Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Easter Bonnet by Tracy Kauffman Wood c. 2008

Hope you enjoy reminiscing with me about the trials of the season. Happy Spring!

At Northeast Philadelphia’s Solis-Cohen Elementary School in the 1960’s, the annual Easter Parade was a rite of spring. From September through March, we students yearned for the day when the new season’s light found us marching around the school auditorium in our Easter bonnets. There were tall Uncle Sam hats and deep bowls of artificial fruit, tables set for ten and tiny jeweled boxes, tool benches and beauty parlor scenarios all balanced on the heads of a collective student body that was 95% Jewish. The coveted prize for our creative efforts was that the chosen people, the kids with the best Easter bonnets, would be photographed by Mrs. Bell for The Chronicle, our school newspaper.
School was an otherwise restrictive place. The creative spirit was subdued in favor of filling our minds with facts. In the classroom, we were required to sit with our hands folded. In the hallways we were admonished to, “Keep your hands to yourselves!” But here was a day when we were encouraged to use our hands to create a bonnet, displaying our creative selves. We revered this day and kept it holy.
For most of the children in our school, Easter and the related festivities, was not about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. We didn’t know from this. Sure, we dyed eggs with food coloring and vinegar, made Easter baskets out of construction paper and fake grass, and greedily inhaled the delightful aromas of jellybeans and chocolate, canceling out every other classroom smell. Who wouldn’t adore these rituals that culminated in a parade?
The problem was it all happened to coincide with Passover, the Jewish celebration of freedom and renewal, observed at home. One ritual of the season was to rid the house of chametz - any leavened bread or food not specifically made for Passover, including the contents of Easter baskets. This heightened my fascination with the world of Easter candy turning it into a guilty pleasure. For me, Jewish suffering meant having to eat the cheap, chocolate-covered jellies that passed for candy at Passover. Why bother when there was a world of pastel, candy coatings to explore?
The Easter basket was not hard to relinquish. The paper was flimsy, the grass messy and hard to contain. The hard-boiled eggs needed to be eaten or they’d rot. So I dipped them into the salt-water tears of our Passover seder. I sang Let My People Go, opened the door for the prophet Elijah and invited all who were hungry to come and eat. But all of the rituals of the Passover meal could not satisfy the saccharine urges of my springtime flirtation.
In this season, my spirit could only be set free by the miraculous arrival of the marshmallow peeps - a local, seasonal product on the shelves of Famous Delicatessen. The soft, sugary pink and yellow peeps chirped a heavenly message to me on Easter Sunday when I was sent on an errand for smoked fish. Squishy and deeply sensual, their birthday cake fragrance was in direct opposition to the briny, deli smell that usually overcame me as I entered the store. You could press on them through the cellophane and they would respond. Once you had a bird in hand, you could bite off the head, (with or without front teeth) clench the sandy sugar between your back molars, and allow a moistened glob to slide down your throat. What an escape from the confusion of the season. I was tasting paradise, while fleeing Egyptians. But this flight was fraught with guilt. They were definitely not ‘Kosher for Passover’. To absolve myself, I decided to create a homeland for the marshmallow chicks and all of their sugar-coated descendants in my Easter bonnet. What a great, sanctioned excuse to experience the forbidden sweets.
I chose a straw hat with a deep, scooped out rim - perfect for a pastoral scene. Feathering my nest with multicolored Easter grasses, I buried the leftover hard boiled eggs from Passover in layers of tangled grass. I pretended that the eggs hatched into hollow, chocolate bunnies - the children of Israel with pink noses. They romped through my hat dodging jelly beans and foiled, football eggs. I taped chocolate marshmallow rabbits with long ears around the circumference of the rim as soldiers to protect their homeland. The peeps, pink and yellow between mounds of chocolate, were set free and in their element. So was I.
A heavenly aroma descended upon me as my mother and brother lowered my Easter bonnet onto my head, come the morning of the parade. They spotted my trial stroll around our living room to make sure I could manage such a large hat. They attached strings
with clothespins on each side for me to hold, so I could keep the bonnet centered. There was a palpable air of excitement in my classroom that morning. My classmates and teacher knew that my Easter bonnet would be a contender.
With our heads covered, we ascended to the auditorium. It was a sunny day and the dappled light from the windows seemed to be singling out, not the brightest nor the most beautiful people, but the art kids - the most creative children in the school. I, and my fragrant, bounteous, and heavy hat was chosen, as were nineteen others. Mrs. Bell placed me in the front-row, center of her photographic composition. Even the chosen kids were admiring the scenario on my head and smacking their lips as we held our positions on stage. Mrs. Bell, looking through her camera and not quite satisfied, asked me to move slightly to my left. I was sitting on my sleeping calves dreaming of fame next year in Jerusalem. She became impatient with my slow progress, put down her camera, placed her hands on my shoulders and in one jerking motion, moved me to the left. Except only the top half of my body moved. My legs stayed where they were, my neck twisted and my hands were not gripping the clothespins of my bonnet. My peeps and all their descendants were cast about in a sudden and violent diaspora spreading across the stage and down the slippery, sloping aisles of the auditorium.
A collective “Oh my G-d!” swept the room. Children lunged for chocolate and chased jelly beans. Teachers were forced back into control mode on a day they assumed would be restful. My sugar-coated promised land went fallow. The more benevolent souls began gathering and returning my candy. Mrs. Bell moved me to the second row, left corner of the picture. I made it into the pages of the Chronicle looking startled. I’d been cast out of the land of milk chocolate and Bit o’ Honey to a border settlement. I ate the scant remains of my hat in the girls bathroom at recess.
The following year I wore a white lampshade on my head with a single strand of black jelly beans dangling from its middle. Simple yet elegant, and very popular with the Agnostics.

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