Easter has come and gone, or has it? Like Christmas it doesn’t just fly in and out like a bat in the night, brushing against your face and hair, making you scream and jump with your stupid human fright. And, all that shopping, cleaning, hurrying and scurrying like a little rat each year, or should I say rabbit…… they are everywhere again.
Easter was cold, snowy, rainy, foggy, wet, windy and then the sun came out, and then it rained again, and then it got dark and then the wind so crazy, blowing all the candy wrappers, tissues, plastic bags, doggy poo bags and styrofoam packages all over the streets, lawns and the paths to my waiting house…….and then it snowed a lot. It snowed on the daffodils all bright and lemony dipping down to meet the crocuses and squill. All dusted with snow. Ah the squill, where I live the tiny blue bell flowers grow in sweeping masses on people’s lawns and flowerbeds. There are endless blue lawns here like a child’s painting– wild, lightening cobalt indigo lavender blue lawns that take your breath away, even covered with snow.
So how do you know if it’s time to buy a Christmas tree put out the Easter eggs or cornucopias. All mixed up— the weather total schizophrenia. Mad, nuts, crazy, manic-depressive, one day an angel blowing kisses and the next the old wicked witch shoving you into the fiery oven, swatting you with her broom, pulling at your hair, tearing at your clothes, and poisoning you with potions. Or the howling King blowing you half way through the park, knocking you down, slicing your skin with icy daggers…..And we the wanderers of this earth more and more like the walking sleeping murmuring dead —ghosts ghosts ghosts all of us, acting as though we have something or nothing to do with it.
I don’t remember things being quite so bad, sad and dreary when my mother was alive and when Easter meant Mama, church, vodka at 8:00 a.m. breakfast (yes!), babkas, paskas, ham, potatoes, beets, fresh hand grated horseradish, airy cheesecakes like souffles covered in raspberry sauce….Ukrainian Easter eggs painted with poppies, stars, sheaves of wheat, crosses, diamonds, sun and sky– and walking to the church in the dark in the velvety moonlit dark smelling something sharp and sweet, white and pure, and then it turned into all the incense, all the oils, all the botanicals and herbs and flowers you ever smelled in the world rising as though a white peony cloud just exploded and gushed out all the pent-up perfumes distilled from all the air in the sky from the sun and the moon, from the debris of black holes spewing out the million frightening jagged colliding molecules of each and every fauna and flora yet to be…
But first there was Mama, going to Mama’s house on Good Friday or Holy Saturday. Juggling the calendar again and planning to give her a few hours from work, friends, parties, drinking, smoking and aimless cavorting and screwing around here, there and everywhere…
Good Friday sometimes I would go and help her bake the babkas or paskas, traditional Ukrainian Easter breads. The babkas usually a bit sweeter and more cake-like, sometimes covered in Royal icing and the paskas lighter and more like bread. But both contained lots of eggs, butter, and varied amounts of cloves, orange peel, lemon peel, vanilla, raisins and yeast starters. And who knows, maybe a shot of vodka?
There are many traditional recipes you can use and alter but I usually made mine from a Ukrainian cookbook my mother gave me. My recipe was an old one, called Babusi paska (Grandmother’s Easter Bread). It called for 18 cups of flour and the dough was so massive, thick and sticky that I often had to use a huge stockpot and mix the dough in the pot while kneeling on the kitchen floor. My counters too tall for me— giants used to live in my house, so often I find myself crawling around on the floor stirring, mixing, kneading…..
I kneaded by hand and it took over an hour, the mass of dough sometimes getting stickier, tackier, thick as glue, and so heavy…often my hands stuck to the pot and the pot sometimes dragged me across the kitchen floor… the phone would always ring while I was making it, or the doorbell or there would be a knock on the door…..I started to add more and more flour because even with 18 cups the dough would not become satiny and silky like my mother’s did— her babkas were done with what seemed like a few quick turns of the hand and were light and airy, yellow and fragrant.
My babkas looked beautiful and tall with that wonderful mushroom dome on top and I tried to decorate them with braids, birds, and flowers made of dough….. but they weren’t my mother’s babka. They were a tad dry…. I finally talked to my cousins and aunt who still make babkas and they were shocked at the amount of flour in mine, and gave me their recipes which were eggier, more lemony and orangey. My cousin uses the grated rind of one big orange, lemon and the juice of a whole orange. I also found another babka recipe online which looked delicious (so shocked at myself for not using my mother’s dear cookbook!) . The new babkas are still hard to make, the dough sticky and tacky, but oh the smell, of the yeast rising and then the moment when the tackiness goes away and your hands feel like they are caressing silk or satin, the drying dough falls off your hands like powdery roses in the fall…
We used to decorate an Easter Basket (or rather my mother did) and take it to church Saturdays for the Easter blessing (after much grumbling from me and my sister) , but then afterwards, we were so thrilled to see the finished basket with the embroidered Ukrainian cloth, and the wedge of brie, slab of sweet cream butter, sausage or ham or both, halves of golden eggs, the dish of beet horseradish, and my aunt’s beautiful hand painted pysankys (Ukrainian easter eggs) and the babkas, shiny with egg wash, deep golden brown, the dome like the church tops in Ukraine. We drove to the old Ukrainian neighborhood where up and down all the streets you saw people with their Easter baskets , some looking like ours and others more elaborate, the babkas taller and wider with intricate bird and flower designs on top, whole hams, spirals of sausages, some with bouquets of flowers, and then standing around the church basement , everyone eyeing each others baskets, each with a burning candle …”Oh look at those pysankys , what a huge ham, is that a cake? Is that cheesecake in the basket?” And the priest coming around in his white and golden robes with a huge (what is the thing called that blesses the basket?) and the singing would begin and we all lit candles and we sang,and the holy water was sprinkled on the baskets of food and sometimes hit us in our faces……once the priest took one pysanky from each basket as an offering…. he took the prettiest one we had, my sister’s, and she was glum all the way home.
Then home and more washing, cleaning, baking and cooking to get ready for the Easter feast. Potato salad, asparagus, the beet relish, the sausages, the cheesecake, sometimes deviled eggs, sometimes a pate if my mother had energy…., oh her pates with the meat she grinded by hand in the old grinder she attached to the wobbly kitchen table….flavored with allspice, bay, garlic, onion and celery, all melded together in a silky yet slightly grainy pate that tasted nothing like meat, but savory rich velvety darkness in the mouth, like some exotic mushroom lying under a big oak in a deep leafy forest, gathered just for you by little Ukrainian elves….
Easter Morning we would go to mass, have to get up at 3:30 a.m. to get to church to be in the procession to get a seat for the 5:00 am. mass. How we groaned my sister and I! Cursing the day, cursing the night, cursing holidays and church services that started so early in the morning. The night before my mother begged us to go to bed early not to eat or drink too much, to get up, because after all it is Easter! My sister and I had drinks, late night snacks, watched movies or talked all night and went to bed at midnight or 1:00 a.m. knowing we had to get up……
Getting up in the dark …. after my mother had to beg beg us and finally scream to get us up……cold usually Easter Morning, struggling to put on shoes, find suitable pretty clothes, makeup, stockings with no runs (Oh once I used to wear skirts and dresses and feminine things!) Then my sister driving us through the dark streets empty except for us and a car or two, probably traveling to the same mass. Hungover tired tired and so sleepy irritable, parking in the old neighborhood with all the churches, Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Orthodox….. and everywhere small groups of people walking in the dark, and the smell, the smell that filled the air, of those same stars exploding and someone upstairs trying to make the sun shine, strewing a path with a million violets to greet it.
Walking toward the church we already smelled those massive white lilies planted in the big urns, breathing in the fragrance and breathing it out with lungs that somehow seemed cleansed by flowers…… then silently we entered the church and the priest came out and everyone followed him outside and we walked in the light-dark all around the church three times, the skies getting slightly pink and lavender with blue smoke— he had incense and was waving it around and it mingled with the smoky flower air.
The mass starts. Joy to the Earth! Joy to the people this morning ! Joy to the flowers and the towers and the bowers that are spilling out with all this beauty of this earth that trembles today with delirious happiness. My mother and sister and I sat and kneeled and prayed and kissed, and the songs coming out of that choir at Easter service so long ago ripped your heart and lungs and throat out, splayed your back and knees and belly, made you keel over, made you weep, and want to melt out of your earthly fleshy big bloated body and soar away with those voices into the air…..what a joyous mass it was I heard through the sleep deprived sodden sloppy mess of me, the sad wasted flesh of me, there with my mother and my sister in that church so long ago the smell of lilies and incense and bread baking, somewhere yeast rising, somewhere my mother’s head swimming with Easter so long ago and here in this church a small remnant of that was so visible to all our weeping eyes….. back down to earth, so tired we were, so hung over ( just me and my sister) and our stomaches rumbling grumbling thinking of the juicy mellow savory fresh sweet sharp and spicy things to come…
Walking to the car the church bells ringing madly, proclaiming the risen Christ, everyone was going home to open up those Easter baskets and take out the blessed offerings… my mother and sister and I walked up the back stairs slightly weary and bleary, deliriously happy, and then in the kitchen my mother would say : “Well girls where’s the vodka”? My mother was not a big drinker but enjoyed a glass or too of wine or liquors… Easter in Ukraine, many people fasted and deprived themselves of everything that was tasty, good and bad for you, some people for weeks ate very little, others fasted lightly at least for Holy week. Alcohol was forbidden during the fast. But on the Great Day (Velykden) , Easter Sunday, for many families it is tradition to have an icy glass of vodka to begin the hearty and rich Easter breakfast…. or maybe two, or three. My sister and I were always slightly shocked to see my pretty, little, delicate mother ask for vodka at 8:00 a.m. N had it ready, putting it in the freezer a few days before Easter so it would be thrillingly icy, bracing, fiery, Icelandic whiteout Arctic cold icy…..
We sat down at the table and the vodka was poured and so cold it instantly fogged the glasses, and we raised them to our lips and drank. What a blast of fire water! What an exhilarating ski slope ride down our throats and esophagus, like Olympic skiers furiously showering ice and snow into our lungs— it was delicious it was winter and ice and cool and it was old river streams and rushing brooks and it was riding with wild trout and salmon clean….then the ham and sausage and the beet and horseradish, the creamy potatoes with celery, sweet pickle, scallions, dill, parsley and paprika, and the babka. The babka in big yellow slabs tasting of lemon and orange, cloves, vanilla, each crumb in our mouths still having the faint flavor of that miraculous yeast. We buttered the babkas or ate them plain…… we had another shot of vodka, and sometimes three. We were sated with drink and food and then we felt how tired we were and sometimes we got a little cranky and snapped at each other later in the day… sometimes we had guests for an early dinner and then we did it all over again….
My mother always gave me a lot of leftovers at Easter and my sister would drive me home with them. My mother, I see her still, waving to me from the back door as we were already in the garage. At home I unwrapped the food, so tired I could hardly stand. Sometimes I didn’t eat the babka. I was busy again working working fooling around aimlessly wasting time…. Sometimes it sat on my counter for a long time. Sometimes it was weeks before I had another slice. Once it got a little dry and I thought I should throw it out but I couldn’t, this was my mother’s babka, baked with her holy precious hands and I never tossed it ever. I finally ate it, ate it all. Now after all these years I realize not once did that babka go bad or moldy or taste stale. Never. It was a miraculous babka like food was long ago before we used poisons to preserve and keep things fresh.
This Easter I had my own small family gathering and it was precious and happy and the food delicious and bountiful. I made three small babkas and we ate them with butter as before. We ate the same salad and asparagus, the sausage, and a huge delicious expensive ham. We had lavish champagne and wine, a little too decadent for Easter, but oh how this tired baker and cook enjoyed them! But the babka is what makes the feast, the babka too had lemon, orange, clove and vanilla, and this babka also caused much trouble and I had to make it in a big bowl while kneeling and crawling on the floor. Easter then over and I gave away the babkas like my mother did but left some for me. I ate it every day for breakfast and sometimes dinner. One day I felt sad and had an extra slice of babka and still smelled the yeast and thrill of the rising dough…. and then the babka was gone.
There was one little nub left that eventually became a pool of crumbs and even that I could not let go, and covered these crumbs that were scattered on the long white platter, with Saran wrap. I was sad again one day, took off the wrap, and put my face into those crumbs and there was still the faint smell of yeast, lemon, orange, and cloves and there was the faint smell of my mother and my sister, and my other sister and all those Easters and all those Mama babkas of long ago, and there will never be babkas like that again ever, except maybe in a tiny village somewhere in the Carpathians where some babushka is still baking them and weeping or maybe laughing laughing at all the sticky sticky sticky dough….