Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) was the day my mother and I decorated Easter Eggs. My mother learned how to make Polish pisanki from her mother and she continued the tradition after her mother’s death, eventually welcoming me to the activity.
I started my apprenticeship as the official egg dyer, probably around the age of five. My mother had long since switched from using a dye made from boiled onion skins to using Pas. I minded the colorful glasses while she drew designs onto the hard-boiled egg’s shell with bee’s wax. (We didn’t blow out the egg yolk as more traditional pisanki makers would.)
Every year, she let me try my hand at decorating a few eggs myself. They looked like primitive scratches next to her practiced and precise strokes. And, every year, my mother would make me what I call a “name egg”—my name with the year written on the egg surrounded by her design work. I chose its color.
About five years before her death, we started to switch roles. We decorated about half the eggs each at first, then slowly, I found myself doing the majority of the egg designs while my mother colored them. She always made sure, though, that she made a name egg for me. The last egg she made me wa
s in 2014. I dyed it blue.
The eggs last for years, so we have always kept a display of Easter Eggs in a vase in our dining room; either on the dining table or in the china cabinet. Because we didn’t blow out the yolks, the hardboiled eggwhites evaporated over time, leaving the hardened yolk to roll around inside the shell. Eventually, the eggs cracked and you always knew when one needed to be disposed of, thanks to the powerful egg aroma that wafted from the vase. The eggs were sturdy though, and several survived my parent’s move from Massachusetts to Virginia and my move from Virginia to Vermont.
We made around two dozen eggs each year; some to eat at Easter dinner, some to distribute to family and friends as gifts, and some to keep for ourselves. Making Easter eggs with my mother is one of my treasured memories. I always looked forward to egg day, no matter how old I was or what I was doing in life.
A few days after my mother died, I was setting up the dining room for the collation (the reception after her funeral). I wanted to display the eggs since they were an important part of our relationship and because they were a side of my mother many of her Virginia friends and neighbors hadn’t seen. As I arranged the eggs, I found my 2014 name egg. I picked it up to look at it, remembering the last time we made eggs together eleven months before. The egg spontaneously imploded in the palm of my hand.
I texted a life-long friend about the implosion. She wrote back: “You have others.” True, but that wasn’t the point. She seemed to look at the egg as a thing. I saw it as a piece of my mother’s and my relationship that had ruptured into a mess of shattered egg shells as I held it. The evidence of last egg making day was gone.
That Easter, one month after my mother’s death, I made eggs on Good Friday for the first time by myself. It was a bittersweet moment, but one that kept me connected to her despite the loss of her physical presence. Even though she was no longer there, the tradition still held meaning for me as an artistic catharsis (a way to channel the sadness into a productive celebration of her life) and it represented the official changing of the guard.
I made two dozen eggs and planned on giving them as thank you gifts to our neighbors, who had helped with the collation, with dinners for my dad and I, and who had generally offered support. I mentioned my plan to a close family friend. Her response to what I considered a meaningful gesture of healing for myself was: “Alex, no. You can’t. That’s too much.” I was surprised and found myself justifying why I could and would make two dozen eggs, as usual, to give out as gifts. My own family was shocked that I continued our egg making ritual, which was classified as belonging to my mother rather than something she and I shared. It never occurred to me that egg making would end just because she had died.
I made the eggs as planned, and really enjoyed the experience. It was meditative and solemn; a time when I reflected on what my mother had given me over the years of egg-making experiences: fond memories and a crafting skill. I found that distributing the eggs as gifts was helpful to my grief as well. Whether the neighbors kept the eggs or not is less important that the tradition of making and gifting eggs to people who had impacted my life.
The decision to maintain traditions is up to the individual Griever. For me, egg making is a way to stay close to all of the family that came before me (to women I never met). The activity was a way to keep family alive, and an experience I hope to pass down.
When I have decorated eggs over the past three years, I remember all the Fridays I spent holed up in the kitchen with my mother. Sometimes we moved a small TV into the kitchen so we could listen as we worked. I remember my mother teaching me how to draw with melted bee’s wax on the eggshell and showing me the patterns her mother had taught her, as well as the patterns she had created herself. Later, she watched as I developed patterns based on the designs she taught me.
After a death, such remembrances can make traditions difficult to maintain. If, as a Griever, you feel that it is too overwhelming because of the absence, especially during the first year, take a break. Whether you choose to continue is up to you, although I encourage you to keep it going.
Continuing a tradition can remind you that your loved one is not fully gone; s/he lives on in you, in the skills they taught you, and in the values those traditions reflect through you. Ending a tradition may be just as heavy as the death itself because it signals a permanent end to the person’s life and, more importantly, to their influence on you. This ending might be harder to bear. You may find that continuing the tradition on your own becomes a healing activity because of the memories the tradition bring back for you. If you can, consider inviting others to join you in your tradition; teach others what your loved one taught you.
Grief supporters may not always understand why you want to continue a tradition or what the significance of the “thing” associated with the tradition means to you. Don’t worry about them. The activity is for you. Whether the tradition is making Easter eggs, going on an annual trip, or even a having meal at a special spot, continue. Traditions are meant to be passed on, and they come alive when they are shared. The new memories you create will merge with the memories of the past, and each time you engage that tradition, you bring a piece of your loved one with you into the present.
Today, I will cut a slice from the bee’s wax brick I bought my mother for Christmas ten years ago and decorate eggs as I set about celebrating Easter with my new husband. I may even make him a name egg.