Father forgot his time. Completely. Again. I was seventeen and sullen, my sister five and forlorn. It was his holiday to cover.
Mom handled Valentine’s and Halloween—hearts and skulls, arrows and broomsticks—and handled also, truth be told, most of Christmas, the bulk of birthdays, and the Tooth Fairy’s molars-for-money mercantile. Except for the actual yanking: that was Dad’s doing, his tools a floss lasso, plus a kitchen door that, when swung, separated us bloodily from our milk teeth.
All she asked was that he hop to on Easter. It was in this season that she, a pharmaceutical rep, attended many of her most profitable allergist conventions. They were, those weeks in spring, our financial mother’s milk. Being responsible for Easter, though, overwhelmed him. It often fell near tax time, when he was immersed in a hunt of his own, digging through drawers for itemized gold.
“Where is that receipt, Marie?”
She’d respond idly, plotting her upcoming absence by swapping worn nylons for new in her overnight bag. “The office supply one?”
“No…” His face would turn ashen. “I meant the rental car. Oh, but oh, I forgot completely about the office supply receipt. For the file cabinet, you mean?”
“I meant the printer.”
“The laser printer! That could count as a depreciation. We’d be saved, saved!” Mouth agape, he’d root around our attic for the following hour, sure that in finding and adding the correct scraps of paper, we’d come out ahead, and a refund, not a penalty, would be due us.
Did it ever work out that way? It did not.
His mood was another matter worth considering. Easter falls (naturally) a week after Lent’s last day, but also, for Father, following six weeks’ (unnatural) sobriety. The sloshing goodwill during his forty-six wet weeks dried up during Lent. Arnold Palmers, sangria, High Life and Beefeater: his body required constant watering and watering holes to maintain cheer. It took weeks to shed the desiccation and asshole tendencies he’d developed while on the wagon. In his sober state he was so Hydeish, boorish, I quickly learned to tiptoe around him, burrow beneath tablecloths, make older friends, not so much for their support as for the cars they’d whisk me away in.
He “celebrated” one Easter by buying me roadside ice cream: the scoops looked, he insisted, like eggs. Thanks to the unclean soft-serve machine, I was ill all night. Another April he bought very few plastic eggs, prompting him to pre-split, then hide, a single jellybean, gumdrop or jawbreaker beneath each half, like some kiddy shell game. The candy was gas-station clearance variety, originating from an Asian manufacturer that believed people preferred chocolate come tinged in ginger.
But this is a story not about the squeezing and pinching of my youth, but my sister’s. The year I was seventeen and she five, Father took us on a “secret field trip” the Saturday before Easter. We were told to keep our eyes shut for the sake of the secret. After parking he handed out spades and terracotta pots, entreating us to pick any flower of the dozens before us. “Just make sure no one’s watching you do it.”
That was a primary concern, because he’d driven us to the botanic gardens.
“Come on, come on, load up,” he said nervously. “The four pm tour group will be coming up the path any minute.”
On the way over he’d driven us by a chain drugstore, exiting with off-season candy only; they’d run out of seasonal stash. My sister cried as she began to dig. “This one’s pretty!” he shouted, to pacify her. “Look: the petals are like velvet ears.” After all the cellophane grass sticking out clumsily from his glove compartment over the years, like festive nose hair, I saw this holiday as a feeble joke. But my sister still believed. Existed in a time when hope still grows unstoppably. Despite the vicious blows to it, the habitual undoing.
“Why is none of this chocolate Easter colored?” she asked.
“What do you mean? It’s in red.”
I watched her tears and saw old ones of my own. Saw her shoulders heave, lip tremble, snot roll down her nostril, wiped away with a soiled pinky. “Red is Christmas and Valentine’s. None of these candies is pink or yellow. Or purple. Or robin blue.”
“This is all Easter, what you want to see. These garden rows go on forever. The puffy clouds in the sky…”
“And why aren’t any of the candies shaped like chicks or flowers? Why aren’t there any eggs around us? And why are we digging up pretty flowers where the signs say ‘Do Not Touch’?”
To avoid more of her barrage, Father agreed to return the greenery we’d just severed at the roots. Sent us to the botanic garden snack bar with ten dollars, where we ate multi-colored popcorn and cotton candy. I saw from afar his furtive replanting. Though he tramped the dirt gently, the plants looked like zombies; stems bent at awkward angles, petals drooped, as if actively avoiding the sun. The only reason my sister was here, alive with me, was to serve as a deduction. Father agreed to a second child only after realizing I was growing up and would leave home soon, carting my tax credit with me. He needed a new dependent their strained budget could depend on. Needed it pronto.
It was one thing to live through indignities, another to watch someone you loved living through the same. Her powerlessness resurrected my old rage. Mother couldn’t protect her daughter that week from Dad’s failings. But I could.
Conjuring Mom, I sat down beside Sister, arm straining far past her shoulder before settling on it. She coiled into my underarm. Sniffled. Spit dribbled through two teeth, permanent ones edging nicely into where Father had pulled the old ones. “Why did he make us come here? And then why did he get it all wrong?” This was emotion from her I would resist later, or outright laugh off. But on that day I held my finger before her lips and she held it firmly at the base, blowing the tip as if it were a candle. “Why did he make us come here? And then get it all wrong?”
Most days, Dad didn’t get it wrong. Didn’t disappoint. He was a good man when under the thumb of a cocktail, when saturated with an inch of bourbon. She’d come to hate him from this moment if she didn’t have a decoy target to distract her. “Dad’s trying his best. It’s the rabbit you should be mad at.” She looked up, parting tears off her eyes, asking what I meant. There are multiple Easter bunnies, I explained, and that year, we drew a dud. A mean bunny? she asked.
“Atheist bunny,” I clarified.
Dad was only trying to cover, I continued, covering for Dad. Understanding, as I bullshitted out the speech, that it was seeding and fertilizing my future actions for and connection to and relationship with my sister. I would, when we returned home that night, arrange a better Easter for her, and then orchestrate every blessed detail next year, and the ones beyond, until she stopped believing.
Return to table of contents for Issue 9 Summer 2015.