I was going to write something else for Easter. I was going to tell you a few stories from around the U.S.
Like the church ladies who once hid 700 Easter eggs for a community church in Texas, and accidentally forgot to fill them with candy. If you can just imagine.
Then I was going to close by reminding everyone to fill their eggs with candy before they hide them.
But something happened to me. During my research for this column I fell into a wormhole. I came across more Easter stories than I could shake a bunny at. Which led to more stories. And more stories.
As of now, I have been reading for several hours and my eyes hurt.
Some of these stories were emails.
Like the email I got about a Connecticut woman who, for Good Friday, read an Easter story to her grandkids via video phone call. Quarantine style. The old woman did it cheerfully, even though she is in hospice care. Her hospice nurse held the phone.
I got an email about a 25-year-old woman who got married last week. Her father did the wedding via the internet. The couple has no marriage certificate yet since they are quarantining. But the young woman said, “We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, we wanted to face this together.”
Or how about historic tales of Easter? Such as the Easter of 1918. Now there was a real doozy.
To start with, over in Europe, The War to End All Wars was raging. And the outbreak of the Spanish Flu was in full swing, worldwide.
I read handwritten letters from soldiers, writing to loved ones. I bawled like a baby.
MARCH 31, 1918—“I miss you, oh dearest, this day feels empty without you beside me. I saw a train that was like an iron steed, I wish I could have been aboard and moving homeward…”
At the time the soldier wrote this, 20 million were dying from the war, and 50 million were dying from H1N1 across the globe. It was hell on earth. And I don’t mean that metaphorically.
“My dear Charles, I prepared four Easter pies this eve, but you were not here and I miss you… Your mother is still sick with fever… We are aimless without you.”
So 1918 was no day at the beach. I was reading about a guy who drove street cars in Seattle, handing out free homemade face masks to passengers to fight the flu.
And about Chicago, how families were tying white scarves to their front door knobs to alert the world they were infected. If the scarves stayed there too long, a neighbor called the undertaker.
I read about a young man who worked as a chaplain on a Pueblo reservation out West, caring for dying Native American children. One Easter, he was almost ready to give up when he wrote to his wife for encouragement.
Heartbreak after heartbreak. Sorrow after sorrow. I read other people’s mail from a hundred years ago.
Soldiers, policemen, milkmen, paper boys, musicians, writers, politicians, brakemen, all just hoping their families kept healthy.
I saw faded photographs of makeshift hospitals with children in isolation booths. Young girls who became impromptu Red Cross nurses, caring for the dying without worry for their own welfare.
This led me to stories from the polio epidemics of the 1940s, when outbreaks were happening left and right all over the world. Meanwhile, World War II was killing 75 million people. Easter had a very different meaning back then.
And even after the war, in the 1950s, polio kept wreaking more havoc on the planet. Every parent in America was sick with worry. One survey reported that the two things Americans feared most in 1952 were nuclear annihilation, and polio.
Read that last sentence again if you need to.
There were polio cases popping up everywhere. Like all the outbreaks in Texas, where crop duster planes were dousing entire residential neighborhoods with clouds of DDT insecticide in hopes of killing the polio virus.
“The world was out of control,” one 82-year-old woman tells me. “My mom wouldn’t let us leave the house.”
Polio scares got so bad that priests were conducting sermons via radios. Churches were empty, spring dances were cancelled, public pools were drained, summer was put on hold.
“My mom got polio when she was a child,” said one man I know. “My grandpa made her brothers and sisters go live with my relatives. They didn’t see each other again for two years.”
And do you know what? After reading these heart wrenching letters of our own history, I was overcome. Not with a sense of dread, not with grief, not with sadness. But something else.
Because within each story, each handwritten sentence, photograph, article, news clipping, and email was a heavy dose of hope. That’s right. Within the voices of our ancestors is the profound feeling of a smiling face. And love.
I started to feel something I can’t describe. It began in my belly. It moved upward to my eyes. It is something that transcends time, plague, and war. And death. Something unnamable. Something so real that it cannot be understood with intellect.
There is a kind of sweetness the human race finds within each godawful tragedy. It is as though we are hardwired to find this sweetness. It is as though we were built to believe in it.
Not that anyone asked me, because they didn’t, but I believe that the fires of Hell itself might flicker and burn, but they will not win. Not in a million years. And this, I believe, is what Easter is all about.
So please put candy in your eggs before you hide them.