Mom and Easter: Memories that Never Die
I know I am supposed to be thinking about the miracle of Easter (this year we celebrate it a week after the western world), but at my age and after decade upon decade of choir-singing and church going, I tend to distill my memories to how very preciously and seriously my mother prepared for Greek Orthodoxy’s most elaborate, most joyous feast day.
Like many other families settling in an ethnically diverse city, my immigrant mother’s family identified with their church as a center not only for worship, but also as the heart of the culture, language, and traditions they brought over on ships to Ellis Island. In this case, it also included journeying across the country to San Francisco, where others like them awaited their arrival.
Back then when Greeks went to church, they mingled with others who had faced extreme challenges similar to their own. So to have a place that brought them together each Sunday grounded them in their newly found American fortunes, even if they lived humbly in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhoods along side dozens of other ethnic groups. After church they talked excitedly, mostly in Greek, as their bored kids tugged on their coats to go home after a long church service or Sunday school session. These immigrant families married into other immigrant families, celebrated holidays together, danced at one another’s weddings, and gathered at funerals as, one by one, first generation children survived hardworking parents who wanted more for their children than for themselves.
It was also in this environment young girls learned the art of Greek cooking and baking, considered by many women of that generation a way to show love and caring to their families. Recipes associated with various parts of Greece and even each island all had slight twists to them. And at Easter picnics the matron of each Greek family would make sure she made extra servings of her specialty to share samples of it with other families. It was pride mixed with competition, mixed with generosity — difficult to explain unless you grew up in a similar culture.
When the period of fasting began each year (the 40 days before Easter), my mom would not only strictly observe the dietary restrictions recommended by the church (no meat or animal fat for the entire fasting period, plus increased restrictions just before the holiday itself, such as no oil, and no dairy), she would also serve us meals that reflected those rules. My dad and my brothers would grumble because of the lack of meat. The kind of fish most families could afford back then was limited, requiring us to pick bones out of our teeth. And we began to tire of pasta and vegetables.
Needless to say, my mother’s preparations for Easter Day were abundant: Casserole dishes of pastitsio (Greek lasanga), tiropita (cheese pie), spanakopita (spinach and feta pie), and her Greek pastries which included galaktobouriko (fillo-dough topped custard pie), koulourakia (shortbread cookies twisted to look like mini-loaves of bread), and kourambiethes (butter cookies buried in powdered sugar) — all were lovingly prepared by the cook without a single taste test, since eating even one bite would violate fasting rules. One thing I never quite understood, however was the Jell-O salad. Every Greek mother I knew served one on holidays -- all of them different and none of them stemming from our heritage. I supposed these immigrant women saw this light, gelatinous substance as some kind of culinary miracle. And to it they would add fruit, chopped nuts, whipping cream, pineapple juice or even top it off with creamed cheese. VERY American.
Good Fridays before church services found our house quiet — devoid of music and laughter. Why? Because Mom kept explaining to all of us that it was a day of mourning, extreme fasting and praying. No jubilance was warranted when Christ was up on the cross, suffering. The next day, however, became a bit cheerier, and you would see my mother’s mood change to expectant and hopeful. By the time we headed to midnight services on Easter eve, the house was full of divine cooking aromas, driving us all crazy. The only thing missing was the smell of lamb, which Mom would take care of the next morning. It would be readied for a house full of people arriving by mid-afternoon at our home or for an Easter picnic at Calistoga's Macedonian Park, where we’d gather not only for food, drink and extreme socializing, but also for line dancing and a short service at the tiny chapel that bore my grandparents’ names and others like them on a small plaque. Kids ran around with little parental supervision, women laid out elaborate picnic tables covered with the food they had lovingly been preparing for weeks, and men brought out exotic instruments like the bouzouki and "laouto." And the sometimes-lamenting twisted melodies of a clarina (clarinet) reminded us of our Mediterranean roots, bringing tears and smiles to the oldest Greeks among us.
All I can say is that that first taste of food that had been forbidden to us for 40 days was not only exquisite; we also knew we would not see the likes of it again until Thanksgiving or Christmas time. So we attacked it like a family possessed.
My mother kept up these traditions until she entered her 60s. It’s then that her health began to go downhill. A tiny woman (5 ft. nothing and 107 pounds), her heart was beginning to weaken. She had no idea she was anemic as well. So when she passed out in the choir loft one evening during Holy Week and was rushed to the hospital, she decided fasting would no longer be safe for her during subsequent Easters. At least that is what she told all of us. Of course, no one watched Mom like a hawk after that, but perhaps we should have. After all, Mom’s religious beliefs were the strongest of anyone I knew. So I would not have been surprised if she had told a few white lies about what she ate during those 40 days each year, thinking full well that God would forgive her small transgression.
Mom passed away at age 69, only a few years older than I am now. She died 6 weeks after open heart surgery, her body too frail to have undergone such a trauma. But many of my memories of her now, some 23 years later, are as crisp as the crunchy layers of delicate fillo that topped her pastries. And while I can’t hold a candle to her selflessness and faith in God, I will never forget the joy she experienced each Easter, gazing across a table of happy feasters raving about her food. I can only imagine the thousands of prayers of thanks she offered up on Easter and every other day of the week as well.
And today, whenever I take in the aromas of Greek cooking in our own home, Mom is alive and well, a huge smile on her angelic little face.