Monday, April 9, 2012

Easter and New Shoes

I have many photos in my albums of my sister, Candy, and my brother, Brian, and myself at Eastertime in our new outfits, but one in particular stands out in my memory. We're standing on the stoop in front of our apartment in the projects.  I'm probably 8, Candy's 5ish, and Brian's around 2.  On my head is a silly hat with net flowers on it (if I remember correctly, it had netting, too), and I'm standing with my white-gloved hands folded over my rather round belly.  The coat was slate blue, though the picture is in black and white, and my shoes were patent leather and made a little tapping sound when I walked.  Under the dress, I wore a scratchy crinoline petticoat that puffed out the dress and made me feel like a ballerina.  My sister, probably dressed in pink (I don't know why she always got the feminine colors, and I always had blue, but that was the case the whole time we were growing up), looks like a mini version of me, except she's missing her two front teeth (and apparently doesn't care, because she's grinning widely).  Brian had one of his many accidents shortly before Easter and the results are apparent in the photo -- a slash across his forehead (by the time he was 5, he'd had approximately 20 stitches in various parts of his face:  his forehead, above his teeth, across his chin).  He's a little chubby, too, and his hair is slicked across his head though a little piece at the crown rebelliously sticks straight up.  There's no denying we're related.  Each of us have a wide forehead and blonde hair, blue eyes and the same silly close-lipped grin (Candy is the aberration in this picture, but in every other one of us during our childhood, she's close-lipped, too).

Easter was one of the few times during the year that our parents went to church with us.  Any other time, my father would drop me off at the back door so I could go to Sunday school.  When I grew older and I taught those classes, I'd walk down Walnut Street (where we lived from the time I was in 6th grade) and walk home when I was done.  On Sundays, I spent pretty much the whole day at that church.  I'd start at Sunday school, and when I was older, I'd attend church as an acolyte, then end the day at the downstairs gym, either (badly) playing basketball or just hanging out with the other kids.  And for at least two other days during the week, I spent time at the church -- and any other time I needed to visit the chapel where the huge painting of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene hung, I could get in through the huge front doors of the church, doors that were never locked.

When I sat in the church vestry, I spent most of my time looking at the intricate stained glass windows, ten feet tall portraits of Jesus's life, or at the ceiling, soaring bows of highly polished cherry that resembled the inside of a ship's hull hanging upside down over our heads.  I still think that the Glendale United Methodist Church is one of the prettiest I've ever been in, though I've visited many throughout the world that would rival it for sheer golden artistry. 

On Easter, the whole altar would be full of white lilies, symbolizing the majesty of Christ's rising and the sermon would be one of hope and love.  Everyone wore new hats, new clothes, new patent-leather shoes, just like mine, and after church was over, we'd drive to the cemetary where my grandparents were buried and deliver lilies to their graves.  If it was too cold, as it often was during the month of April, we'd take the flowers home with us until the weather was warm enough to put them on my mother's parents' grave, but they always made it there, either at Easter or later.  That was a ritual I could count on, no matter what.

The week before Easter seemed specially made for children.  We sung in front of the church, the minister would give each of us crosses made of palm leaves, and I would wonder what those palm trees looked like in real life and whether they were bald from all the little crosses made of their fronds.  How could there possibly be any leaves left if all the little children across the world had a palm leaf cross in their hands on Palm Sunday?

I loved those days and still remember them with fondness.  I wish they hadn't ended.  I wish I knew why my parents didn't attend church more often.  I wish they had never started locking the church's doors.  I wish I had never had friends leave for a war that the church strangely supported.  I wish I hadn't had discussions with my best friend's father (the minister of the church) around his dinner table, discussions about the Bible and not killing anyone and the war and why he felt ministers needed to bless the troops.  I wish that same minister hadn't chosen to tell me I was no longer part of his church because I had chosen to marry a Catholic boy.  I wish I still had the solace of that church vestry and the innocence I possessed as a child.  But things change and children grow up to realize that churches are where you live in your soul.  They are not just the buildings where we worship but the beliefs that we practice on a daily basis.

I remember those Easter days and the stories of Jesus and the lessons about the Beatitudes and the Commandments and all the peaceful feelings that the church itself gave me, and I'm grateful for that.  That feeling still exists.  Not in that stone building at the corner of Walnut and Ferry Streets in Everett, Massachusetts, but in the heart that beats in my chest every day.  I am grateful that I was able to learn the stories I did and to realize that there are certain expectations in every religion that we should treat each other as we would want to be treated, because I have carried that with me, even though I am no longer a practicing Methodist.  What those days gave me was the freedom to explore what ultimately became my connection with Buddhism.  Those early lessons became a solid basis for the philosophy that has morphed into what I practice today:  a respect for others' beliefs; a compassion for everyone; a certainty that if we want peace, we need to act peacefully and to not harm others; and an awe for the many places of worship throughout the world -- Protestant, Catholic, Islamic -- that I have visited and which have afforded me that same sense of peace that my childhood church did.

I think that Jesus (and Buddha) would approve.

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