Easter was a sacred holiday, bigger than even Christmas to many Italian Americans back in the 1950's. In those golden days, when everyone dressed up for every special occasion: it was a time to say that the long cold winter was over; "I have new clothes, and let's eat!"
I remember Easter Sunday as being a very festive morning; the Easter bunny had come and gone, leaving chocolate bunnies, jellybeans, and colorful cellophane grass, I was in my new shoes and suit, fresh new tie and white shirt. You only wore white shirts in those days with a tie. My hair with its ever-present ‘cow-lick' was combed and I was warned: "Don't get dirty!"
We would get sent off to Mass and sit with our respective classes listening to the sermon as our stomachs growled that they needed attention. We weren't allowed to eat in those days before you went to communion, and once we were freed from the confines of our religious obligation, we walked the two or three blocks home, smelling the sauces that everyone's house seemed to be cooking that morning along the way.
If Mom wasn't cooking, then it meant Grandma Frances was, and that meant cousins I hadn't seen in a while, the long hallway that became the play area for all the kids while the grownups spoke in Italian in the huge long kitchen which sat adjacent to the hallway that could feed without exaggeration with two tables head to head about 24 to 35 people.
Happy Easter, or as my grandmother used to say "A ‘Appy East!
People think that Italians speak with their hands, they don't they use the whole extremity of the shoulder, arm, and hand with accentuated fingers. Sometimes right and left get into the act. If an Italian weren't talking to you, he would put his hands in his pockets and just use words. The dinners were elaborate, the china wasn't and the conversations multi-subject, in all three languages. Broken English, Italian and what I call ‘Mano-Italiano,' making multi-syllabic statements in two to ten fingers, depending on how poetic they were. These statements were often a collection of Broken English and Italian words to accompany the conversation. Facial expression was key to understanding a conversation. Someone made a point without expression meant that they were not happy. We would either go to Grandma's or have it at home, but we would take and after dinner walks around the neighborhood in our Easter finery. They showed up in droves, the doorbell ringing constantly as friends and relatives arrived, paid their respects to Zia Francesca, with a: "Appy East" and spoke their native tongue. They were able to speak three languages, Broken English, Italian and what I call ‘Mano-Italiano,' making multi-syllabic statements in two to ten fingers, depending on how poetic they were.
But dressing us up for Mass, with new clothes and shoes, haircut and any new accessories needed for the girls, getting together with relatives and feasting on Easter Sunday was a reward. Not only Lasagna or ravioli as the main course, meatballs, and sausages or rolled beef and pork stuffed morsels, roasted chicken and there were the magnificent Easter meat pies, the very tradition that defined Easter Sunday in my house. One of those pies was made with Ricotta cheese, and ANGINETTI, the Italian Easter cookies rounded out the day's feasting. It was this final act of eating that closed out the beautiful day.
It seemed every Easter Sunday was sunny and warm to me in the 1950's. ‘IN MY EASTER BONNET & HERE COMES PETER COTTONTAIL" was the magic, with our basket of jellybeans and marshmallow chicks encased in cellophane confetti!
The Easter season has always given me a sense of renewal, rebirth, and just a good memory. There lived once in my daughter's home for people with developmental disabilities a fellow by the name of Paul. Paul was a fellow that didn't speak and sat alone. He was about 40 years of age, and would not look you straight in the eye. He appeared to be very hostile and did not acknowledge that you were even there. It was on an Easter Sunday, a few years ago that I went to pick up my daughter, Ellen, to bring her home for Easter dinner. I decided that I was going to try to get Paul's attention. I learned a lesson in a hurry. I went over to where he was sitting, I knelt down and leaned into his stoic face.
"Hello Paul, How's it going?" Paul was sitting Indian fashion in his chair, his legs intertwined and he was in his undershirt, with evidence of his last meal clearly shown. Paul looked at me and kissed the side of my face. If I ever felt like I did something worthwhile, it was then, as it taught me that the old adage IS true, you can't tell a book by its cover.
Grandpa Ralph had a very important job on Easter Sunday. Actually, it was two jobs. One was to stay out of the Republican club where they would smoke cigars, drink espresso and whiskey, and play poker or pinochle, and two: "Be a quiet! Rafaello anda getta the vino"!
When Easter Sunday came to an ending, the kids would all be sleepy or sleeping on kitchen chairs, the parents all talked out, the table clothes stains from the sauce (gravy), the rich black espresso, and the scattering of nut shells and wine stains. Then one by one they would disappear into the darkened hallway and into the Easter night.
"A Appy East" to all!