He was a lucky kid. There was no better place to grow up than South Philadelphia, and there was nothing like Easter week and the traditions that bound him to his family. Family was everything.
His mom and his aunts would visit three churches on Holy Thursday. He loved being with them. He wasn’t quite sure why, but the number of churches you visited had to be an odd number. You never thought to ask why. The worship sites were different places at night than on Sunday morning. Even though they were neighborhood churches, it was as if he had never seen them before. Somehow they were more solemn, somehow more beautiful. Afterward, his mother and aunts would discuss which church looked more beautiful.
Good Friday imposed a sad significance on him. His mom was not so strict, but his best friend was not allowed to play games that day, so the boy also spent the day quietly. No stickball. No board games. Just waiting for 3 p.m. and the Stations of the Cross. Quiet can be devastating to a boy.
The Stations bothered him, as he hated reliving the brutal way the Romans treated Jesus Christ and the weakness of Pontius Pilate. He cringed at every detail, from the burden of the heavy cross amidst the taunts of the mob to the agony of the crucifixion. Secretly he always hoped that at the last moment some superhero would save Jesus, but it always ended the same way, with Jesus whispering, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” How could Jesus forgive them? How could he ever hope to be as good as Jesus?
He loved the brightly dyed hard-boiled eggs they colored the night before Easter. Mom wrapped faux straw baskets filled with Easter candy in purple cellophane for the boy and his sister. His father always found an opening in the wrapping where he would filch candy. By Easter, the baskets were almost empty, forcing his mother to refill them. One year she finally decided to set aside a big plate of candy just for Dad. She even included a large coconut cream egg decorated with his name. She chided him as being just another big kid. But that didn’t stop Dad from conducting midnight raids on their baskets. Unlike some of his friends, his parents always bought him an Easter outfit each year. Everyone got all dressed up for the holiday back then. How strange to see his friends in suits and ties with their hair slicked back with Brylcreem (“a little dab will do you”). The girls wore bonnets, skirts, blouses and “Mary Jane” shoes. Everyone looked around to see how the others were dressed when they entered church on Easter Sunday morning.
And then one year when he was ten years old, he missed Easter. Glorious spring came that year as it always did. His father took him to South Street to Benny Krass for his outfit. The suit was sort of mustard colored, but the enthusiasm of the salesman somehow convinced Dad the suit was meant for the boy. The worker suggested a lavender shirt and coordinated tie. In no time at all, his father agreed to the purchase, and they were on their way home. Mom wasn’t as convinced as Dad about the suit, but she went along. When she shopped for his clothes, Mom scrutinized the prices for what seemed like hours before making a decision. Dad tended to agree with the salesman.
It began with a bad sore throat. His tongue turned scarlet. It all happened so quickly. The doctor advised that the boy had scarlet fever. A quarantine sign was posted on the front door. The ambulance arrived at his home with its sirens screeching. The whole neighborhood seemed to gather in front of his house when they took him out on a stretcher and sped him off to Children’s Hospital. The boy spent three weeks at the facility. He was not able to return to school for the rest of the term. It meant he would miss playing a part in the school play. Because of the fear of contagion, his school books were burned. His mother fed him a raw egg each morning and a malted milk with a banana chopped up in it for lunch. She worried about his weight loss (he would never be underweight again the rest of his life).
He remembers spending the week leading into Easter in bed. Somehow when his parents told him he would not be celebrating Easter the way he did each year, he was able to hold back the tears. Boys didn’t cry, especially in front of their fathers.
Time has passed. The boy is now a grandfather. The family he loved those Easters long ago are all gone. Luckily, he now has his own family. Spring still comes each year carrying with it the beauty of Easter. So why is it, he wonders, that he still looks back on that one year so long ago? Why is it he is unable to forget that Easter he lost, that Easter he can never retrieve, that day when there was nothing sadder than seeing his mustard-colored suit hanging in the closet?
That year without Easter. ■
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