As mystifying as our children's innocent passions for the unctuous or
saccharine stations of childhood -- Rainbow Brite ponies,
late-career Raffi -- are our own early, misguided tastes. As a kid, I
blissed out every Easter on Peeps, those squat chorus
lines of yellow marshmallow chicks, now available to a new generation of
candy fiends in chick and bunny forms and in a variety of
unappetizing colors (purple bunnies, turquoise chicks -- the mind and
stomach reel). In my lurid youth I could eat a whole package of them at a
sitting, deftly picking shreds of Easter grass from their sticky sides,
though I was so charmed by their chickie shape that on occasion I made them
into toys, poking pipe-cleaner legs into their undersides and propping them
on furniture in my doll house. My brothers and I conducted scientific
taste-tests on the relative qualities of peepish marshmallow over time: How
hard would they get after a week? Two weeks? If you waited until Halloween?
I took a bite of Peep again recently, a nod to my fond remembrance of Peeps
past. Yes, I felt the enamel on my teeth curl back like wood shavings, and
no, I can't say that I swooned Proust-like with the exquisite pleasure of
memory. Believe me, I will peep no more forever. But one particular scrim
of my childhood did rise up before me. Peeps of aggressive
sweetness, unvanquishable multiplicity and radioactive color schemes reminded me: A
passion for Peeps ended my age of innocence.
Easter was my favorite holiday as a child. I loved the new dresses and
white lace-cuffed socks and slick Mary Jane shoes and the big fat basket
overflowing with bad candy. I was also an extremely pious little girl who'd
taken first Communion early because our parish priest had singled me out to
the nuns and the rest of the catechism class as a true student of God. I
felt the great, pompous weight of my holiness when I became a communicant,
and I remember lying in bed on Saturday nights concocting bogus confessions
designed to make me look noble in the eyes of the Lord: "Forgive me,
Father, for I have sinned. I planned to save my artichoke heart for my
little brother, but I was so weary from helping my mother change the cat
litter that I forgot and ate it myself. What should my penance be?"
As self-righteous and ultimately cynical as I was, I still believed
in the Easter Bunny and other assorted magical agents of childhood bounty.
(In a bizarre theological misapprehension, I decided that the Easter Bunny
was actually some sort of understudy for the Lamb of God, who I assumed was too
frail and bandy-legged to make the Easter egg rounds.)
For most of my young life we spent every Easter at the sunny home of my
mother's aunt, who lived at the top of an oak-dotted hill across the bay from San
Francisco. There was always a massive egg hunt for the kids before the
whole family and lots of friends and neighbors gorged on a buffet of ham
and scalloped potatoes. Later in the afternoon, everyone stripped off their
holiday finery and lounged around the pool, the adults holding their
sweat-beaded cocktail glasses aloft and surreptitiously lifting jelly beans
from nearby baskets, the kids wrapped in sopping towels reading Archie
comics on the hot pavement or playing loud, splashy games of Marco Polo.
Easter at my great-aunt's house was, to my mind, truly miraculous: When I
was 4, my older brother found a trembling black-and-white bunny in his
basket; another year, my cousin Peggy got a long-legged baby goat wearing a
wide satin ribbon and chewing through the rope that tied it to the pool
house door. Another time my big cousin Mark took us one by one into his
bedroom, where a Great Dane puppy was sleeping in a wicker dog bed, safe
from the hubbub of the egg hunt outside.
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The year I turned 7 I was sure it was my big Easter year. I was the
next oldest kid in the clan; at the very least it was my turn to get a real
live animal. I'd had my first Communion triumph and something profound was
sure to happen to me. My grandmother had driven me up to Aunt Helen's on
Good Friday, and until my mother arrived on Saturday I'd been too fawned
over by relatives to indulge the holy trinity of my flawed character --
greed, impatience and illicit curiosity -- by snooping around for muffled
bleats and chirps from behind closed doors, or to look for telltale clues
that I was the most virtuous, deserving and rewardable child in the family.
Somehow I found myself unchaperoned late on Saturday afternoon; my mother
had arrived and she and my grandmother and my aunt had disappeared. My
cousin Peggy had gamely painted my fingernails and then taken a powder; who
knows where my uncle was. And this is where memory becomes distinct: the
late sunlight slanting through the bathroom window next to Peggy's bedroom.
The cool shaded green of her floral wallpaper. The frilly blue tuxedo shirt
and lumpy neck acne of her junior prom date in the photograph on her
dresser. The collapsing stack of Seventeens on the floor of her dark
closet, and behind them, me poking around until I find a brown grocery bag
of plastic eggs and, on top, the flimsy cardboard carton of marshmallow
Peeps, which I am holding when I hear footsteps and suddenly I am trapped
unseen in Peggy's bedroom with my mother and my grandmother, and my mother's
voice is moving into the accusatory register of a conspiracy gone sour.
"But Mother," my own mother hissed, "how could you lose 40 Easter baskets?"
My grandmother once made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle for
absent-mindedly driving her car straight through the plate-glass window of
a drug store. In the newspaper photograph, she was holding her face in her
hands, like a doddering old-lady version of Edvard Munch's "The Scream."
This is how I picture her looking as my mother interrogated her about the
missing 40 Easter baskets, which had somehow dematerialized from the
trunk of her car.
Finding the Peeps in the closet had already muddied the waters of my
innocence. Snooping had netted me a bagful of Easter candy I hadn't
really wanted to find. I tried to convince myself that the Peeps
I'd found were just, well, maybe surplus candy from last year ... But
the conversation I was overhearing was really testing my faith.
My mother and my grandmother left the room, my mother muttering furiously
that the stores were already closed and she didn't know how they would
replace 40 baskets let alone all that candy, and I started praying.
Dear God, I prayed, please let that whole scene be a bad dream
and I promise to stop being such an insufferable child. You can forget the
pony -- just let there really be an Easter Bunny and I'll be good
forever. Or something to that effect.
Needless to say that a sleepless night finally faded into an
anxiety-plagued Easter morning, and when all of us kids were assembled
that afternoon for the annual egg hunt, fresh from church in our stiff
dresses and cinched-up seersucker pants, we found -- under the bushes,
down the crumbling chimney of the outdoor barbecue, tucked into windowsills
and hanging from the rafters over the patio -- baskets, but not the
wide-rimmed, beribboned wicker jobs we usually found. That year's baskets
were improvisations: grass-filled colanders and green plastic strawberry
containers, cracked sand pails and shoeboxes fitted with twine handles.
There were plenty of colored hard-boiled eggs in the flower beds, and here
and there a lonely marshmallow Peep or a plastic egg rattling with two or three
jelly beans inside. I lugged my sagging shopping bag-cum-Easter basket up
and down the hillside, grief-stricken, while Peggy's goat gnawed its way
out of its pen and slipped into the house undetected, where it ate an
entire toilet seat.
They'd asked me to accept that a sticky wafer sprinkled with wine was the
body and blood of Jesus Christ, who died for the sins of the world,
including my own. Yeah, right, said my sinful 7-year-old self. But
somehow, even 30 years later, I can take one bite of sugar-sprinkled
marshmallow and remember what it tasted like to believe.