WHEN YOU GROW UP in a large family, the holidays are always a crapshoot. You could have a childhood filled with Martha Stewart-perfect memories, or you could start therapy at a very early age, just as soon as you've saved enough from your paper route for the first session. In my case, the history falls somewhere between those extremes, but hovers uncomfortably close to the Freudian option.
Not all holidays were potential powder kegs. Valentine's Day went off without a hitch, as did St. Patrick's. The Fourth of July was uneventful, except for the year my father decided to boil crabs. He had neglected to notify the crabs that our holiday was their judgment day, and they all jumped out of the bag and started running around the kitchen in an ironically fitting bid for independence.
Halloween was my mother's opportunity to channel her latent Cecil B. DeMille tendencies and create mammoth productions starring her five children. Each year, she would pick a theme that could accommodate her kids in the most creative way possible. One year I was Mary Mary Quite Contrary and my three brothers were the flowers in my garden. Brothers Teddy and Jonathan begrudgingly wore their rose and daisy costumes, but baby brother Michael rebelled and became the first violet to come with his own irrigation system (if you get my drift). In fact, he watered all over the other blossoms, causing my mother to transplant him to the nursery. During the Bicentennial in 1976, she did a whole patriotic-themed grouping, with yours truly as Betsy Ross, my three brothers as the fife and drum corps and my baby sister as the Liberty Bell. Sadly, a miscalculation in the measurements meant Tara was encased in a bell so wide, she couldn't make it through any of the neighbors' doorways, and ended up with a severely reduced amount of candy.
Thanksgiving meant a coma brought on by food and football.
Christmas brings with it no bad memories, and if I view my childhood through the prism of December, it is the purest and most immutable perfection.
Easter, on the other hand, had its challenges. First, the payoff for being good was nowhere near what you got on Christmas morning. Chocolate is nice, white chocolate is nicer and a whole basket filled with white chocolate is nicer still, but the truth is that you can eat only so much sugar before you get really sick, just in time to have to get dressed in that scratchy Sears outfit your grandmother purchased for you because it turns out she really hates you. I suppose I should not use the universal "you" here. This is personal. I was rather plump from 1972 up until Never Mind, and Grandma Elsie decided that the best way to hide my flaws was to buy me bright polyester pastel pantsuits. Before that, Mama Lucy would sew me dresses that made me look like a pretty little china doll, but scratched the bejeezus out of my armpits and around my neck. Also, the skirts on the dresses were so full, I was in danger of going airborne in a strong wind, of which there were many. Easter wreaked havoc with my dignity.
I look back on photos of our family, all dressed smartly and lined up for the camera with smiles rimmed with the stray streaks of chocolate, and I can't escape the sensation that we were the Catholic Osmonds, all clean-cut, white teeth, dark hair and deceptively placid expressions. Just as I'm sure Donny and Marie had their rebellious moments, so did we. One year, someone took the struffoli my grandmother made (for the medigans out there, it was a tower of fried dough balls with nonpareils and honey sprinkled over them) and someone started picking it apart as if he were engaged in an assault on Fort Sumter, flinging sticky, doughy spheres at whoever ended up in his line of vision. That someone, whom we will not call Michael, had his Easter basket donated to my father, who ate everything except the marshmallow Peeps (which are never eaten anyway, and just get repackaged each successive year like fruitcakes).
Other Easter memories include watching Ben Hur with my father and wondering how standing in a rainstorm could make your leprous skin clear up so quickly, or watching The Ten Commandments with my father and trying to figure out how Charlton Heston turned into Burl Ives when he came down from Mount Sinai, or watching The Robe with my father and wondering why we couldn't be watching something in which people wore normal clothing.
I'm joking, of course. Easter was a wonderful holiday, a deeply spiritual one and one that brought our family closer together than almost any other. And the truth of that became painfully clear, in the most bittersweet manner, in 1982.
My father Ted was dying. He'd been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer the previous May, and all of the treatments he'd valiantly tried in an attempt to wrest back a few precious years from a cruel destiny were useless. His days were numbered in the double digits. I had spent this year in Paris, as a junior in college. I hadn't wanted to go, but Daddy insisted. I was supposed to come home at the end of the term in late May, but one morning I got a phone call from my mother, telling me to come home for Easter. I knew what that meant, without her saying anything else.
Easter fell on April 11 that year. I came home on the 9th, spent a whole week with my father, sat beside him on the sofa even when he didn't really recognize me with a brain foggy with morphine and a body still wracked with pain. I sat next to him, and remembered the way he would steal chocolate from my basket without thinking I'd seen it. I remembered the way he'd kid me about the polyester pants and my Mario Andretti glasses, remembered the way he'd help us find the hidden eggs in the backyard treasure hunt.
And, with our early-model VCR, I'd watch Ben Hur crush Messala at the Circus Maximus, Moses part the Red Sea, and the Christians march toward the lion's den wearing Technicolor togas. And I held his hand.
That was the last time I saw my father alive. I flew back to Paris, and a month later got the call to come home, for his funeral. But that last Easter was beyond precious, and each successive year has reminded me that resurrections are both universal and personal. The Easter of 1982 gave me back my father, to carry with me forever.
And I know I'll see him again, because that's what Easter is really all about.
Christine Flowers is a lawyer.