This is a story about yeast.
Schools have been closed for three weeks when we enter into Holy Week. Playgrounds are shuttered; church has gone virtual. A friend of ours has moved away to be closer to family during the pandemic, and my eight-year-old daughter is absolutely indignant.
“Allison’s leaving?!?” my daughter expostulates—reminding me, as she so often does, of Posy from Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. “But I like going over to her house! Now who will do my nails? Who will play ‘Secret Passage’? Who will bake with me?!”
The day my friend leaves, she gives us the key to her house, telling us we are welcome in the now-empty space any time—with two parents trying to work from home, and five children ranging from kindergarten to 10th grade attempting virtual school, peace and quiet and space are at a premium. I’m not quite sure how to say “thank you” for this gift, so I settle for bringing her some asparagus.
“Thank you for the asparagus!” my friend says as I give it to her.
“Thank you for the house,” I reply.
♢ ♢ ♢
“What do you mean we can’t go to Grandma and Grandpa’s for Easter?” my 11-year-old son asks, incredulous. This information is so firmly outside his mental schema, as his special education team would say, that he isn’t able to process it. “We always go to Grandma and Grandpa’s on Easter. We have ham and pierogis and butter in the shape of a lamb. We have paska bread. How can we have Easter without paska bread?!”
Paska is Slavic for paschal, Easter. In the Eastern Rite Catholic tradition in which my father-in-law was raised, paska bread is a rich white bread, made with eggs, that adorns the Easter table in a place of honor. My father-in-law makes homemade paska bread every year from his grandmother’s recipe. It is a dyed-in-the-wool family tradition. And after almost 17 years of marriage, I, too, cannot imagine Easter without paska bread. For all of us, this is a loss.
For my son, this is Waterloo.
As we stumble through grief upon pandemic-fueled grief, sometimes it is the smallest losses that prove more than we can bear.
As we stumble through grief upon pandemic-fueled grief, sometimes it is the smallest losses that prove more than we can bear. My unbearable small loss this year is our annual Easter picture—my girls twirling in their Easter dresses; my boys glaring at me over top of their pastel ties. I decide we are going to take our Easter picture anyway, propping my phone on a ladder in the front yard and posing under our magnolia tree. My 11-year-old son, especially, hates this.
“Why are you making them put on their Easter outfits?” another friend asks me when I complain about my son’s total noncompliance with picture-taking. And she has a point. It’s not like we’re going to church this year.
Because, I write to my friend. You can take my Easter service. You can take “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” and the crucifer with the gold cross and the white altar cloth. You can take the special music and the Gospel processional and the scent of Easter lilies mingled with too much perfume. You can take the passing of the peace and the sermon (I might not miss that, actually) and Communion that goes on forever with a veritable parade of adorable children in Easter dresses and suits. You can take away Easter dinner, you can take away all the hugs and the joy and the celebration. You can take it all away. But you can’t take my Easter picture.
“I understand,” my friend writes back.
For me, it is the Easter picture. For my son, it is paska bread.
♢ ♢ ♢
We decide to try and make paska bread ourselves. Grandpa says he will do a video call. We will, somehow, make this work.
Except we don’t have yeast.
“I went to two different stores,” my husband tells me, despite the fact that our state has asked us to limit shopping trips and my husband, a stickler for rules with a background in virology, has been 100% compliant thus far. But there is no yeast to be found. I look online. Several places can ship me yeast…but not until after Easter. When I tell my son, he cries. “I can handle missing the rest of my fifth grade year and I can handle missing all the field trips and I can handle missing all of my friends,” he says, “but I can’t handle not having paska bread on Easter.”
I don’t have a way to fix this. I sit on the floor in our living room and we cry.
“Mommy!!!” my eight-year-old explodes into the room. “Allison has yeast!”
“What?” I say.
“Allison has yeast! At her house! In her kitchen! I know she does because I help her bake! E-mail her right now and see if we can use it!!”
My 11-year-old looks at me from under the avalanche of his sister’s exclamation points, his big eyes all round and shiny with hope. “Mom,” he says. “If Allison has yeast, we can make paska bread.”
My eight-year-old starts squealing and dancing around. I watch her, this impetuous, Posyish, wonderful child, and then I dry my tears and we e-mail Allison.
“Baby girl,” I tell my daughter as I type, “I think you might have just saved Easter.”
Of course, Allison has yeast. Of course, she says we can use it. I bike over to her empty house on Holy Saturday, through streets devoid of cars, to pick up a small brown jar of yeast that feels like an Easter promise. That afternoon, we do a video call with Grandpa, who talks us through the family recipe—written down by hand, and then scanned and e-mailed. My eight-year-old narrates a running commentary as we work: “It’s not sticky yet…it’s not sticky yet…it’s not sticky, Grandpa! …Oh, okay, now it’s sticky.” My 11-year-old helps shape the dough into four loaves and the house smells wonderful. Like an Easter promise fulfilled.
This is a story about yeast. And it’s also a story about Easter morning, when my family gathers for virtual church and breaks open a loaf of freshly-baked paska bread to be the Body of Christ, given for us…bread that tastes of family, and of friendship, of grace, and of hope.