All signs point to Spring. No matter that I have on a fleece and parka when we walk the dogs along the bay (nor that I beg off the next morning as I haven’t felt warm once since we got here). No, I knew it was spring when we tumbled out of the car at midnight and the stars were gaspingly bright and the next day there was an hour when we sat in the backyard and I sunned myself while Mr. Pom made a fire of the bazillions sticks that have fallen in the storms.
This push and pull between the Cape and New York is like the hum of piano strings long after the chord is played. The vibration is ever present, unheard but felt, a siren song of mermaids, sea chanties, and the wide open spaces of ocean and bay.
So, too, is the push and pull between the past and the present.
Spring increases the pull tenfold, making the competing concerns of wanderlust and home more polarized than ever. Which to follow, which to ignore? I want to catch that first Spring day when I can smell the ocean in the backyard and the sun Easter, though, is near at hand and it will take some work to prepare my soul and my larder.
Easter brings out the Sicilian in me. And the New Yorker. Where are the aunts, uncles, cousins, cannoli, cassatta, Easter baskets, little girls in bonnets, little boys in linen shorts, What to do now that all that is yellowed Polaroids in corrosive plastic sleeves?
Reinvent ourselves once again, of course, but within the paradigm.
When the youngest came home from school for a quick visit before her trip to the Deep South, she was longing for a New York spring. I know what was on her mind and after picking her up on the upper west side, we convinced Mr. Pom to take us to Arthur Avenue, the Little Italy of the Bronx. Photographs, just photographs, we told him, as we are all on diets but really needed a little Italian Easter preview. I know everyone thinks that Christmas is the Italian primo festa, but no, Easter is the holiday that brings out all things Italian, particularly all things Sicilian in our family.
So with firm resolve not to eat sugar, and with the proviso that the youngest gave up meat for Lent, we traveled to the world where pastry shops compete with pork stores for square footage. Ah, what fools we be.
Go to Arthur Avenue, listen to a few snatches of Italian amidst the Spanish, drool over the creamy mozarella, still warm to the touch, gag at the lamb's heads lined up like skulls in the catacombs in ancient Rome, inhale the unctuous smell of dried sausage hanging like stalactites from the pork store ceiling, and dreamily point out miniature pastries to the girl behind the bakery counter until she informs you that your one pound has turned to two.
Ah, Easter, Easter! Your transformation of powdery white shell into brilliantly dyed eggs! The scientific alchemy of rock hard rounds of color released into acidulated water. The smell of sulphur the sweet perfume of Easter Saturday and the fight over the little copper wire egg dipper, as iconic a symbol as the Paschal Lamb. And candy, candy, candy, chocolate candy! The BASKET OF CANDY with its leaning tower of a Lofts chocolate cross threatening to topple the whole thing over, crushing peeps and send foiled eggs and jelly beans skittering across the floors.
But before the cellophaned baskets are discovered behind the dusty drapes, Lent must be traveled.
The Lent of my childhood: Mite Boxes (pennies for pagan babies); deciding what to "give up", followed by six weeks of secretly transgressing (all TV, really? Who were you kidding?); statues shrouded in purple; Stations of the Cross (another eternity of journey round the church in a cloud of incense); the sickly smell of the Easter lily that lays heavy in the car on the way to my father's mother's house; Fridays' toaster oven fishsticks, a dollop of Heinz on the side and a neat serving of formerly frozen corn the only bright spot of the evening's meal. Finally, the Palm Sunday endless Mass followed by the cold, hungry trip to the cemetery while my parents try to remember where all the realtives are buried.
You must earn Easter. You must pass through the darkness. You must renew your baptismal promises. And you must, ever must, be prepared to suffer foodstuffs that you would never normally allow anywhere near your mouth. For on Easter, all Italians return to their ethnic roots and, in a household that pretty much existed on London broils and boxes of frozen vegetables lined up Rockettes on the freezer door, there suddenly exists a white enameled pan of cold water in which sits a smelly, hard, salt-encrusted piece of cod covered by an old dishtowel. For three days.
Easter's gustatory finer involve odd things like hardboiled eggs baked into braids of bread. Cubed cold cuts baked in an "Easter pie" called pizza rustica. My mother's attempt to serve a rare leg of lamb and the inevitable disappointment of slices of grey meat wtih a bloody center that we cover up with globs of treacy green mint jelly. Or heavens forbid, should my aunt be ill or too tired to make cassata - imagine a flat, plain cookie dough - just flour and oil - in the top of a fish tin, baked till browned, then spread with a thick layer of cannoli, studded with pastel amonds or half-cherry slices and dusted with sprinkles whose color begins to leach into the sugared cheese before we can cut it after dinner.
Ravioli made in Grandma's basement, tender dough rolled onto a tin form that made pockets to fill with ricotta, this time mixed with eggs, parmesan, salt, and the most delicate chiffonade of parsley. Boiled in a pot big enough to cook a small child, and stirred only, ONLY with a wooden spoon so as not to rent the tender dough.
The first course of homemade chicken soup, then ravioli covered in silken gravy, sausages from Bellantoni's - hot and sweet - baked ham, bread from the Bronx, then salad, and then artichokes as big as a baby's head, steamed and served with wedges of lemon, the hairy core shrieked at by children who make their aunt scrape it before they eat the heart, and the admonition to drink all their milk beforehand.
These are the impossible dreams I think of when I think of Easter dinner.
Is it any wonder we all over eat? What can ever live up to these eucharistic memories, family hand in hand with food?
So, of course, I am more determined than ever to out-cook every Easter we've ever had; to prepare a feast worthy of my grandparents' houses, our childhood home, our babies' first baskets, our Californian drives through the Blossom Trail, and our tucking into our grits and deviled eggs amidst the ice sculptures on the Peabody Terrace while the jazz band played.
It will of course, be a colossal mess of eggs and flours and olive oil and cheese. I will burn things, forget things, serve undercooked waffles and runny eggs, run out to the deli to buy a pizza rustica at a ransom price, mutter to myself as I dye our only eggs, forget where the recipe is for the Easter bread and remember that no one ever eats it anyway, and end up biting the head off my husband a kid's chocolate rabbit before the day is done.
Ah, all that and some homemade cream puffs more is all you could ever want from a holiday.