San Pedro de Tlaquepaque, Mexico, 1963:
I am sitting in a jungle garden outside the rental bungalow of an American widow and her son who usually live on their farm in the southwestern corner of Missouri. They migrate to Mexico annually in search of mild winters.
A little older than I, the son is witty and handsome, with a cheerful disposition to match his mother's. He is a quadriplegic. While serving with the Marine Corps in Korea at eighteen, he caught polio and spent more than a year in an iron lung, followed by several years in military hospitals. Although he requires a wheelchair to be ambulatory, he often says, "It may not look like it, but my life is not confined to this chair."
Once tall and well-built, he has shriveled considerably although he retains the tousled blonde hair, dimpled cheeks, cleft chin, broad shoulders and blue eyes that used to drive the girls wild when he was a strapping young Marine. The glances girls aim at him now are cooler and, too often, sad--heartbreaking for a guy not yet thirty. Still, he always smiles back.
At the moment, he seems so fit that I manage to overlook the signs of continuing deterioration since the last time we met. I am going to push his wheelchair today, giving his mom a break. Away we go, passing through narrow streets lined with high walls hiding charming homes mostly built in the hacienda style, with rooms facing inward around a courtyard garden.
As we enter the mid-town area, we find ourselves among tourists crowding through vast colonial mansions which were once the scene of great dinners and balls, but that presently provide a setting for the sale of local arts and crafts, which are of high quality and are world-renowned.
We reach our destination--the central plaza, known here as the Parián, surrounded by shops, open stalls and cafes. Trumpeting, strumming, singing mariachis meander by, their music punctuated by the squawks of luminescent, long-tailed parrots perched on hoops in the trees.
Ah! There they are, what we came to see--the Tapatías, as girls native to this area are called. TheTapatías are considered the most beautiful women in Mexico. Entwined together like a rainbow rope, scores of them amble arm-in-arm in one direction around the square. Most wear colorful dirndl skirts with white, off-the-shoulder blouses. Some style their hair swept back into chignons in the classic Spanish manner, others let it hang free, and all are wearing fresh flowers on their blouses or at their wrists or in their hair.
Strolling in the opposite direction is an equally thick line of boys making bold comments amongst themselves, but glancing only shyly at the girls.
My friend's wheelchair finds a good place at a cafe's pigskin table where his mother and I can relax in large, barrel-shaped chairs, also of pigskin, called equipales. My house is furnished with them. They're beautiful and cheap, and I have been taught how to treat new ones with water and wax and hot sun to make them dark, shining with the rich patina of old leather book bindings. My friend and his mom want to know all about this.
Something is happening while I explain. Something is in the air. All of us become less interested in what I have to say as we see the opposing lines of young people slow down to scarcely any movement at all. Their bodies sway. We become aware of darting eyes, and of a subtle change in the music--from festive to romantic.
Then, as if on some unheard, unseen command, the file of girls breaks with joyful cries, and young ladies swarm among the delighted males. Popping sounds explode all around us. The girls are cracking brightly colored eggs on the noggins of the boys they have chosen during the long, slow march of observation beforehand. The young men thus honored bow and offer their arms. The newly formed couples retire to their families' tables to dine on antojitos--an assortment of tacos, enchiladas, tamales, and the like.
A stunningly lovely girl marches boldly toward our table where she pauses only an instant before cracking a painted egg squarely on top of my friend's
head. Of course, it's a hollow egg, and what spills out on his shoulders is colorful paper confetti. She kisses him daringly on the cheek and whirls in a pirouette which ends in a pretty curtsey. Everyone around us bursts into spontaneous applause. Suddenly embarrassed, the young lady melts back into the crowd and disappears.
My friend glows as I have never seen him do.
"It must be my good looks," he says, lifting his beer to the sky.
Cincinnati, Ohio, 1949:
We gather outside at the foot of the porch stairs, looking uncomfortable in our new clothes. I sometimes think that's what Easter's all about--everything new to show off at church. This woolen suit scratches wherever it touches my flesh, and my shoes are too darn tight. They say you should buy shoes that are comfortable in the store, but that never works for me. If I do, they flop off in a week and leave blisters on my heels. If new shoes don't cramp my dogs the first few times, they're no good, I say. After all, isn't suffering supposed to be good for the sole? Ha! Get it?
My girlfriend thinks I'm pretty funny. That's why she's asked me to go to church with her family today. "Oh, you're a blast!" she says. "I never can stop giggling when you're around, Brockman!"
Her mom likes me, and her brother, too, and even her dad.
Hey, here she comes, slow as molasses, out the door and down the stairs. Wow, would you look at that! Her arms are sticking straight out like a zombie's. "I'm drying my nails," she says, "so I can put on my gloves." She's wearing a small green straw hat with a big green silk flower hanging off the edge and a green mesh veil that ends around her upper lip. She isn't blinking an eye. "You got a stiff neck?" I ask. "Oh, silly, don't make me laugh!" she answers. "If I move my head, the veil will smear my pancake makeup!"
Boys have got used to this in the late 1940s. Every girl in school whips out a compact and smears that pasty stuff on her face between classes. God, I'm
glad I'm a man!
She's wearing a tight yellow jacket with elbow-length sleeves and big pink buttons down the front. The purple orchid I bought her is pinned to the shoulder. And look at those ruby red lips! I wonder if that's O.K. for church. Her mother wonders, too. "Dear, I think you've overdone the lipstick," the mom says, "and don't trip on that skirt."
The full skirt, vivid with panels in pink, lemon, lime and gray, reaches almost to her ankles. It bubbles out like a hot-air balloon as she floats down the stairs. I can see the ankle bracelet I gave her--with our names inscribed. It shines under the shimmering green nylon stocking on the left leg, just above the ankle strap of the rose-colored, high-heel shoe.
Nobody has to tell me she's been inspired by Christian Dior's famous "new look." It's almost the only style women can find in the stores, they say, 'cause it's had the greatest impact on fashion since Rosie the Riveter put on overalls, and Veronica Lake cut her hair. What an impression we're going to make at church!
At last we're face to face.
"How do I look?" she wants to know, blowing on her nails to help them dry.
Now it's time to make her laugh.
"Like an Easter egg!" I grin, the words rolling off my tongue like bombs from a B-17, which is the effect they seem to have.
She plops down on the bottom stair, buries her face in her hands and starts to bawl.
I'm not quite sure what I've done. Her brother is leaning against a tree, he's laughing so hard. Even her dad can't suppress a smile, but her mom doesn't look too happy. I figure I'd better smooth out the rough edges a bit.
"Come on," I say, "we'll be late for church. They've got to see you looking like this."
"Like an Easter egg?" she yells, leaping to her feet, her mascara newly smudged around her eyes, her lipstick smeared on the veil of her hat. "You can go
Whereupon, she stomps back up the stairs, marches into the house, and slams the door.
I fear this may be the end of our romance.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1965:
It's not actually Easter, but you wouldn't know that by looking at this float in Rio's carnaval parade. Carnival, like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, is at the starting end of Easter, with Lent and Good Friday in between.
I'm watching the floats in the home stretch as they pull up before the Municipal Palace to finish their shows. That's what they really are, little theaters on wheels, each telling a story or doing an act. There's one showing Cleopatra on her barge making out with Mark Anthony. What a woman! What a barge! The Brazilians are less reserved about such things than Americans. I still can't quite believe what I think I saw when the curtains parted as the float rumbled past.
But the one that tickles my fancy most is the Easter basket the size of a house, filled with marvelously decorated Easter eggs that pop open. Out jump
gorgeous Cariocas, as the girls from Rio are called, to jiggle delightfully to the tune of a samba band. They wear nothing but a G-string, rabbit ears, and
two bunny tails, mere puffs of white cotton. Yes, I said TWO, and they're not pasted to their behinds!
To tell the truth, the dancing Cariocas are not the best part. That honor goes to the little fat guy who runs alongside their float dressed like the Easter Bunny. He carries a basket of brightly colored eggs, and every naughty man or boy who tries to jump on board and join the girls gets one of those eggs right between the eyes.
Crack! Whoops! Oooey-gooey! I guess the Easter Bunny forgot that Easter eggs are supposed to be hard-boiled!
Bombay, India, 1958: I'm staying at a medical college hostel with student friends on the grounds of a public hospital in Bombay. I've been living in their style, sleeping on velvety mats on the concrete floor and using a pebble-filled pillow for my head. I've never slept better in my life.
I eat the way they do, too, meaning curried this and curried that--which is great, but I've gone and burned my stomach out. There's no shortage of medical opinion around here, so I've been reliably told to go on a month-long diet of scrambled eggs on toast, with soothing French pastry on the side. Some diet! But nobody around here scrambles eggs, the bread is closer to a tortilla or a pita pocket than to Wonder Wheat, and France is far away.
There is, however, a solution at hand. One of my Hindu friends has a sister with a small cafe downtown. She herself is the cook and knows how to do it
Western style. She even makes French pastry. I've been to Paris. She actually does a better job! As for the eggs, the crusty toast is sliced from aromatic, fresh-baked bread, and the eggs have been aged one or two days before cooking, which is just to my taste. I hate them nest-fresh.
I'm making real progress now. Soon I'll be back on curry again. They tell me that after this treatment, I'll have an Indian stomach, which I take to mean cast iron.
It's Easter Sunday morning. Here I sit in the cafe at a circular table with my Hindu friends. They ask to hear the story of Easter, so I tell it as best I can. They applaud when Jesus steps out of the tomb.
Here comes the sister, bearing a huge platter holding scrambled
eggs on toast for all. I see her coming, but I don't believe my eyes. I look again and stand for a better view. Yes, she has tinted them in colors enough to make the Easter Bunny proud--a patch of blue here, a patch of green there, a patch of scarlet, and the natural yellow, too. Surely it's the prettiest plate of scrambled eggs I ever saw.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry, but my instincts take over, and I do a bit of both. The cook is very pleased.
"I have been told of your lovely custom," she says. "I hope I have made you good Easter eggs."
I assure her whole-heartedly that she has.
When the meal is over, finished off with p'tisseries as elegant and delicious as those of the Tour d'Argent on a bank of the Seine, one of the Hindu chaps leans back in his chair and sighs, "Very nice, my friend, but I don't think I could eat Western food every day!"
Provincia di Teramo, Italy, 1960:Our nearby village crests a hill and has stood there for a millennium and more. From a town professor's window the other night, I watched pilgrims march
through the valley to take part in a Good Friday evening mass in the square. There were five thousand of them, farmers one and all, carrying huge, lighted candles. They circled up from the valley, softly chanting an ancient hymn. Their shining faces reflected more than candlelight. Having lived awhile among
them, I know how seriously these contadini take religious holidays, which here are undiluted by commercial interests, unlike those in the cities.
Now it is Easter Sunday morning, and a potential tragedy is in progress. Marcella, who is nine, has offered her life in exchange for that of her twenty-day-old, milk-fed lamb, scheduled for execution before we all leave together for the Easter pageant and parade in the village. Her offer refused, she has run into the yard with a sharp knife in her hand, her hair disheveled, her black dress torn in the furious struggle of wresting the knife from her father's hand.
Such lambs, truly only twenty days old, are traditional Easter fare in this area of Italy, as are suckling pigs in parts of Spain. They are tender, light in flavor, and are often cooked with eggs, Parmesan cheese, garlic, fresh mint and spring peas. I saw a line of them--pathetic, tiny, spindly-legged creatures-- in front of the village butcher shop yesterday, brought there by farm wives and kids expressly for sale and slaughter, a means of making a poor family's ends meet.
"Not my darling!" cries Marcella, passing the knife dangerously near her throat as if ready to slash herself to death as she has seen her father do to countless rabbits, squirrels, lambs and pigs destined for her mother's table. She has decided that here the carnage must end. Her father, who adores her, begs her not to do anything rash as he tries to approach her, but she warily backs away for she knows he must remain her stern, unyielding dad. The children of isolated, ancient peoples learn the mores young. Her mother stands in the doorway moaning, wringing the apron at her waist, absolutely powerless at a moment like this when the father figure is in command.
I am no more than a neighbor --a crazy foreigner at that. I have come to join them for the trek into town.
I watch Marcella in silence from the gateway. Rage and fear have turned the face of this sweet, shy child into that of a scarlet demon. She is my student. I know that she has her father's stubborn streak, and none of her mother's weakness. Given the insidiously patriarchal nature of this society, in which a woman may be struck dead by a male family member whom she displeases, Marcella's rebellion ranks her with Joan of Arc for courage. Her father, of course, would never do such a thing. Still, she is a foolish child who might well hurt herself badly if nothing more than by accident. I see that very fear in her daddy's eyes. The knife she wields is sharp, a killing tool.
God, I pray silently, give me an answer fast! He does. I suddenly notice that the lamb in question is a mere arm's length away. I realize that Marcella has positioned herself between it and the executioner. Reaching out, I snatch Baby Lambchops to my breast. It nuzzles my neck as if
suckling its mother's teat.
"I have it, Marcella," I say as gently as I can, fearing a male voice from behind might terrorize her unnecessarily. "It will be safe with me."
The girl looks around, sees me clutching her lamb, drops the knife, and bursts into tears. Her mother rushes to embrace her and to moan even more. Her
father dares not make so obvious a display of his own relief, but communicates it in the grateful look he casts toward me. He has been freed from an impossible, moral bind. No man of his ken gives way to a child. The foreigner can handle it now.
I mediate a truce. I tell them we have a superb smoked ham at my house which I had meant to present to Marcella as my best English student (a white lie), and it will serve as an even better dinner than the lamb (they could never afford such a ham), with the understanding that Marcella can keep Baby Lambchops as a pet. I remind them also that it is Easter, a day to celebrate life. They have begun to feel good about it all. Her father will even allow me to buy Marcella an ice cream sandwich in town. She has never had ice cream in her life, it being considered out here as an expensive city food beyond the means of a peasant farmer. "Mustn't spoil her too much, you know," her poppa grins, touching her hair. He is speaking the truth if she is to live out her life in these parts.
We have a wonderful time at the parade. It's especially exciting for Marcella as she gets to wear a colorful costume for her role in the religious pageant performed on the steps of the village church. I have never seen her wear anything but black. She is radiant with happiness, knowing her lamb is frolicking carefree in the yard at home.
After the day's events are done, Marcella and two of her five brothers, aged eleven and thirteen, who are also English students of mine, come over to
play with my dachshunds, whom they have dubbed the "salami twins." Marcella has wisely left her pet lamb at home. He's a bit too skittish for the dachshunds' comfort.
"I have a special treat for you," I say, "something I haven't seen anywhere today."
I bring from the closet a neat little basket handcrafted by the woman of the house for this occasion. An open napkin conceals its contents. I place it before them in the middle of the kitchen table. We have no electricity in this farmhouse, which was already old when their Italian compatriot, Christopher Columbus, sailed the ocean-sea. Their questioning faces glow in the light from a fire on the open hearth. Eyes wide with childish expectancy, they sit waiting breathlessly for my next move.
All three have filled important roles in the church pageant this afternoon. The kindly village priest has let them keep the costumes overnight. Naturally, they still have them on.
Thus does it come to pass that in the presence of John the Baptist, Mary Magdalen, and Joseph of Arimathaea, I lift the veil away from a dozen brightly colored objects which inspire the holy threesome to let loose irreverent hoots of delight.
"It wouldn't be Easter," I tell them, "without Easter eggs!"