Editor’s Choice Award
BY Nadya Frank Bauman
While Easter doesn’t have a specific date in the Gregorian calendar, it won’t catch you unprepared if you keep an eye on Orthodox holidays. Traditionally, eggs are dyed on Clean Thursday, three days before the Easter Sunday.
You’re seven. Playing with knick-knacks from your grandparents’ sideboard, you find a bunch of plastic flowers. They lie next to a jar of seeds shaped like stars and a crooked pimply coral, which Grandpa brought from overseas long ago. Pinky, glazy, with long petals and drops of glue that imitate morning dew, these are the flowers Granny buys each year at Kievsky Market to bring to the cemetery on Easter Sunday. You rush to the kitchen where grown-ups drink their tea and whisper into Mom’s ear: “Mama, Easter!”
She looks at you and shakes her head, confirming the worst: you don’t have enough onion skins at home.
You’re fifteen. Leg draped over the armrest, spine bent in an unhealthy way, definitely bad for your freshly-diagnosed scoliosis, you channel surf, killing time after classes, before your parents come home and make you sit straight, do chores and homework. A TV-host dips hardboiled eggs into bowls with dye. They come out pastel blue, yellow and pink. You run to the calendar in the kitchen, then check the veggie compartment.
Of course, you don’t have enough onion skins.
You’re twenty-seven. Leftover pizza and 3-in-1 instant coffee in your stomach, you stroll down Mayakovskaya street. A safety pin that holds your bra strap together is hidden under your mid-priced two-piece suit. Someone opens a door nearly slamming it into your face, and yells “Keep your eyes opened, woman!” as you lose balance and grab the door’s handle. On the door, which is the door of a chain coffee shop, a poster announces their new Easter menu.
You consider calling Mom and reminding her because sure thing she’s forgotten to save up enough onion skins.
To achieve deep red color, use 1:3 ratio: a full one-liter jar of onion skins for every three liters of water.
You’re seven. Mom takes you to the dacha, a country house, where veggies are stored in a cold cellar. While she fumbles with the padlock, you peel golden resin from trunks of plum trees and chew it like pricey imported bubblegum you’ve seen in TV commercials. In the cellar, you and Mom peel a box of onions and pack the skins along with a bag of potato you’ve harvested on the patch behind the house that fall. You take the skins and leave the onions semi-naked. They’ll last longer here in the cold cellar. At home, so much onion will perish.
You’re fifteen. You whine into the phone until Mom allows you to buy the Easter supplies. Take the cash you know where. At the farmers market, you get eggs, onions and two kiwis—a forbidden fruit which no one in the family likes, Granny in particular. They’re like hairy potatoes. She’s Belarusian, they are potatoes’ biggest lovers. At fifteen, she slept next to the door in their Belarussian house, a bowl of potato mash by her bed, her head shaven. Whenever the Germans broke in, she feigned typhoid, pretending to barf potato mash, scaring the Nazis away. “That’s how life was,” she says.
You peel farmers market onions and put them into a box for storage—a big box from Mom’s winter boots, big boots for her wide calves, hardened at her Math teaching job, chores around the house and dacha. The dacha is long forgotten because fertilizers, tools and seeds, gas for driving, efforts and time make each cucumber cost like a diamond, Mom calculated. You started telling people your mom is a Math teacher every time the talk involves figures. Only Granny doesn’t believe Mom’s calculations and thinks you two are being lazy.
You’re twenty-seven. In the nearest grocery store, you study the options: white eggs, beige eggs, quail eggs, duck eggs, cage-free eggs, certified eco eggs. Your boots screech against tiles as you walk down the aisle. The boots are shiny and have just the right heel to conceal your inherited wide calves. They were sold in a nice box that’s too good to store onions in it. Propping a bottle of Prosecco with a Turkey Meatballs Lean Dinner into your cart, you grab a box of pre-dyed eggs.
Rinse the onion skins and boil them in a big saucepan for half an hour. Meanwhile, prepare eggs.
You’re seven. Tongue stuck out from concentration, you wrap each egg gently into gauze which Mom stores on a shelf next to bags of cotton, which purpose she refuses to explain until you are at least ten. Some important grown-up women stuff. Sprinkling some rice and millet inside the gauze, you secure it with cord, making eggs resemble hard candy in a white wrapper. You move the grains under the gauze to distribute them evenly against the eggshell.
You’re fifteen. You wrap the eggs in Mom’s old snagged pantyhose that are kept in the drawer just in case. There’s no gauze at home anymore; bags of sanitary napkins replaced it on the shelf next to cotton balls. Mom hid her gaze and blushed as she explained the grown-up women stuff to you; you blushed and nodded, knowing it all from elsewhere.
You’re twenty-seven. Back in the room you rent from a Buddhist girl in Mitino, you discard another ruined pair of pantyhose that got snagged against your boots. Two hundred Lean Dinners later, your calves don’t show any desire to narrow. Neither does your waist. You call Mom and cut the talk short when she starts on about wasting your money on pre-made foods. You stopped telling people your mom is a Math teacher after you told this to a guy and he turned out to be a STEM professor.
When the onion skins dye water dark-red, place eggs in the pan and boil for fifteen minutes. Rinse in cold water, allow to cool and remove cloth and grains. To secure color, bathe eggs in cold water with a tablespoon of vinegar. To add shine, rub with sunflower oil.
Eggs come out deep red, like raspberry jam over chocolate cake, the seven-year-old you thinks. Like the darkest red crayon in your set. Like a lipstick Mom uses to paint your cheeks red for school plays. Like corals in grandparents’ sideboard. The eggs have sprinkles of gold where grains were pressed against the shell.
Red, like Julia Roberts’ dress in Pretty Woman, the fifteen-year-old you thinks. Like wine coolers older boys drink in the courtyards. Like Mom’s borscht, always so onion-y in late spring, because we have to do something with all that onion!
As borscht and shchi get cooked, along with country-style potatoes, fried buckwheat and hunter’s stew, the box becomes emptier, and circles under Mom’s eyes grow darker, and her students still don’t get integrals, and you have issues with chemistry, and the most annoying part of this all is Mom’s “That’s how life is.”
Twenty-seven-year-old, you run fingers along shells of pre-dyed eggs. Green, like cough-suppressing sage tablets. Yellow, like walls in your therapist’s office. Pink, like a tiny silicone cup in your medicine drawer that puzzled Mom and put blush on your face as you explained it all to her, saying “down there” instead of “vagina”, the Buddhist girl laughing into her palm.
You offer the green egg to the Buddhist girl. She sits on a kitchen chair cross-legged, her calves hairy like kiwi, her knees bald like her men. Last time her folks told her that promiscuity doesn’t make families, she said it could make children. She wants to be a Mehndi artist, she says, it’s cute stuff, a cute religion.
You recall how, as a child, you visited the cemetery on Easter Sunday, carrying a bag with eggs and offering them to people your parents greeted.
“Christos voskres,” you told them like an adult. Christ is risen.
“Voistiny voskres,” they replied. Truly risen.
Parents cleaned tombs from winter leaves and branches. Granny tucked plastic chrysanthemum into the ground next to headstones. Plastic flowers were more practical, she liked to say, sending Mom’s daffodils a disdainful look.
“But mind you, the homeless will steal the flowers anyway.”
She then would smash the eggs against the top of a one-legged table. At seven, you believed she did it so the birds could eat the eggs. By fifteen, you knew the truth: the eggs should be crushed or else the homeless would steal them along with the flowers.
“What’s so bad if a homeless gets a whole egg and eats it?” you asked once.
“They won’t eat them,” Dad said. “They’ll sell them.”
And finally, remember that the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t endorse visiting cemeteries on Easter Sunday. Go to your church, enjoy a holiday meal with the family and don’t fall for superstitions about leaving eggs at tombs as a part of sharing them with the dead. By all means it’s not a faithful Orthodox tradition, but idolatry.
In the afternoon of your twenty-seventh Easter Sunday, you buy some fresh daffodils which, hand to heart, don’t survive the bus ride as flawlessly as their counterparts you have in your bag, orchids and lilies, tacky, elaborate and utterly fake. At the graveyard, you arrange flowers, both plastic and real, so they frame that picture where Granny is in her forties, full head of hair, sculptured eyebrows, looking straight. Flowers bring out colors of her face on the faded photo, and you smile, and she smiles. Smashing an egg against the tombstone base, you’re grateful for what has become of you, for all the chances given and all the sacrifices made; grateful to all women in your family; grateful on behalf of yourself and on behalf of others who will rise after you.