by Perla Gonzalez-Chavira
Traditions in my family were rooted in what my mother would do for a holiday, be it Christmas, Independence Day or Easter. Easter, in particular, was a very interesting holiday, because my mother was a descendant of Sephardic Jews, and she herself knew little about her roots. My father was agnostic and I was born in Mexico, a predominantly Catholic country, where celebrating Easter was a massive undertaking. I remember Easter more vividly that any other celebration, because it was then that I found myself growing closer to my mother, especially when she was preparing our home and meals for this holiday.
Easter was a time for cleaning our house from top to bottom. This deep house cleaning occurred only once a year, and the work and effort that it took was exhausting. Rooms were cleaned according to a system that Mamá Flavia, my grandmother, had taught my mother when she was a child. The bedrooms were cleaned first, storage areas and living rooms were next and finally the kitchen, which required the most detailed and grueling work. I must admit that I was never so keen on cleaning my own room, however, for I feared that by moving furniture I would surely disturb any creepy crawlies of any size and any shape imaginable. But I always found so much comfort and delight when I unearthed toys and notebooks that had been lost for ages, from under the bed, that even a grumpy dusted spider could not lessen my joy. My mother would often remind us what Mamá Flavia told her; those evil creatures dwelled under filth, and that a house must first be cleaned before the cooking could begin.
So, once again it was that time when my mother would hand me five pesos and tell me to get a little bottle of olive oil and a jar of Spanish green olives. And she would remind me to get them from the old man’s shop, which stood next to the florist’s stand. I really liked shopping at this store because this old man’s kind face and sweet smile reminded me so much my grandfather, only he had blue eyes. And he will always give me a paper cone filed with animal crackers that tasted so good on the way home. It was only once a year that my mother bought olive oil and Spanish green olives to make Mamá Flavia’s Norwegian dried cod for Easter. My mother would desalt the cod several days in advance in a pan filled with water. She would also place an inverted heavy dish onto the fish to hold it down in place.
I remember returning home to find the chopped onions and the piles of red plum tomatoes running with fresh juices on the cutting board, and the aroma of Easter wafting through the entire house. I remember dragging a chair to where my mother was preparing the fish, and I would stand on the chair next to her and marvel at her hands dripping with tomato juice. Her swaying body would move rhythmically with every stroke of the knife. The smell of fried onions and garlic infused the entire house as I proudly stirred the frying pan. But what I loved most was listening to my mother speak quiet words that I could not understand. When I asked what they meant, she would only smile, and she would hold my face in her hands and kiss my forehead, urging me to continue stirring the pan. My mother will softly say that during this time, we should reflect on Jesus’ Crucifixion and not to be angry or mean with our siblings.
The buzzing of the prominent Catholic town where I lived made Easter more interesting with its fairs and vendors of candies and fruits. The constant movement of the crowds hurrying to mass at the sound of the tolling bells made Easter full of excitement and fun. However, my mother strongly opposed the church’s depiction of Jesus’ Crucifixion, which the faithful took part in every year.
My mother could not understand why it was necessary to relive a sad moment every Easter. My mother believed that once the body dies, the body must be buried and remembered in your mind and prayers only. And she would not allow my siblings or me to go see the rendition of the Crucifixion or even hear about it from other people. My mother’s resolve became even stronger, when unbeknownst to her, my older brother sneaked out the house and went to the church to see it. When he came home he could not stop talking about what he had seen. And it made my younger siblings so upset that they were constantly tearful and terrified of the man “crucified” on the cross.
Of all the holidays that my mother ever celebrated, Easter was the most meaningful to me. I loved the anticipation of the holiday, the cleaning and the constant cooking and the quiet soft singing by my mother. These events reinforced my love for her and fortuitously taught me about her heritage. My mother unconsciously kept her ancestral tradition in new nontraditional ways that had slowly morphed to accommodate her life, a life that was neither Sephardic nor Catholic. This allowed me to connect with a history and culture that we both longed to know, by preparing our house, with the aromas that only her Easter traditions could bring.