Gathering Together We Celebrate

Spring is Sprung 19         On Easter after church, we usually went to dinner with my Great Aunt Alice in her big house next door to the cottage my parents rented from her. She would have a beautiful table with gleaning silver, fragile china and sparkling crystal goblets set in the large dining room she used for formal occasions. Once the soup course was done and dishes removed, people brought in to help, carried around platters of meat and dishes of vegetables. These would be followed by dessert and finally, finger bowls with a sprig of green lemon verbena floating in them. The silver candy dishes with chocolates I eagerly eyed all through the meal were finally passed around.

This weekend holds Easter, a Christian Holiday and Pesach or Passover, a Jewish one. Both are important in the tradition of family gatherings.  Both have an element of ritual that is central to the celebration. Carl Jung the eminent psychologist taught us about what he called the collective unconscious. Briefly stated this is a kind of universal memory that underlies all of human consciousness. It is not individual– what we remember for ourselves, but comprised of the memories encoded in symbols, of the whole human race.

The collective unconscious is like a vast rich sea in which each of us is a drop. We swim in it, and thus make our connection to the psychic history of humanity. The symbols and rituals of the holidays are present within it. These provide pathways that we honor with our traditions. For instance, eggs are a universal symbol of fertility. They are found in myths from all over the world. The use of eggs in Easter baskets goes back to Germany. It was brought to this country by settlers in Pennsylvania.

The gathering for the ritual recitation of the history of the Exodus at Passover is another important connection to the past. Known as a Seder, it recreates the connection to Jewish peoples of history. The Easter bunny, actually originally a hare is an ancient symbol associated with the Moon. Both Easter and Pesach are full moon based, rather than on a fixed date. Lilies grow from bulbs, symbolic of regeneration and rebirth.  Spring the season we celebrate Easter and Passover is when new growth, even before the sprouting of last year’s seeds, emerges from bulbs. We wear new clothes to symbolize this newness.

As we come together to celebrate, we are connecting to one another. As well we are expressing humanity’s roots. Our ancient religions and spiritual paths, even those lost to history live again in our minds and hearts. Yes, there are reasons we celebrate linked to historical events, and yes there are links within us to peoples and even to places in our distant past that we are part of through the symbols and rituals we incorporate. The chocolate rabbits, the marshmallow chicks, the flowers and feasts, even the lovely Easter hats are of greater significance to us than we might think, for our celebration is enhanced by these echoes from our shared human history.

Celebrating the New Season of Life

Peacae Village Forsythia 1When I was a young child Easter was an exciting time. I got to wear new clothes and a big straw hat. I remember one with a pretty grosgrain ribbon around it. The ribbon hung down in the back and in my memory it is blue. At Christmas and Easter we attended my father’s church as well as my mother’s. I liked his best. Not only did they sing hymns but also at Easter geraniums lined the church driveway for children like me to take home after the service. Then we would go to a relative’s for lunch and there would be candy after dessert. My mother did not approve of candy so we seldom had it at home unless someone brought it. That was my Easter celebration.

Easter and spring are synonymous. From time immemorial people have found ways to celebrate the coming of the warmer, lighter days and the passing of the dark, cold ones. When primitive cultures worshipped personalities that embodied seasons, they honored their gods and goddesses of spring, summer, fall and winter. Celebrations throughout the world centering on spring, especially in cold climates, had much in common with today’s Christian Easter.

The rising of Christ from the dead ends the period of self-deprivation or fasting known as Lent. The rebirth of the garden and the growth of new life is echoed in the Christian Easter observance. In the days before refrigeration and supermarkets, because the garden and the fields were bare and brown Lent was observed willy-nilly. In the cold climates all there was to eat were stored, dried vegetables, roots and grains. Nothing green was available. The growth of the first plants was something to be hailed as individuals foraged and found fresh vegetable matter to eat after the long winter months.

There was great cause to rejoice in the coming of the longer light and the warmer days. Different cultures evolved their own observances centering around their own deities and beliefs. Many of these customs have come down to us and are part of our observances today. The ways we celebrate our Easter, similar to our Christmas celebrations have become a conglomeration of the various cultures from which we derive our present day civilization. However they are all a reflection of the original reasons to celebrate: the coming of a time of growth and renewal after a period of hardship and sacrifice.

These customs all contain the affirmation that growth and change will proceed uninterrupted, and that the ultimate harvest will be a good one. The bunny that brings the Easer basket is Germanic in origin, a favorite of the goddess of spring. The symbolic eggs too come from there, as well as from other places representing symbols of new life. When you buy marshmallow Peeps or chocolate eggs, you echo the innocence of that beginning. The purchase of new clothes too is symbolic as is the Easter feast common to most families. What seems meaningful is not how we celebrate but that as from time immemorial we acknowledge the wonderful coming of warmer weather and brighter days for all.

Living With Small Deaths

by Tasha Halpert

My earliest experience with the death of a pet happened when I was too young to remember it. It became a family story my mother was fond of telling. The way she told it, when I was almost four my parents won a turkey in a raffle, brought it home and kept it in a cage in the yard. I was fond of the turkey and named it Tuty. At Thanksgiving as planned, the turkey was killed, plucked stuffed and roasted. As family and guests gathered to eat and my dad was carving the turkey I piped up: “Where is my Tuty? I want my Tuty.”  After that no one wanted any.

When I was small, death was not discussed in front of children. They were more sheltered than today’s children who from an early age see the adult world right before their eyes on television. I learned about it too, but in a way, first hand: seeing the small deaths around me. Baby ducks perished as they hatched; baby chickens accidentally drowned in the water pan; rabbits were attacked by a neighboring dog; and several dogs and cats were run over by cars speeding by our house.

My family lived in the country in a cottage on my Great Aunt Alice’s property. There were many animals, large and small whose living and dying were part of our everyday life. As a result death seemed to me to be quite natural. I mourned, yet not for long. There were always more animals to pat and to play with. I confess that sometimes I was not nice to them. The cat did not like it when I dressed her in doll clothes and tried to make her lie down in my doll bed. The dog did not appreciate this either. Sheeshee, a small white Spitz mix was gentle however, and did not, like the cat, protest too much or try to scratch me. She lived with us a good long time and was much loved. I have no memory of her passing, which makes me wonder if perhaps I was away at school then.

She managed to have two puppies when she was quite young and before my parents had her spayed. Peloto was left behind in Florida where he was born on a working vacation we spent there with my father. Tallahassee lived with us until tragically he was hit by a truck right in front of me. The driver, terribly upset drove the dog and me to the veterinarian to see if Tallahassee could be saved. I remember holding him on my lap and feeling very sad. His internal injuries were too severe for him to continue to live. I buried him with ceremony. Somehow even though I never attended a real funeral until I was 12, I seemed to know about reverently burying a loved animal and praying over its grave.

Our rabbits provided an experience of both birth and death. They were kept in a hutch outdoors. I remember asking my mother one day why one of them wouldn’t come out of the little house that sheltered them from bad weather. She showed me the infant rabbits that were emerging from their mother. That was wonderful to see and I was thrilled. After that I understood where babies came from although not how they got in there. Having animals helps children learn about these things naturally and under gentle conditions. When my children were small they had guinea pigs that helped them learn these important facts of life.

I believe we had the rabbits a year or two. Then somehow a fierce dog got in and mangled the ones he did not kill. When I was told the wounded rabbits were to be “put to sleep” by Carl, my great aunt’s gardener, I was very upset. In tears I walked past the boundaries of our property so as not to hear him shoot them. I remember that for this act of disobedience I was sent to my room without supper and made to go to bed early. Although I missed the rabbits, I did not mourn them for long. I was always encouraged to get over my grief quickly, and usually I did.

Life and death had their place, and so did religion. Each Sunday I accompanied my mother to her Catholic church while my dad went to his Protestant one. On Easter, Christmas and special occasions we also went to his. Although I found my mother’s simple Catholic church to be bleak and cheerless, I enjoyed my visits to my dad’s comfortable Episcopalian one;. Needing my own church for myself  I created one where I could go and pray when I wished.

I chose a corner outdoors between the chimney and the wooden wall of the small potting shed and greenhouse where Carl the gardener started plants for my Great Aunt’s garden. To substitute for the hard wooden kneeling benches of my mother’s church, I collected moss to kneel on. I used a brick for an altar and tied two sticks to make a wooden cross. On the other side of the chimney I created a cemetery where I buried small animals and birds as well as one of our cats. That church was my place of comfort. I often went there to talk to God. I also developed a small graveyard where I buried  baby chicks and ducks as well as a cat and dog that had perished.

My mother loved her animals. At one time she had two goats. Ebony, the larger of the two was very fond of Mama. The other escaped her tether and ate grass sprayed with arsenic from under my Great Aunt’s apple trees. They told me about her death but did not show her to me. I was often shielded from what was harsh or ugly. Ebony lived quite a long time and even though she had never been bred she used to give milk.

My great Aunt kept chickens as did we. I remember as a very young child being pinned down by a huge rooster that somehow escaped the coop and threatened to attack me as I walked through the apple orchard. Eventually someone came to my rescue and shooed the bird away. Chickens were food, not pets, so there was no sorrow associated with their demise.When they were to be eaten Carl used to kill them. He would cut off their heads with an ax and they would run around the yard headless. Then my mother valiantly plucked the feathers from the warm bird and either roasted or boiled it, depending on the age.

When I was six or seven it became my job to take care of our chickens. I didn’t mind doing it in the summer. There was a convenient faucet near the chicken coop where I could fill their water holder. However, in winter the water faucet was turned off so it wouldn’t freeze. I had to lug heavy pails of water as well as buckets of grain and mash all the way from the barn to the chicken house fifty feet or more away. This was how I earned my allowance so I didn’t dare slack off.

One March I had a brilliant idea. The hen house was close to a marsh that flooded every spring. Daily I filled their water bucket from this convenient source. A couple of weeks later our chickens began to die. At first no one knew why. Then my father called me into the living room. It seems Carl had seen me as I filled the bucket. I expect I was punished. Probably I lost my allowance for a time, though I don’t remember. I did feel very sorry for what I had done to the poor chickens. My parents were even more upset because they couldn’t eat them. I was reminded of that for years.

Worse than the death of Tallahassee was what happened to my mother’s dog Nicky. I was four or five at the time, and I did not eat with my parents but earlier, in my room. I remember the experience vividly. Nicky was my mother’s cherished black and white border collie. He was a bit rambunctious and tended to wander so we weren’t to let him out unattended. One day I accidentally let him out. I was upstairs eating when my mother rushed in. “Nicky’s dead and it’s all your fault.” She sobbed. It seemed that before he could be retrieved a delivery truck pulling into Aunt Alice’s driveway had hit him.

I remember that my mouth opened and the green peas I had just put in spilledback onto my plate. I began to cry. I felt guilty for Nicky’s death for a long time. However, he wasn’t the last dog for whose death I was responsible. Years later when I was driving down a snow banked highway at about 40 miles an hour with my children in the back seat, a great big German shepherd came running  right down the middle of the highway toward me. I couldn’t stop, and I couldn’t avoid the dog. Had I tried to swerve to the right or the left I would have hit a snow bank. I had three small children in the car. I had no choice.

Afterward I stopped my car and went back to get the dog’s collar so I could tell the owner. I dragged the body to the side of the road and drove home. I had made sure to hit the dog hard enough to kill it because otherwise it would have been crippled or maimed and suffered terribly. I felt dreadful. Yet I could not risk my children’s lives to try to save the dog. When I explained the owner thanked me. Apparently the dog had gotten out and had followed his truck. He was not upset with me and I was grateful. While I felt sad I did not feel guilty.

Death is part of life. Life is part of death. I learned this at an early age. Sometimes we cannot help causing the death of a loved pet. Sometimes we have to choose death over life because it is the best choice in a situation. Sometimes we have no choice because we simply do not know any better. I have spent many years of my life learning to be as conscious of my actions and their consequences as I could. Death seems to have followed me even as I have reached out to embrace it when need be. Animals are with us for a short time. Perhaps they are our teachers about the necessity for death. Perhaps we can learn from them to embrace it when it comes to us, knowing that we too are a part of creation and that like them we return to the Source.

ImageSt. Stephen’s Church, Bologna by Tasha Halpert