Easter is the day of new beginnings.
I shall never forget one Easter morning many years ago and what was, then, the backwoods near the Louisiana -Mississippi border. In that place (a “no place,” as Walker Percy called it) that seemed unchanged since the Civil War, with only a few homes having indoor plumbing, we lived a very agrarian existence. The smell (I prefer to say the aroma) of barnyard animals was as ubiquitous as the aroma of the latte in my present suburban world. Our home was over 100 years old, having been built before the Civil War out of cypress wood harvested by my Uncle John from the Amite River, running nearby. My Uncle John’s name was always spoken with an apparently necessary caveat, “Now you know, of course, he was born and raised in North Carolina.” This was a special asterisk that was to remind us that our family had left the civilized Old North State to migrate, after the War of 1812, to the far-western-piney-woods no-man’s-land of the old Mississippi Territory (I made it back). My wife, enduring my stories ad nauseam, sometimes asks me, “Are you sure you didn’t grow up in the nineteenth century?” “No,” I respond, smiling, “but I was ‘raised’ by people from the nineteenth century!” Like the rest of my family, my Uncle John, bent-over, skinny as a hickory rail and strong as one, too, was a Carolina pioneer. My Aunt Eva, also, retained her pioneer spirit throughout her life. Back to Easter Sunday. We did not have a car to go to church. We caught a ride either to the Methodist Church or the Baptist Church. The Baptist Church had more ambitious drivers (picking us up for church guaranteed a check-off for “2” people reached in the weekly witnessing form that all were expected to complete). I remember, oh so well, sitting and rocking serenely on our front porch, and waiting for Mr. and Mrs. McDowell to come. Mr. McDowell’s car was a circa mid-1950s two-tone, light green and white, Buick sedan. I used to love to sit in that cushy vinyl backseat. It was so big and roomy. Okay. Once more, with apologies, back to Easter. It was, indeed, Easter morning, I was probably six or maybe seven years old, maybe four years old. I can’t remember. But I did have both the boyish initiative and the farm-boy foolishness to disobey my Aunt Eva on that Sunday morning. I will now tell you how this happened. Now, every Easter my Aunt Eva had me to wear a pristine, white sports jacket with black or navy blue slacks. I wore a white shirt and bow tie every Sunday. You must remember that we did not have a lot of money. I don’t know if she went up in the egg prices or sold more turnips, but we had the money somehow to get that Easter jacket which I always outgrew the next year. But she felt Easter was the high holy day of Christianity and we must present ourselves before the Lord in our very best. Shoes were shined on Saturday nights. It was a common sight in our humble home to witness the two of us darting this-way-and-that on a Saturday evening in preparation for Sunday school and church the next morning. Lessons to complete. Shoes to shine. Clothes to be pressed (and sometimes mended). Back to Easter. Right. On this Easter morning, as we waited for Mr. and Mrs. McDowell to pick us up in that slick two-tone Buick, Aunt Eva had me stand at attention as she issued “General Order” number one: “Mike, whatever you do, you must not get that white jacket dirty. You have been going under the house. You must not—I repeat, Boy, you must not—go under the house today. You cannot play under there on Sunday. That is for other days. Not today.” I proceeded to rock in the big rocking chair on the front porch with the painted battleship-gray planks, the fashion de jure for porch planks, looking out across the ancient-ever-new blooming yard. I saw soft pink, lady-lavender, snowy-white, and variegated crimson & cream Azalea bushes. White bridal wreath, cascading across the azaleas formed a spectacular display that was every bit as impressive as the Airlie Gardens in Wilmington.There must’ve been 75 or maybe 100 azalea bushes in our yard, skirting big old Magnolia trees, stately pecan trees, twisted Christmastime-scented cedar trees, nose-stinging eucalyptus, and ever my favorite, a Catawba worm tree (my favorite because the Catawba worms would fall off or I would shake them off and I could use them to go fishing; or, even better, to sell the plump, green and “juicy” little critters in old USDA commodity cans to strangers looking for bait). As I would rock back and forth (“I wonder how high I can make this thing go?”), I would gaze out at the white bridal-wreath cascading into the azalea bushes creating an absolutely splendid Easter-colors image. But a boy can only rock and look around at pretty things for so long. Already, the equally mischievous but faithful friend of my only-child Huck Finn existence was beckoning to me: “come play!” You know the look: hunched down, head cocked to the side, grinning, tongue dangling happily to the side of the mouth, tail wagging. Old Snooper was a little part-Corgi-part-sheep-dog-part-alot-of-other-breeds, a vagabon’s unplanned offspring, who was given to us as a pup by Mr. Osborn Turner, the school-bus driver who ran over Pogo, my first dog. Snooper’s obvious delight seemed to be mocking me in my white jacket and bow tie: “I can play and you can’t!” My rocking slowed as I noticed that Snooper had already headed for underneath the house (our old cypress house was set on strong, massive stone footings and was a good three or four feet above the ground). I recall that the urge to go and be with Snooper in “our secret primitive cave” was greater then the duty of obedience. Fast forward about 20 minutes. The McDowell’s showed up with that pretty two-tone Buick and honked the horn. I always liked that horn, but not that morning. Aunt Eva came out of the house, dressed immaculately in a new floral home-made dress. I recall that my guardian never went anywhere without a black patent purse that made quite a loud snapping noise when she concluded her poking around in it. She generally would do last-minute peeking in her handbag to make sure she had everything she would need for the weekly two-hours away from home. She followed her last-minute routine that morning as she opened the screen door. I heard her heels click on the porch. Then, I heard that purse snap shut. I froze. All of a sudden the distance between a duty to obedience and the urge for adventure narrowed and caused a frightening paralysis. She began to call my name. “Mi-chael!” No movement. Dread silence. Then, the Buick honks. I knew without a doubt that Mr. McDowell was tapping his fingers impatiently on that big Buick Roadmaster steering wheel. He would be anxiously whistling Dixie, pausing at regular intervals to pull away his white shirt sleeve and check his gold-colored Timex. Worse, much worse, was the unavoidable reality that Aunt Eva was just above me on the porch. It took an eternal second, but she finally spoke. And when she spoke, she did so with the same austere authority that would rival any country judge in a courtroom. “I know you are not underneath that house!” That was her way of saying, “I am not stupid. I do know that you are under that house even though I told you not to go there.” But even for a five-year old (or four or whatever), I understood the literary device she had employed. I also knew the adventure was over. I came out from underneath the house, from out of the “hideout,” and I gave myself up to the law. I stood before her, the two-tone Buick humming in park out in the gravel turn-around, and Mr. McDowell, no doubt, whistling Dixie and nervously tapping his weathered old farmer-finger on the steering wheel. Aunt Eva, white-gloved hand over heart in shock and controlled anger spoke: “Where have you been?” I was speechless. I looked over at the azaleas again, hoping that taking in beauty would steel my constitution for the horrible situation that I found myself in and the certain peach-switch that would soon be lashed over my back-side. But I could find no beauty in my gaze, only fear. In my guilt, I stood silent. She resumed the Nuremberg-like interrogation. “Where have you been? Have you been under that porch?“ I finally gathered the sin-nature-inner-strength to respond to her question: “No Ma’am.“ Now, I uttered this unbelievable confession as the rich dark dirt provided deadly evidence otherwise. I will never forget what happened next. Instead of telling me to go get a switch and to bend over and face the painful consequence of sin, Scriptures appropriately quoted during the punishment, she paused. She slowly unsnapped her purse and took out a pretty embroidered pink, azure, and ivory handkerchief. She carefully removed her glasses and began to dab the tears forming in her eyes. I was transfixed by the sight unfolding before me. She spoke again. This time, she whispered, “Mike, you have shown the sin in your life. You need the Lord.”
“That’s it?” I thought. “I got off pretty clean on this one.” But then my surprise was replaced by another emotion: a pure, gnawing, soul-stripping guilt. I had never known that sort of guilt in my life. My head drooped. And Eva did not speak about the matter anymore, other than to say that I should remove my jacket and that I would go to church on Easter Sunday without a white jacket. This was meant to impart the Scarlet Letter: “Mike Milton with no jacket, on Easter Sunday, no less.” Mr. McDowell‘s horn from his Buick reminded us that our ride could wait no longer.
I shall never forget that day because of the contrast between the message that I heard from our pastor, Dr. Pierce, on that Sunday and the reality of my filthy sinner’s soul. I had broken the heart of my dear Aunt Eva by my disobedience. Rather than spank me or punish me she apparently decided to let the guilt do its own inevitable work.
Easter Sunday was a new beginning for me. I never went under that porch again, at least before church. If Snooper went under there, I scolded him. This could never happen again. I could never see Aunt Eva cry again. I never wanted to feel that horrible sense of guilt. I wanted the good news that Dr. Pierce had preached on that Easter Sunday. He preached in his soft northern Mississippi accent and soothing baritone voice,
“Because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead everything has changed.”
And if that was so, I figured, then the Lord could forgive me.
That Easter Sunday, as I sat coatless in the sanctuary, a little boy without his white jacket and a little boy with his black-spotted soul revealed, I sought and received a word of hope. Many years later I would come to understand that hope has a name: “grace.” It is that grace we proclaim to you and to this community. Easter changes everything. You can come out from under the porch now. You can see the pretty azaleas with new eyes and a clear conscience.
©️ 2018 Michael A. Milton. This column appeared in “From the Pastor’s Heart,” weekly newsletter for Easter, 2018,