By Rosalie Tirella
The Easter Bonnet has lost its cachet! When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island, Easter Bonnets were all the rage – right up there with going to church all gussied up Easter morning and the big dinner at my Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark’s pretty Burncoat area cape after mass. There we ladies – small, teenaged, middle-aged – took off our Easter bonnets and greedily converged, along with the guys, on the big dining room table where Uncle Mark had placed, center stage, his buddy’s homemade kielbasa – “smoked” in his shed in his backyard in Chicopee! An Easter gift, that big boy was king of our Easter repast, with the glazed ham smothered in Dole canned pineapple slices a distant runner-up. It was a very Eisenhower-era household, so there were vegetables on the table, but no one cared a whit about them. Back then it was: You gotta eat your vegetables! Gak!!! I can’t remember one tubular anything from the ground hitting that table! Maybe a big bowl of mashed turnip??? A few platters of Jolly Green Giant canned green beans, French-cut??? The exception? My Aunt Mary’s white, smooth, creamy, buttery mashed potatoes. And, of course, the unforgettable, made-fresh Easter morn hot “bulkies” from Widoff’s Bakery on Water Street. Slathered in butter, of course.
You can see how our 1950s diet chunked us up. Here are my cousins and me at one of my mother’s Lafayette Street birthday parties for me:
Note the high hats!
Anyways, Easter Sunday…there the (lucky!) 14 of us – my mom, my two kid sisters and me; bachelor Uncle Joe, my aunt, uncle and their four kids; my aunt and her two kids – sat around that fancy dining room table with the big thick clear plastic covering over the beautiful off-white lace table cloth…salivating over the Chicopee kielbasa, praying prayers of thanks to God for all his gifts, and then digging in, not making too much chit chat because we were eating heartily like the Polish peasants we were! At ease with each other, in love with each other, our Catholic Faith, our American Life, proud to be Americans, proud of our American accomplishments: my Uncle Mark (first generation) an elementary school principal, my Aunt Mary the cute homemaker in her cute home in a nice middle class Worcester neighborhood, the kids all in school and getting As and Bs, with the two boy cousins planning to become doctors (they did), one girl cousin a school teacher (she did) and the other girl cousin a math genius! (she graduated from WPI, earned two Master’s degrees and became an engineer – I forget which kind). But back then, we were all clay, eager to be molded into American success stories. Optimism with a capital O, THE FUTURE wide open. To come from nothing and BE SOMETHING! That is the gift of America🇺🇸💜!
In my aunt and uncle’s bedroom, on their shiny, gold comforter, sat – jauntily – all the gals’ Easter bonnets. Heavy cloth crowns and brims of varying widths festooned with pretty silk flowers, even plastic violet berries…a pink straw hat for me and Robin’s egg blue toppers for my sisters bought special for us, by Ma, at Jack and Jill’s children’s clothing shop on Green Street. My mom’s little white pill box beauty with the stiff, sexy lace falling from the front, hiding my mother’s pretty brown eyes and Romanesque nose! Finally, there was the feathered topper my aunt loved to wear in the spring. Here she is donning it to visit my Bapy in our Lafayette Street tenement during a happy spring occasion: right after her daughter, my cousin, made her First Holy Communion:
I still remember that number! Long, red-brown feathers that framed Auntie’s face in an almost comical way. The wind would blow outside church and Auntie’s hat looked ready to take flight, with her feathers bending in the same direction the wind blew! The feathers were so soft (real) and glinted in the sunlight! PETA wasn’t around to let Auntie or us know that birds died HORRIFIC deaths to make her hat, so we all foolishly enjoyed it!
Here I am, with my Jadju in my Easter Bonnet, before Easter mass with Ma:
I loved that hat! My all-time favorite! White, softly woven straw trimmed with pretty, pale pink cloth flowers and small, pale green cloth leaves. A few years later I would be a kindergartner at nearby Lamartine Street School where we would make our own Easter Bonnets with our red-faced teacher. We’d color white paper plates with our Crayola Crayons, glue on decorations we had cut out with our small kiddie scissors. We’d dip our fingers into that yummy smelling Elmer’s Glue – my friend George always ate a little of his white glue puddle that we shared on a square of scrap paper – and have a ball! Then our teacher would punch holes with her hole puncher on either end of our Easter Bonnets and run two long pieces of cheap ribbon through them so we could actually wear our Easter bonnets, tie them under our chins. Then teacher would put on her special Easter record – IN MY EASTER BONNET sung by Judy Garland – and we girls (and boys!) would get up and saunter up and down the aisles of the classroom wearing our Easter bonnets, walk right out of our classroom door and straight to the school principal’s office where my favorite school secretary sat at her desk with her cat’s eyes eyeglasses sliding down the bridge of her skinny nose. She was everyone’s favorite grown-up at Lamartine, along with the lunch lady who crocheted us poor kids colorful, warm vests during winter time! So… There we paraded in front of the secretary, Miss K., who’d smile, ooh and ahh, and shower us kids, many of us wearing shabby, smelly clothes even during Easter time, with the most magnificent of compliments! A beautiful way to end the school day right before Easter break!
Sometimes Ma didn’t look so happy on Easter, either. Mind you, she loved hats and wore them all seasons:
But life without – and with! – our Daddy was hard. He never celebrated holidays with us, or attended our school plays/recitals (Ma never missed one!) or even our high school graduations. My Godless father never went to church with us on Easter or ate Easter dinner with us at Uncle Mark and Aunt Mary’s – if he was home at all! Ma was always under duress, worked 60 hours a week at the dry cleaners for minimum wage…ready for bed by 8 p.m. I remember her those evenings: We kiddos watching The Ed Sullivan Show, Ma sitting up right on the sofa, trying to watch the show with us but sleeping! Snoring! Heavily, deeply. The train rolling down the train tracks down the street. The traffic on Lafayette Street. The TV show blaring. We kids laughing at the Little Mouse puppet…Ma was dead to the world.
The only times Ma felt pampered was at my Aunt Mary’s – on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. There, during those holidays, my Aunt Mary let Ma, her beloved sister, have a true “Day Off.” Mary took care of everything: Ma didn’t have to make a side dish or even bring drug store chocolate candies to the dessert table. She didn’t have to help set the dinner table or clean up after the feast or rinse dishes or help load the dishwasher. Aunt Mary made Ma sit in the big comfy Lazy Boy lounger in the living room – and rest. And, after the meal, with the guys watching TV and we kids playing Monopoly, Ma would laugh and joke and just take it easy, her feet literally up for an hour or two! Then Ma’s treat: In came Auntie Mary with a big cup of Maxwell House coffee, on a pretty saucer with blue birds on it..The coffee had real cream (too luxurious, expensive for our Green Island household) and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Auntie Mary knew Ma was a coffee junky from the age of 14, the beginning of their days in Springfield working as maids/housekeepers for the Bishop of Springfield. So she always kept her caffeinated! Ma loved coffee so much – probably a wee bit addicted – she always had a brand new coffee maker waiting as BACK UP if her current one died! As a tween I admired Ma’s forethought!! I too have two coffee makers – a Keurig and Ma’s brand new Joe DiMaggio Mr. Coffee machine, still in its box, the last of Ma’s work horses that Ma never got to use because she passed…
Back to Auntie and Ma: In a kind of tip of the Easter Bonnet to my mother, Aunt Mary always served Ma her cup of coffee FIRST – before anyone in that cozy living room got theirs. Before my other Aunt, our bachelor Uncle Joe. Even Uncle Mark – Aunt Mary’s husband and head of the home! Ma accepted the honor with grace and cooed in Polish to her sister: Oooh, thank you, Mary! So so good! And she began sipping … and soon her laugh – always a husky, sexy, whiskey-laced, cigarette-smoking laugh (though she wasn’t a smoker and imbibed judiciously) – filled the room! I miss that sexy movie star voice! I wish she had “given” it to me!
But I did inherit her love of hats. Our whole family was obsessed with them! Here’s a Polish relative – my Jadju’s sister – rockin’ one:
I really like it! It feels kinda modern, even though this photo was taken in Worcester, on Vernon Hill, in the 1920s. Hell, if it were around today, I’d take it to the dry cleaners, get the must out, then clap it on my fat head and sashay around the ‘hood! Run my life with panache!
Here is another picture, from Dudley, a Polish immigrant haven where my grandfather first lived when he came from Poland, working in the nearby textile mill in Douglas…
Obviously, the little lady to the left went overboard when accessorizing:
First, I must stress: These people are too ugly to be my relatives!!! And, like I said, the lady, seated, does little for her cause: a bucket-like hat plopped on her head – she could take it off and take a crap in it!; a skanky dead animal hanging from her neck – its claws prominently displayed; a fat, ugly corsage around her thick wrist, a wide, ribbon “skirt” … And look at those shoes! Tight, pointy, a bazillion straps squeezing all that flabby flesh…a tad S & M for Easter, don’t you agree?!
Thank God they’re all dead!
Next to that photo, is another. My pretty aunt? I have no idea, but I love her Communion veil …
Because, you see, there were no selfies, Instagram or even cameras back then. The cameras existed – but not for the masses. People didn’t own them – professional photographers did. They were huge, expensive, complicated contraptions … usually owned by photographers who set up photography studios in cities and towns all over America…in seemingly every immigrant neighborhood in Worcester! In our downtown, too! Going to the photographer was a big deal – reserved for special occasions, family milestones, like weddings, First Holy Communions, special family portraits. People dressed to the nines for their photo shoot – and never smiled when the big flash bulb exploded into whiteness. Their photo session was too important. They were making history. Their History.
… pretty posies, because back then America was one big fuckin’ Easter Parade. Where everybody went to church to celebrate Jesus and ate a ton of red meat and smoked Lucky Strikes and bought Chevy’s and walked down the street in front of their church or cathedral on Easter day to see and be seen. To show off a jewel-bedecked sweet heart, to admire and compare/contrast tuxes, top hats, suits, bow ties, hats, handbags, glad rags, corsages… Cute, dressed up little kids and teens (boys hot and bothered in their neck ties, girls sweet and virginal in their pink taffeta dresses and shiny black patent leather Mary Janes) … your new automobile you purposely parked a block away just so you could get out of it … and promenade!
To strive to be so white, too white, in one of the most racist countries on the planet! To forget about Jim Crow laws, segregated neighborhoods and schools…to be that white, rich doctor or white, rich small business owner and ditch your inner-Polish peasant! To shout Fuck off! I renounce you! to your pigs knuckles, your pierogi, your cabbage soup … your religion, your mother … After just a blink of an eye in America, immigrant sons and daughters follow their own personal American dream to (for my family) Michigan, Arizona, Florida, California…to SUCCEED IN AMERICA – and to SCREW UP IN AMERICA! It’s an adventure, all right! One big, sloppy, gorgeous, greasy, delicate, delicious, sex-driven, musical, mysterious Easter Parade!