Chocolate pairs wonderfully with many things, but the Central Florida tropical heat is not one of them. As kids we made this discovery every Easter. Gathering at my grandparents home the night before Easter morning, we woke at the first glint of dawn which already brought 75 degree temperatures. Still clad in our pajamas, we ambled in to the kitchen patiently awaiting the starting gun of my grandfather’s voice who would call, “Reaaady…Set……….Go!” Off we ran in search of a rainbow of plastic colored eggs, particularly the silver Magic Egg which always had a five dollar bill hidden within it.
I always thought that if we got out early enough that I’d catch a glimpse of the phantom Easter Bunny as he was crossing their back property line. By the time we recovered the eggs filled with jelly beans and M&M’s the heat had advanced upon us. The mad rush was on to uncover the motherlode of the Easter basket. The baskets were always hidden inside a washing machine or beneath a dining room chair, in a closet, etc. One year someone had the bright idea of hiding them inside the cars. By the time we landed that eagle the baskets were practically drenched in chocolate. The perky, upright, buttoned-up profiles of solid-milk chocolate bunnies had warped into slack-jawed turtles.
Losing my religion…
During my childhood, Easter had essentially translated to Eat-As-Much-Chocolate-As-You-Want-Day without much meaning beyond that. While I’d heard the story behind Easter as a child, I was fairly ignorant of its religious significance and the days leading up to it. Even more foreign was this thing called Passover which meant a day’s drive out to the beach to have dinner with my paternal grandparents. To date, cravings of latkes and chopped chicken liver consume me this time each year.
As a young woman, my mother, who was raised a practicing Catholic, shed her religion in the early 70s while she also fired her bra. She had me christened Catholic shortly after being born so the demons wouldn’t invade my brain, but outside of that she vowed she would let her child choose her own religion as it was appropriate.
Growing up without a religion in the bible belt may as well had meant I’d been raised in the jungle by wolves. In fact every Monday morning my first grade teacher would ask for a show of hands for the good little children who went to church the previous morning. I was mortified because every Monday I was the only one who sat with my hand still in my lap. The other children stared with wide-eyed pity at me as if I was their own little, ragged Mowgli. My mother upon hearing me sob of this six months into my school year called a parent, teacher, principal, assistant principal and probably even the lunch lady conference. From that day on, Monday mornings were void of such inquiry.
I never minded growing up without religion and applaud my mother’s decision to let me arrive at such a personal choice. Throughout my childhood I got to experience various church services with my friends. Most were held in cavernous halls which resembled wide-plane convention centers rather than hushed sanctuaries. In a Pentecostal tent revival I sat fascinated and bewitched beside a elderly woman speaking in tongues. And it was in my first Catholic mass where I heard a nun actually hiss her correction of “Amen” after I replied “thank you” when receiving the sacrament. By her reaction you’d think the Pontifical Swiss Guard was on its way to escort me out of the church.
On my twelfth Easter I had long ditched my belief in the Bunny. I asked to skip the search for chocolate so I could accept an invitation from Latricia to attend Easter Sunday Service at her Zion Baptist Church. She regaled me with stories of how everybody had such a great time, singing and dancing. We rolled in laughter as she mimicked her Aunt CeCe whom, she claimed, “practically peed her big ‘ole underpants when she saw Jesus walking down the aisle at her”. I exclaimed to my mother, “I have to go, I have to see this!” After imploring me to behave and to be respectful, she allowed me to go.
I walked over to Latricia’s house early Sunday morning. My mother had bought me a lavender sundress and new white sandals for the occasion. I was glad I decided to wear a dress because upon arrival at Latricia’s house I encountered a flurry of head-to-toe tulle in just about every color. Her sisters and nieces, aunts and cousins all dressed in elaborate Sunday bests made me suddenly crave cotton candy. It felt like a party before we had even arrived at the church.
Pulling up to the tiny white clapboard church, I was amazed at all the cars parked in the small lot, along the street, some were even parked in the church’s front patch of grass. I was curious to know how everyone would fit inside? Fortunately, Latricia’s uncle was the pastor so we got ushered right up front. As we took our seats there was a sudden hush amongst our pews. I didn’t notice until Latricia scolded one the young boys, “Whatchu starin’ at?” and then I got it. I was the only white girl in the room and probably the only girl without a piece of tulle fluffed out of my body. Reverend Davis came over to greet us. He seemed like a benevolent king dressed in his white and gold satin clergy robe. He shook my hand in both of his and said, “Miss Jennifer, Latricia said she was bringing you to church this morning. We’re very glad to have you.”
“Thank you,” I replied nervously hunching my shoulders up to my ears.
“Y’all have a seat and enjoy. We’ll see you after the service.” he said and turned to head up to the pulpit.
What ensued was, quite famously, one of the best celebrations in my life. It began with the Reverend speaking some words with parishioners calling back. It got louder, more emphatic, people jumped to their feet and threw their fists in the air. And then the music began. In resplendent unison, the piano, guitar, drums and tambourines, called out, and inhaled like a backdraft jangling the rooftop. The choir shook the room as their hymns exhumed our shine and lassoed it around until it was one glorious, collective beacon. And once dancing had begun in the aisles, the lid of this church had officially been blown off. Latricia and I joined in, dancing, laughing, singing, twirling until my eyes closed and I experienced complete unity with everything around, within, above and below me.
I’ve journeyed through this portal into pure elation several times in my life with singing and dance always being the vehicles driving me there. One word describes this state, spiritualized! It’s elevating to a spiritual level, beyond what any brick and mortar, any pulpit, any book can offer. Letting walls of acceptance support you and inhaling grace into every cell, reminding the body of its true origin. This continues to be a sacred resurrection for me every time.
As the service cooled down and people splayed back into the pews, some still speaking in tongue, Latricia’s brother stepped up to the pulpit. He was home on break from University of Chicago. He spoke the last part of the sermon by reciting Maya Angelou’s acclaimed poem, “Still I Rise.” I so fondly look back on that service because of its soul and honesty. Because it spoke not only to the resurrection of Easter, or the liberation of Passover, it spoke most importantly to the resilience in our spirits, every living spirit to simply wake every morning, acknowledge the gift of life within us and rise.
…Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise…. ~ Maya Angelou