Many homes in this part of Florida (that is to say, homes newer and more expensive than ours) have a large screened-in area that encloses an in-ground pool, a summer kitchen, and a lanai or roofed porch; on temperate days, the sliding glass doors open up to the kitchen and family room and even master bedroom, so that the indoors pours comfortably into the outdoors. Darryl and Janet, my brother and sister-in-law, have such a home, which backs onto on a small but very pretty artificial lake.
Yesterday they invited everyone over for an Easter cookout. To be fair, no one cooked, at least not yesterday afternoon. We all brought our contributions: Easter egg potato salad (some of the eggs were a little blue or green from the Easter egg dye); a Jello salad with lots of marshmallows; extremely garlicky green beans; a precooked ham, and a precooked turkey breast, and packaged rolls; that sort of thing. Mom was dreading the day, since she was feeling poorly and not having a good breathing day, but as she had made such a fabulous showing the previous weekend—spending the night at the Kissimmee home of my other brother and sister-in-law, Dale and Nilda, while I gave a workshop at a writers’ conference in New Port Richey—Mom felt obligated to show up at yesterday’s gathering as well.
By the way, Kissimmee (Walt Disney World’s bedroom community) has fully recovered. On August 13, 2004, Hurricane Charley stormed through the area, its 100 MPH winds bringing extensive damage to homes and buildings, felling trees, and knocking out power for nearly a week. Three weeks later, the area was ravaged by Hurricane Frances; and three weeks after Frances, Hurricane Jeanne.
I’m not big on family gatherings. I mean, they’re pleasant enough, but I’m just not a chit-chat kind of guy. So I spend most of the time looking out at the lake and watching the amazing variety of waterfowl that make this little lake their home: a family of Sandhill Cranes, with two new babies in tow; two lovely, dignified Great Blue Herons; three or four Great Egrets; a beautiful Anhinga who would fish for a few minutes, then climb onto the back of a wooden duck decoy anchored in the lake and stand there with his wings outstretched for ten or fifteen minutes, and when his wings were thoroughly dry, he’d dive back into the lake for a little more fishing; a host of Grackles; several White Ibises; a Wood Stork or two; the usual assortment of graceful Snowy Egrets, sociable Fish Crows, noisy Grackles, and Black Vultures; and, to my shock and great delight, a single Red-winged Blackbird (I had never seen or heard one down here before).
The family exchanged Easter greetings. Some family members are deeply religious; one’s an atheist, but does the whole Easter Bunny/egg hunt thing for his young daughters; the rest fall somewhere in the middle. A local shopping mall invites kids to sit on the Easter Bunny’s lap for photos, the way they do for Santa, except that this year they’re just calling him The Bunny, out of deference, perhaps, to Jews, Pagans, and the Politically Correct. (The Bunny still disappears by Easter, so I don’t think they’re fooling anyone by pretending he’s a generic symbol of Spring.)
Easter used to be a big week for me. More accurately, Holy Week (the week between Palm Sunday and Easter) was a very busy week, with lots of religious observances and, since I sang in the choir, lots of singing and performing. My favorite point in the week was Wednesday, when we held our Tenebrae service; all the music was Gregorian Chant and Plainsong, and it was powerfully evocative.
Nowadays, every time I hear the word Easter, I hear Eostre instead. She was the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, fertility, and the sunrise, and in her honor feasts were celebrated every April, according to 6th century historian the Venerable Bede. And Jakob Grimm (one of the Brothers Grimm, and a philologist and mythologist) took up the question of Eostre in his Deutsche Mythologie of 1835, where he connected the “Osterhase” (Easter Bunny) and Easter Eggs to the goddess Ostara/Eostre.
Indeed, Easter traditions were deemed “pagan” by some leaders of the Protestant Reformation, for good reason: some scholars suggest an etymological relationship between Eostre and the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, claiming that the worship of Bel and Astarte was anciently introduced into Britain, and that the hot cross buns of Good Friday and dyed eggs of Easter Sunday figured in ancient Babylonian celebrations just as they do in modern Britain.
For me, Spring is a heady, confusing mixture of Passover (the center of the Jewish mythos), the “Christ Event” (the center of the Christian mythos), the vernal equinox (which the neopagans call Ostara), the return of allergy season, the last of tolerable weather in Florida, the imminence of tax deadines, and best of all, a time when the birds sing as if there is no greater joy under the sun.