It’s Easter Sunday and the mass is early. The Easter bread is in the oven, a recipe I found in Bon Apetit twenty years ago, which takes two full days to prepare. It’s a special treat and I’m feeling a bit superior today getting it baked before mass. Once everyone is up, I have a harder and harder time coordinating all that has to be baked, roasted, and steamed for a timely meal. This bread is tricky. It’s very rich, and will burn if you turn your back. It’s delicious even if the top is charred, but after all this work, it’s heartbreaking to see that I should have checked it ten minutes ago. If I open the oven door when the aroma wafts through the house with a satisfied smile on my face and gaze upon the sweet creation to find the almond topping a shade of black, well, it’s not a good way to start this holiest of days. So I’ll be vigilant this morning.
When I found this recipe, I realized it was the bread my father bought every Easter at Massa’s bakery, located next to his office in our small town. It was a small Italian bakery and this bread was an annual specialty. I’m not sure if you could buy it any old day of the year, but our table sported it only on Easter. Their pecan rolls were only at Thanksgiving and the eclairs were for special treats, but this almond delicacy I only saw at Easter. He’d bring home this bread in one of those brown cardboard boxes tied with string. It was tied so one little pull on the knot would release it’s deliciousness. I remember watching my mother pull that string and the box splay open. I thought she had some special skill. I was proud of her for that.
The Easter meal in our house was predictable: ham, scalloped potatoes, salad, Italian Easter bread, pies, coffee, wine. We didn’t have guests, it was usually just our family. We’d go to 9 o’clock mass, all dressed up in our new spring outfits. The week before was spent shopping for those clothes, begging for the hat with as many fake flowers as it could hold, getting fitted for new shoes at Obergs shoe store. It was special. I loved having my foot placed in the metal foot ruler (did that tool have a name?) my big toe pressed firmly against the line and the very nice man knowing exactly which Mary Janes would fit my tender feet. I loved it. I loved my little ankle socks with a lace trim. I loved getting up and walking to see if they fit. I loved seeing my mother watch me, smiling. I felt special. I loved carrying the bag home. We walked, of course, my mother didn’t drive. It seemed like miles to get home but my mother was happy. I was happy. Recently, I visited the hometown and was stunned by how short the distances were. It’s a very small town. The bakery is long gone. The shoe store is a coffee shop. The dress store disappeared long ago.
I can’t remember the last time I wore a hat for Easter. There is still snow on the ground here and it’s below freezing. There isn’t a forsythia near bloom anywhere. Those pastel linen coats are a thing of the past. I’m feeling nostalgic for those days even though I have romanticized the memories. It was a time when women had few rights and hard lives, I know that. But I’m longing for that feeling of having a new hat and new shoes fill me with joy.
It’s late now. The bread called, my grandchildren woke, we rushed off to mass. We had friends coming for dinner. I abandoned the office for the kitchen. The bread was a perfect golden brown. I thought many times today about how I long for simplicity. I want to pretend nothing exists but this home filled with family and friends. For today, I want to give up the fight for everything. I want to go back to the fire, hold the baby, listen to stories, and laugh. I know there are causes: hunger, injustice, suffering. But just for today, I’ll wear old clothes and be happy that the bread turned out fine.