Hats Off To Easter!

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My mother once told me what Easter evokes in her mind. She grew up in Lackawanna “on the other side of the tracks.” She’d work in my grandfather’s grocery store on Ridge Road. During the Easter season, as she walked up Ingham Avenue to her father’s shop, the alluring aroma of ethnic cooking wafted through her nostrils.

Those smells told you what neighborhood you were in—Polish, Italian, and a mixed ethnic conclave of everything from Mexican to Croatian. Even before getting her master’s degree in Home Economics, the teenage version of Lena had a nose for food. The yeasts were her favorite. From them, she could tell what type of bread each kitchen baked.

Arriving at her dad’s mom-and-pop supermarket, she entered an aromatic atmosphere that defined Easter, not just for her, but for nearly everyone of that era. The sweet scents of purple, pink & lavender hyacinths mixed with the perfumes of the tulips and lilies. My grandfather sold these potted flowers each Easter so families could adorn their festive tables with colorful centerpieces.

Fast forward a generation and the smells were still there. Only the tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils aren’t in pots. They’re planted along the front of the house between the sidewalk coming from the front door and the wall of pale yellow bricks. The flowerbed sat just below the four rectangular panel windows that open up to the parlor of the modest raised ranch home of my youth.

It’s funny. I don’t remember the smell of those tulips. I do remember the smell of the peat moss, soil, and fertilizer we used to plant those flowers. Those were my early training years in horticulture.

My father would take me and my brother Kenny to the Blasdell Nursery on South Park (tantalizingly close to Fran’n’Ceil’s custard stand). I can’t say Dad never took a detour for a quick ice cream cone before going to the nursery. It was one of those unexpected incentives that kept Kenny and me at the ready to accompany him. You never know when you’re going to get ice cream.

But that’s another story. This one’s about Easter.

Here’s the odd thing about Easter Sunday: Kenny and I never complained about dressing up. Little jackets. Little vests. Little red bow ties. To save money, my mother made the jackets for us. We hated that.

Don’t get me wrong. We had no problem getting dressed up in those clothes. We just hated the whole agonizing process of getting fitted for them.

But our most prized Easter apparel of all: little hats. Maybe it was because all the cool guys on TV wore hats. Maybe it was because my father and his father always wore hats. Who knows for sure why, but Kenny and I really wanted hats. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of places to get hats for three- and four-year-old boys. Not even the Holy Bible of merchandise—the Sears Catalog—offered the kinds of hats we wanted.

One day, my father had to pick up a suit at Kleinhans, a high-end men’s and boy’s clothing store in downtown Buffalo. We all went. Kenny and I were bored, which shouldn’t surprise you because we were three and four years old. We fidgeted and moaned. Until we found the hats. While my father was trying on his suit in the men’s department, we were in the next aisle over in the hat department, putting hats on our heads.

We went through the entire stock, trying on every display item until we settled on our favorites. Kenny picked something more of a cap than a hat. It was a fancy cap, akin to something a newsboy would wear in the early part of the century. I went upscale. I chose the fedora. It even fit my oversized head.

When my father had paid for his suit, our parents came to see what we were doing. Dad took one look at us in those little hats and thought, “that’s my boys.” Mom glared at us and thought, “mini-mobsters.”

You know all that money my parents saved because my mother sewed our jackets instead of buying them? Well, we blew it all on those hats. We were very excited to wear them for Easter. Despite my mother’s initial feelings, the family said it made me look like a little Sinatra. Of course, being only four, I thought he was just a singer. It wasn’t until much later that I heard the rumors about his mob connections.

We loved those suits our mother made, and we loved those hats. Easter morning, after breakfast, after the chocolate bunny hunt, and after eying (but not eating) the candy in our baskets, we donned that apparel and proceeded to hop like bunnies down the hall from our bedroom into the parlor. It was an odd way to prepare for Church, but, as you’ll see in a moment, we had to expend our Easter excitement before we went to Church.

Aside from the hat situation, we of course dyed eggs. It was always messy. Kenny tended to get the worst of it. Followed by my father, but only because his efforts to prevent Kenny from spilling the dye usually backfired. As for me, it wasn’t the sights of all those colors that drew me to the task. It was the smell. The smell of vinegar.

It seems my job every Easter was to put too much vinegar into the dyeing cups. At least I was consistent. I mean, have you ever tried my salad dressing?

Mmm. Vinegar.

Again, I digress.

For all the excitement of coloring eggs, Easter Mass never had the excitement of Christmas Mass. Maybe it was the arduous Passion of Christ read the week before on Palm Sunday. This lengthy Gospel was too much for our little legs. Though our parents sternly rebuked us from sitting, we couldn’t stand for the entire thing, which seemed like an hour long. We made up for it by kneeling for an hour in front of the wall at the end of the hallway when we got home.

That seriousness only prepared us to show more respect at Church the following Sunday as we celebrated Easter. As a kid, “celebrated” didn’t quite capture the feeling. While the birth of Christ inspired joy and anticipation, his death presented itself in a more solemn and respectful manner. Think of that classic Claymation television series Davey and Goliath. No matter what the topic, Davey was consistently a downer.

Before you get too far, we did eventually embrace a familiar tradition. We faithfully watched Charlton Heston lead his people through the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. At a 4-hour running length, sometimes it was often a two-night affair. We did the same with Ben Hur. But that didn’t occur until these films were on broadcast TV in the 1970s.

Still, one tradition has endured through the generations. Just as my mother remembers the nostril sensations of those many baking breads from the kitchens of Ingham Avenue, I, too, can’t spend an Easter without reliving the fragrance of anise (a key ingredient in those breads) coming from my mother’s kitchens on Abbott Parkway and Dortmund Circle. Today, my sisters join my mother in maintaining that tradition. And we all enjoy the fruits of those labors. Especially the bunny cake!

There’s one more tradition I’d like to mention. This one seems to have passed as the family has grown and the leftovers have diminished.

What do you do with all that uneaten Easter bread after the holiday passes? Well, my grandfather used it to make toast in the mornings immediately following Easter. Kenny and I learned to enjoy the now “after Easter” bread this way. The combination of the anise flavoring with melted butter on the warm toasted bread titillated our tongues.

But that wasn’t all. When my mother made Easter bread, she really made Easter bread. If Christ had his Passion the week before Easter, then Lena had her own passion during Easter Week. It was making loaves and loaves of the many variations of Easter bread her recipes contained. Some had whole eggs (hard-boiled with the shells still on). Some had a white frosting with colored sprinkles. Others had nothing but that anise flavoring.

But they all had one thing in common: they remained after Easter. There were simply too many loaves for us to finish.

Fortunately, we also had a lot of ham left over, too. For Kenny and me, that meant a week’s worth of ham sandwiches. Mmmm, my mouth is watering just thinking about those cold slices of ham on those delicious slices of leftover Easter bread.

Happy Easter, everyone! And happy eating!


  1. […] on this theme. Would you like to know some of ours? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “Hats Off To Easter,” to discover what it was—and remains—like to celebrate a Carosa […]

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