always dressed up their children for church regardless of how tight money was. He also saw that parents and godparents would spare no expense in purchasing elegant christening sets to baptize their babies at one of the three Catholic churches that dotted a half-mile stretch of Atwells Avenue – Holy Ghost, St. John’s, and Mount Carmel. If he could provide such merchandise, along with a healthy dose of service and charm, my grandfather believed he was destined for success in good times and bad.

He was right. Two years after Vincent’s opened, the stock market crashed, unleashing the Great Depression. Meanwhile, though unemployment soared, holy water kept flowing at baptismal fonts, second-graders still made their first Communion, and families continued to go to Mass. Papa’s store thrived, especially around the holidays.

The tradition of donning new clothes on Easter has roots in pagan celebrations of the vernal equinox. Dressing up for church every Sunday, however, didn’t become customary until the Industrial Revolution. That’s when advances in textile manufacturing made finer wardrobe options available to the emerging middle class.

Despite the fashion dispensation inferred by the Old Testament words of 1 Samuel 16:7 – “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” – wearing one’s “Sunday best” became increasingly de rigueur for the faithful. God may not raise an eyebrow at a rumpled coat or scruffy pants, but what about fellow parishioners?

Not surprisingly, clothes were a form of religion in my family. Papa had the sleeves of his crisp white dress shirts hemmed a half-inch at the elbow so his cuffs peeked out perfectly from his suit jackets. And while the colors and patterns of his ties grew increasingly flamboyant as he got older, he had the self-confidence to make such bold sartorial statements with ease.

My mother’s sense of style was equally assured; no one could carry off a fancy Easter hat like she did. Later in life, her recollection of certain outfits, prompted by old photographs, was encyclopedic. In addition to reminiscing about the people and events in the photos, she would note a polka-dot raincoat that had been special-ordered for a niece or a satin christening set that had been passed down for generations.

My grandfather’s silver bullet for retail success would miss the mark today. Church attendance has fallen, and those who do slip into the pews often wear casual attire – jeans, sneakers, even Patriots and Red Sox jerseys. I confess that on occasion during the summer, I’ve recited the Nicene Creed in shorts and a pair of sandals. Papa would be aghast.

Still, on most Sundays, I reach into my closet and reflexively pull out a button-down shirt, creased black or gray pants, and polished shoes. On Easter, I’ll add a sport coat or opt for a tailored suit and stand in front of my bedroom mirror threading a half-Windsor knot two or three times until it’s perfect.

Invariably, the tie will be exuberant – a pink one with stripes or maybe a wide floral number with an explosion of color.

Of these particular choices, Papa would certainly approve.

Happy Easter!

 

Going to church, dog wouldn’t obey my commandments

buddy

Published in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 15, 2015.

“Johhh-neee!”

My best friend, Chris, was calling from the driveway outside my house, in Providence. I went to the bedroom window, knocked on the pane, and held up an index finger to let him know I’d be right out. I wished we were heading off to shoot hoops at Nelson Street playground or to buy candy at Wolcott’s five-and-dime on Chalkstone Avenue. But it was Sunday morning. We were going to church.

Pulling a sweater on, I tiptoed past my mother’s bedroom. Attending Mass at St. Pius wasn’t a family affair in my house or in Chris’s, either. Our moms told us we had to go, and Chris and I, ages 9 and 10 respectively, obliged.

Bunking church, however tempting, was not an option. Informants loomed everywhere: grandparents up the street, family friends around the corner, aunts and uncles waving from cars. This was Elmhurst at its close-knit best, and worst. If we strayed on our five-block pilgrimage and played hooky, word would get back to our mothers fast. Penance would be severe.

Chris and I had walked two blocks when Georgie, my dog, whisked by us, nails scratching the sidewalk, tail wagging like crazy.

“I have to take her home,” I said. “Be right back.”

I grabbed Georgie’s collar and scooted her back to my house. She was a 35-pound mutt with a shaggy black coat and watchful eyes. I pushed on the back door to put her inside, but it was locked – and I didn’t have my key. I knew our front door was locked, too. It always was.

The thought of ringing the doorbell and waking my mother was as appealing to me as Brussels sprouts. She’d see I was running late.

Our small back yard was bounded by a chain link fence. I left Georgie there, latching the gate behind me. I hoped she wouldn’t escape.

I caught up with Chris and we resumed our trek. We kicked a soda can up the street and relived our epic day at Rocky Point amusement park the previous summer – until a bark cut us short. I spun around and there was Georgie, half a block away.

“Oh God,” I said. “She got out.”

I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled, “Go home!” I don’t know what I was thinking. Georgie wasn’t Lassie; we were still working on the commands “Sit!” and “Stay!”

“Let’s just get to church,” I said to Chris. “It’s too late to take her back again.”

We picked up our pace. Georgie continued to follow us, keeping her strategic half-block distance. When we reached St. Pius, I convinced myself she’d just wait at the door outside. What could happen?

As Chris and I entered church, our footsteps on the marble floor announced our tardy arrival. We sheepishly made our way to one of the rear pews.

The second reading was just beginning. I caught the attention of a child two rows in front of me. As I twisted my face and crossed my eyes to his smiles, I heard a faint, familiar sound – like scratching on a door. I turned to Chris. He was already whispering: “Is that Georgie?”

I smiled nervously. Chris laughed. More scratching. I pictured Georgie pawing at the church door, just as she scraped the back door at home when she wanted to come in.

We stood for the Gospel – Luke’s account of the loaves and fishes miracle. But as I listened, something distracted my ear … the click-click-click of nails on marble. Somehow Georgie had gotten in! Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her pass our pew and head for the altar, tail wagging.

The woman next to us murmured, “Good Lord!” The priest continued with the miracle story from the pulpit, unaware of his newest potential convert. I instinctively stepped toward the aisle, but Chris grabbed my arm.

“You can’t go get her!” he whispered. “You’ll look like an idiot!”

Neither of us moved. Georgie was almost at the Communion rail when an usher, in his Sunday best, scooped her up and carried her out of the church. She was good about it – didn’t even squirm.

We waited for the Gospel to end, then hurried out to look for Georgie. She greeted us with leaps and licks of joy. Chris and I took quick turns hugging her and, thankful for our deliverance, started for home. At last, we had a legitimate reason for missing Mass – even our moms would agree.

In our book, that truly was a miracle.

Pictured above: not Georgie (I didn’t have a photo handy from years ago), but kindred spirit Buddy, former fabulous woofie of the Fuller family in San Francisco.

When My Dog Came To Church

City Games, Part 3

My best friend Chris and I were late, as usual. The man who handed out the bulletins was gone, and there wasn’t much holy water left. As we entered St. Pius Church, the marble floor announced our tardy arrival: our footsteps echoed as we sheepishly made our way to one of the back pews. The next forty-five minutes would be an eternity.

The second reading had just begun. I caught the eye of a child two pews in front of me, looking for a playmate. As I twisted my face and crossed my eyes to his delight, I heard a faint sound. A sign from heaven? No, this was too familiar – like scratching on a door. The bark that followed was even more familiar. I turned to Chris. He was already whispering.

“Is that Georgie?”

I thought of my dog, running out the back door of my house and following us to church. I smiled nervously. Chris laughed. More scratching. We tried to hide in the words of Corinthians, but a second bark found us. I closed my eyes and prayed.

As we stood for the Gospel, more latecomers arrived behind us. We heard their footsteps, plus something else… the click-click-click of nails on the marble floor. Georgie was in church! Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her pass our pew. She didn’t see us, thank God. And now she was headed toward the priest in the pulpit.

The woman next to us looked at Georgie in disbelief and then returned to her missalette. The priest kept reading, unaware of his newest convert. I started to rise to make the rescue, but Chris grabbed me by the arm.

“You can’t go get her!” he whispered in a panic. “You’ll look like an idiot!”

We didn’t move. Georgie was almost at the altar when an usher, in his Sunday best, retrieved her and carried her out. She was good about the whole thing. Didn’t even bark. She usually hated getting picked up.

Chris and I waited a minute before leaving, not wanting to be too obvious. When we got outside, Georgie greeted us with leaps and licks and wags of her tail. At last, we had a legitimate reason for leaving church early. Even our parents would agree.

In our book, that qualified as a miracle.

Pictured above: not Georgie (I didn’t have a photo handy from years ago), but kindred spirit Buddy, amazing woofie of the fabulous Fuller family in San Francisco.

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