Traffic started and stopped again, thousands of weary drivers making their way home after a weekend spent eating, praying and arguing with loved ones. It was Easter Sunday and I-95 North was backed up for hundreds of miles from New York all the way down through Baltimore and into DC. I hardly moved more than a few feet for hours at a time, holed up by accidents and lane shifts, the sheer number of cars on the road ensuring that the drive would take almost twice as long as it should have.
Easter is what they call a moveable feast, meaning it’s particular date shifts from year to year. It’s determination actually lies in a complex formula called Computus, the outcome of which has been the source of much controversy and confusion since it began being used in the early Middle Ages. Not privy to the precise components of the equation, I hadn’t even realized it was Easter weekend until a day or two before; too late to back out of the trip I’d planned down to Richmond to see a few bands play.
Even as I brooded over my predicament, I tried to remember when Easter had become a day I could just forget about. It had been important to us as kids, my sister and I, a day of celebration that we’d looked forward to even if we couldn’t quite grasp the theological sentiments behind it. We’d been raised Catholic, and although never particularly devout, the holiday assumed an esteem that could only Halloween and Christmas could ever quite surpass.
I could remember waking up at 9 and heading into town for Easter Mass at St. Joseph’s. If the weather was nice we’d walk, my Mother dressed in her pastel blouse and my sister in a white Sunday hat. I wore the same Yankees shirt and baseball stirrups I wore everywhere else at that point in my life, my pants rolled up to the knee with a dirty batting glove hanging out of my back pocket. I dreaded the Easter Mass more than most. It was the second longest of the year after the Christmas Eve vigil, clocking in at a painful two hours in length. I’d never been able to understand just what it was my parents actually got out of it, but my standing as a member of the family obligated my attendance for the time being.
Once the torment had finally concluded we’d return to the house to eat. My father was an excellent chef in those days, and he always whipped up an impressive spread. My uncle, grandmother, and grandfather from the other side would usually join us, drinking Bloody Mary’s stuffing their faces with fried eggs and bacon. (It wasn’t until years later that it would become tofu scramble and soy-sages served with a glass of seltzer, the follow-up to drinking problems and a profound rebirth into the ethics of hippy-dom.)
Later on in the afternoon, we’d drive across town for Easter dinner at my Grandmother’s house, where the real party would begin. My Mother’s side of the family was exceedingly large, almost certainly ensuring that any gathering would conclude in a drunken row about politics, popular culture or anything else really. The cast would change slightly, depending on who was able to make the trek back for the weekend, but there was always someone to argue with and so the evening would always conclude in about the same fashion.
Each year, one of my uncles would organize an Easter egg hunt, filling dozens of multi-colored plastic eggs with various prizes and hiding them around the yard. When the time came, we’d race out, plastic bags flailing in the wind as our parents looked on from the back porch. In true Easter spirit, the older cousins spared nothing to give us younger ones a fair shot, filling their bags to the brim in the time it took us to collect no more than a handful of eggs.
When it seemed all the eggs had been collected, we’d head back inside to inspect our bounty. We’d sit on the living room carpet to tally up our earnings, eating the bits of candy and sporting our new quarter-machine jewelry with pride. The change amounted to little more than nothing, but it seemed like a lot to us then. I remember stacking my quarters with pride, looking on with envy as my older cousins pulled a one-dollar bill out of pink egg he’d found hidden beneath the old cellar door.
By the time we finished, the kitchen had already erupted into chaos. Pans clanged, dishes shattered and small grease-fires broke out on the stove. The adults joked and laughed together, my uncle mixing up drinks as my grandmother, donning a nightgown, delegated jobs in preparation for her traditional celebratory meal. Mashed potatoes, squash, cranberry sauce, and ham with a heavy dose of salt and butter. It was a meal that remained constant through each of the major family gatherings, my grandmother occasionally switching out the ham for turkey or roast beef depending on the particular occasion, but never failing to burn the hell out of whatever it was she was making.
Some years we’d be relegated to eat at the “kids table” in the other room, depending on how many of our aunts and uncles had decided to make the trip home. But that was fine by us; we even preferred it. We’d joke and laugh as we ate, booby-trapping the salt and pepper shakers and slipping bits of food and napkin in each other’s drinks when they weren’t looking. We were close then, my cousins, my sister and I, and I felt certain that we always would be. It seemed so peculiar that my parents had become estranged from most of their cousins over the years and so I vowed that it would never happen like that for us.
After dinner we would retreat to the back bedroom to practice our wrestling moves and make prank phone calls on my grandmothers landline. The house was warm and our bellies were full. BAC levels had begun to peak out in the living room and it wouldn’t be long before the arguing began. But not us. We were content, happy at being alive, having yet to discover the different tenses that made life what they were, oblivious to the baggage that came with having a future and a past.
It was much the same thing every year until I entered high school. Then I’d discovered hardcore as a teen and refused to go to church. It was an evil trick, I insisted, a ploy to keep us docile and dumb, and soon I had my younger sister on board as well. My mother had cried the first time we’d refused, but to her credit, never forced us to go against our will. Still, the annual breakfasts continued, and the dinners too, suddenly growing much smaller in size when my grandparents died, shrinking to include only our immediate family and the one uncle we’d always been closest with as everyone else stopped coming home.
As I’d grown older and moved away, life itself suddenly seemed to bulge and swell, looming with a significance I had only begun to recognize. My priorities began to speedily reorganize themselves in unfamiliar ways and I found myself struggling to keep up. I’d begun to play in a band, spending most of the year on the road and picking up as many shifts as I could whenever we were back. I began to lose track of many of the people I’d intended to stay in touch with and my trips home become more and more infrequent as it became ever easier to come up with reasons why I couldn’t make it back.
It had been years now since the last time I’d been home for the holiday. Perhaps it was just a sappy nostalgia or a lingering trace of the Catholic guilt that had indoctrinated my childhood, but I felt an overwhelming sorrow as I sat there throughout the day, staring at the endless string of brake lights stretched out before me. I’d lost track of which cities most of my cousins lived in over the past few years. I couldn’t even remember the last time we’d all seen each other. My sister had recently relocated to Seattle and it was getting ever more difficult to keep up with her and various other friends as they switched jobs and moved around the country.
Life was funny like that. Just when you thought you had it all figured out, a day like Easter could shake you to your core, make you question your decisions and wonder if you weren’t really doing it all right. Maybe the holiday didn’t mean a damn to me, and maybe it never really had. But it had been an excuse to get together with the people that mattered, to eat and laugh, to bicker and chat, regardless of what any of us really believed. It was a bleak reality, the realization that it could take a day of antiquated tradition and mythology to remind me of the people I cared about the most. But then, perhaps the real tragedy lay in the fact that we could ever forget at all.