At 5:30 on Easter morning, my cell phone’s alarm stirred me from a dream. I was not going to miss this year’s sunrise service, where I was to be one of the women at the tomb, in this case, a real tomb in a historic cemetery.
I have always puzzled at the oddity of Easter with its declaration of resurrection, its mix of bunnies and eggs, its costumes and customs. To admit this is not to reveal a lack of faith but to admit the certainty of contradictions. People I love dearly may not grasp why I might consent to re-enacting the scene at the tomb of Jesus. For them “He is risen” is explained away as sheer chicanery, a public relations scam, hallucinations, death denial. Dead is dead.
Would I rise for a sunrise service, just because I was asked to play a part? I might. I don’t voluntarily walk about to see the sun replace the moon.
I parked in the Napa Auto Parts parking lot, crossed the street, and took a service bulletin from my friend Tom. Walking along the winding path through the cemetery, I noted how grave sites dipped and grandfather trees gripped the earth. Water and age had erased names and dates from limestone markers. My companions and I wondered which tomb to approach; there were so many that matched the description, “It’s the one toward the fence on the right.”
I was thinking, It’s odd to be walking among worn grave markers looking for some sign of what is called Lapsley’s tomb, where it is said, the first Presbyterian church was established in my city. I wasn’t attending to where my feet might stray when suddenly my right foot slipped off the sidewalk’s high edge, and I went plowing forward into the muddy grass. Covered by a long black raincoat, my Easter outfit was spared. I looked around to see who had witnessed my indignant fall. Using the service bulletin, I wiped away the mud on my hands. I wasn’t hurt. I had fallen in a graveyard, in a garden of stones beneath oak and maple trees–me, the one who avoids cemeteries in general, the one who relishes a lazy two cups of morning coffee, the one who eschews attention.
During some wait time when I could have been praying or remembering hymns, I intentionally tried to escape from a mental collage of contrary images. On one hand, a celebratory pageant unfolded before me, and on the other, flashes of odd Easter memories competed with the given moment.
I was eight years old in a yellow Easter dress and hat. After church, my family had arrived at my Aunt Meryl’s place where my father’s family planned an Easter picnic, the old fashioned kind in the yard, blankets on the lawn, a potluck of fried chicken, baked beans, potato salad, deviled eggs, cole slaw, pickles, and cherry pie. The apricot trees were blooming and the blue wisteria hung over the pergola. My aunt hugged me while I secretly squirmed. “How nice you look in your Easter outfit. You are so pretty when you wear a dress. I don’t think jeans are becoming on girls.” She lifted my hat. “What a lovely hat.” She ran her fingers through my hair. “I don’t like your hair short like this. You must ask your mother to allow it to grow longer.”
I was nine. It was early. I was waiting for breakfast and thinking about our planned Easter egg hunt. I heard a strange scream, not quite human. Our second story breakfast room had wrap around windows that overlooked a lawn that fell away to a terraced garden filled with spring flowers. Looking through the windows, I searched through the apple tree’s leaves for the cause of the eerie scream. Our beloved dog, a spaniel mix, had in its mouth my pet rabbit Snowball and was shaking the life out of it. Red splattered snowball’s white fur. “Mommeeeee!” I cried.
I was thirteen. My mother had been dead six months. For Easter my father had bought me a navy and pink cotton dress and my first heels. We waited in the car for my brothers to reluctantly emerge from the house in sports coats and ties. They hated dressing up and church bored them. Daddy was sad but determined. This was the first Easter following our mother’s death in an airline crash. To feminize me and soften the day, Daddy had enlisted a motherly friend. And mostly it worked though the lilies gave me a headache and I worried over resurrections and struggled with life after death fears and wishes. My brothers looked miserable but behaved. It was the best we could do.
My children were young, my son just a toddler, my daughters three and five. My friend Mildred had made smocked Easter dresses for my girls. The girls jockeyed for Easter eggs hidden in the grass and ate chocolate eggs for breakfast. We laughed because our cocker spaniel had sat among the daffodils and sniffed them. The Easter service resonated love and hope. We held our own picnic in the sunshine of our backyard. I felt lifted, surrounded by love and life. That week I painted our cocker sniffing the daffodils. The painting is still a family favorite.
Life played out. I divorced. The girls went to universities. My son was waiting for scholarship offers. Herb Simmons and I were dating. On Easter Herb and I went to an outdoor sunrise service, the day began brightly and grew warm. I had learned to live as they say “in the moment.” I had no idea what lay ahead but had accepted God’s constant presence. “Do not be afraid. I will always be with you.” This is what I heard in my head as Herb and I walked hand in hand that morning.
And now, here I was standing before Lapsley’s tomb while waiting on our pastor to arrive, and again I was aware –“Lo, I will be with you, always.” — even though my thoughts were split.
I suppressed an urge to laugh: our pastor in his flowing white robe had suddenly retreated to his car and driven away. He had forgotten the copies of songs for the service. And now we waited, Lapsley’s concrete vault before us, our cold hands in our pockets, our shoes wet with dew.
Later, over coffee at church a friend from my previous life introduced me to her husband as Diane Eison. Standing with us was a mutual friend who at church has known me only as Diane Simmons. “You’re Diane Eison!?” As in the Diane Eison. Well, sometimes, it’s best not to ask too many questions, so I did finally laugh at that truth and all the rest, the absurd contradictions and the absolute certainties.