Like most holidays I celebrated as a child, Easter was a hybrid of religious traditions, the social culture from the generation in which I grew up, and our own ethnic and family rituals, which we repeated in some familiar fashion every year. Now as an adult, I wax nostalgic even fondly remembering some of things I complained about as a child, like getting dressed up in our Easter outfits, including crinoline slips, white gloves and purses, patent leather Mary Jane’s with lacy white anklets and the mandatory Easter bonnet if you were a young Catholic girl growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s and 60s.
Mom and Dad bought us new outfits every year and after the Easter egg hunt and we located our hidden baskets filled with our namesake egg, chocolate in many forms, jelly beans, cream-filled eggs, a plastic egg with money in it and a toy, we’d get dressed up, pose for photos outside, wave to the camera before we’d get into the car, attend Easter Mass, and join our extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins at the “Grams” house, Grandma Lenzke and Great Grandma Flanigan’s third-floor walk-up brownstone apartment on 7th Street in downtown Racine. The Grams lived together as housemates for as long as I can remember since the death of Great Grandpa Flanigan and Grandma’s divorce from her bigamist husband, my paternal grandfather, Walter Lenzke. Yes, more of that story another time.
The religious observance of Easter for Roman Catholics actually began 40 days earlier with Lent, which included some form of fasting, in most homes back then it meant meatless Fridays; in our house that translated as rotating menus of macaroni and cheese, fish sticks, salmon patties, or my Dutch mother’s favorite, cocoa and toast, white bakery bread dripping in butter, which we dunked into hot Dutch chocolate, representing three of the food groups our family loved: chocolate, dairy and carbohydrates.
As public school children we’d be given a half day off from class to attend church on Ash Wednesday, proudly displaying our dirty foreheads when we returned as evidence that we actually attended Mass. Palm Sunday marked the beginning of Holy Week, culminating in Good Friday, when as a child I was always afraid the world would come to an end and finally Easter Sunday, a day of resurrection and rebirth, the symbolic beginning of Spring and fertility, and for me the day to find the precious poop egg and eat lamb cake.
Easter Eve, we’d color eggs. Mom boiled two or three dozen as our family grew. She’d cover the kitchen table with newspaper and the kids would crowd around it with our crayons, the white wax marker to write our names, a spoon in hand ready to dip the eggs in the assembly line of Easter egg dye. Dad would observe and periodically check on our progress, his can of Hamm’s Beer in hand (this too will figure into this memory). After we were finished, one egg would remain and Dad would be ceremoniously beckoned into the kitchen. The last egg was his to transform into the revered Lenzke Family Poop Egg!
Dad, with great fanfare and practiced technique, would begin to dip the egg into each of the colors until it began to change from purple, to green, to burnt orange and brick red. He’d then pour all the egg dyes into the large Pyrex liquid measuring cup until the color changed to inky darkness. To that he’d add the secret ingredient, the remainder of the Hamm’s Beer from his hand. The egg would swim in this concoction until it emerged as the Poop Egg, a perfectly brown egg, not exactly chocolate in color, but more…yeah you get it!
Before we’d go to bed that night, each child would hide their empty Easter Basket for the Easter Bunny to find, and when we woke in the morning, we’d first search for the hidden eggs, followed by our filled baskets. The Poop Egg would be the prized egg to be found on Easter morning. No additional gifts or luck would be attached to it, simply the knowledge and family bragging rights that you found the Poop Egg that year.
As the eldest child, I soon became the Easter Bunny’s assistant. After all my younger siblings were tucked in bed and asleep, Mom, Dad, and I would get to work, fulfilling the Easter Bunny’s assignments of hiding eggs, then filling baskets. Like she did earlier in the day, Mom would lay out the baskets for each child, parent, and the Grams in a row like an assembly line. First the colored plastic grass would be placed then the namesake egg matching the corresponding basket nestled into its grassy bed. With her metal measuring cup in hand, after Dad carried up the bags of candy from the basement where it had been hidden, Mom would carefully measure, scoop, and fill each basket with equal quantities of candy: assorted chocolate, jelly beans, speckled, chocolate-coated, malted milk, faux robin’s eggs, the Easter equivalent of candy corn in pastel colors of Easter shapes and symbols, a plastic egg, sometimes a recycled “L’eggs” pantyhose container with money inside, cream-filled eggs, a chocolate bunny, and a toy.
Each child would inventory their bounty and the bargaining and trading would begin. I preferred pink jelly beans and coconut cream-filled eggs and usually when we were ready to play with our new toy we were told to go get dressed in our Easter outfits. It was time for photos, church, then an afternoon at the Grams.
After Mass we’d walk-up the three floors to the Gram’s apartment, the last one at the end of the staircase at the very top floor of the building. To this day, I can remember the smell of the hallways and stairwell, the particular steps that would creak, and the feel of the polished stair rail on my hand. When we approached their door you could hear the laughter and voices of our extended family: the Grams, aunts and uncles, including Cookie and Louie, Uncle Fudd and Alice, Betty and Vern, and all the cousins. Sometimes Uncle Elmer and Aunt Anne would stop by with their three girls. Uncle Wally and Birdie were missing, though they lived just one floor down from the Grams. There was an unspoken history of some past family drama. Uncle Joe and his family couldn’t be with us, they were tending their bar across the street from St. Patrick’s Church, our Parish. The Irish priests needed someplace to go after Mass for their whiskey and beer and Flanigan’s Club 1100 was their favorite destination, where Uncle Joe would often listen to their confessions.
The Gram’s small apartment-sized kitchen would hold a bounty of holiday fare, including ham, egg buns, baked beans and potato salad, Jell-O molds, celery and carrot sticks, chips and French Onion dip, and the centerpiece of the table, the Easter Lamb Cake. How I loved the Lamb Cake, the white cake with coconut frosting, jelly bean eyes and nose.
My absolute favorite thing about Easter at the Grams was the afternoon movie matinee. The Grams apartment was probably only 750 or 800 square feet and when it got packed to the max with all the adults and children, it became next to impossible to move from one room to the next. The adults would also begin consuming beer and their conversations and laughter grew louder as the cousins grew more restless. Pat, the eldest cousin could effectively lobby all the parents into allowing the kids to attend a movie matinee, often a Disney film at the Venetian or Rialto Theater in Downtown Racine, walking distance from the Grams. We’d see movies together like “Flubber” or the animated feature of the year.
Seeing a movie with my gaggle of cousins became an annual ritual that I looked forward to each year. I don’t see most of my cousins anymore, and my Grams passed away a number of years ago, as well as some of my aunts and uncles. My parents, siblings and I remain as the senior generations of our family, it is our responsibility now to remember and carry on the family traditions. My sibs and their children color eggs and fill Easter baskets. I always make a ham dinner when I’m home with cheesy potatoes and cherry Jell-O and will often take in a movie matinee. Some years I’ll buy a lamb cake, and every year I pray that someone in my family colored a poop egg last night.