Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών, θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας, και τοις εν τοις μνήμασι ζωήν χαρισάμενος.—Christ is Risen, the song sung by Greek Orthodox at Pascha (Easter).
It is “Greek” Easter. I’m home alone, and the lamb is in the oven. Scents of Greek seasoning waft throughout every nook and cranny of my small townhouse. As I do every year, I wonder if any of my children will continue the Greek traditions that I have established. The traditions were not present during my own upbringing until I took the initiative to embrace them when my now adult children were toddlers.
I recall the Easter lamb I cooked the year my father died and remember where we were in the kitchen as I took it out of the oven. He was sitting at the kitchen table with his ever present smile and a line of oxygen under his nose, attached to a portable oxygen tank. He was delighted that he would have Easter lamb, and it made me happy to make him happy. A few weeks later he would be moved into my own home to be monitored by me and his hospice nurses as he lived his last months. I’d had reservations about moving him in, as my children were adolescents and I wanted to shield them from the ugliness of death. But my Greek Orthodox priest convinced me it would be fine. “In Greece the cycle of life is very natural. Papou dies downstairs and a baby is born upstairs,” he’d said and he’d been right. I think back for a moment to the poignant goodbye around my father’s bedside with my mother, my children and me kissing him as he took his last breaths.
Dad’s mother, my grandmother Josephine, taught me to cook the lamb “the Greek way” which was interesting because she was full blooded Polish. Devoted to my grandfather and all things that made him happy, she was a better Greek cook than many of the full blooded Greeks I’ve known. I absolutely adored her and her kitchen always smelled like mine does now and I look at my hands working and in my heart’s eye I see her hands on tope of mine, guiding them.
Earlier in the week there’d been talk of my mother baking a ham this year, and a “we don’t want to inconvenience you” disingenuous pitch from those who will eat the lamb, greek style green beans, potatoes and salad with ample crumbled feta cheese. We go through this dance each year when we all know how the menu will pan out. Besides, my mother is not Greek and Easter to her side of the family means bunnies and bonnets. To Greeks, Pascha is the most important day of the year, the culmination of weeks of fasting and repentance and realigning ourselves to God and His mercy.
I check the lamb to see how it is coming along knowing that it will turn out perfectly as it always does. Although I don’t enjoy cooking as a rule, the traditional Easter dinner reminds me that I am an excellent cook and I wonder why I never dabble in it except on Pascha. There was a time I did enjoy cooking more, and as I tend to everything to synchronize the timing of the dishes I remember back to my short marriage to FP and the meals we would enjoy preparing together.
Although part Greek himself, FP wasn’t trained in Greek religious food preparation and I loved teaching him to make his first loaf of prosfora, the blessed bread we use as the body of Christ for communion. I watched him press the etched seal into the top of the fluffy powdery loaf we’d made, with the seal given to me by the 83 year old Greek Orthodox woman who had taught me when I was a young mother. “Pray for me every time you use this,” she’d said when she gifted me my first prosfora seal and I do pray for Marie every time, releasing the seal to observe the intricate religious design passed down for generations on the top of the holy bread.
FP had also never made the koliva, the memorial wheat that is traditionally used at memorial services for the dead. I taught him to make it in the first year we were married, before my father’s memorial service. FP and I had boiled the wheat berries and set them out on a pristeen white cloth to dry the night before the memorial, knowing we’d be mixing them early the next morning with the nuts, raisins, powdered sugar and the delicate pomegranate seeds that represent the blood of Christ. I’d left to run an errand and when I’d returned I saw FP had placed a vigil light next to the drying wheat berries along with a photo of my dad, and a photo of his own deceased grandmother. It touched me that he had made such a special memorial and I’d felt the presence of the Greek ancestors in our respective families joined together.
Later I would teach FP’s youngest daughter from his first marriage to make prosfora and I’d give her a seal asking her to pray for me each time she uses it. I’d also taught her to make koliva and I added the memorial shrine layout to the tradition as though it had always been a part.
As I put the finishing touches on the Easter lamb meal and set the table for the hungry family that will soon arrive, I feel tears welling up and an ache in my heart that is painful at the core. Perhaps it’s brought on by the fatigue I feel from being at long services throughout Greek Orthodox Holy Week. Maybe I didn’t get enough sleep after midnight resurrection service. There is a deep mourning for my ancestors who always come to mind as the lamb bakes, and a clear and present sense of momentarily missing my ex husband despite our divorce being over six years prior, his remarriage, and a healing balm of forgiveness that has washed away the drama that separated us.
Rather than stuff down the emotion, I let the tears flow, and hum the tune “Christos Anesti,” –Christ is Risen, the traditional Greek song that we will sing victoriously in the upcoming weeks. Then I do what I strive to do each day, each hour, each minute. I turn my life over to the Resurrected Savior and surrender to His lead for this moment in time. For just this very moment, I trust through Him, that everything is as it should be.