20. April 2011 · Comments Off on Easter Eggs – A Repost from the MT Archive · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, Memoir

Grannie Jessie, who had grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania, and imbibed all those do-it-yourself virtues when it came to vegetable gardens, home canning, and making ones’ own clothes, drew the short straw when JP and I were small. Lucky Grannie Jessie got to supervise the dying of the Easter eggs. We would usually be spending part of Easter Week in Pasadena, since Mom would be fitting us all out with new shoes, and the proper accessories: in the early years, Pippy and I would have new hats, wee white gloves, and ornamental ankle socks to wear to Easter services with the new dresses that Mom had sewn herself. JP would have a new suit, a miniature of Dads’, with a smart pint-size fedora.

When Grannie Jessie did the shopping that week, walking around the corner to Don’s Market on Rosemead Boulevard with the wheeled wire basket, she would buy extra eggs— three dozen white eggs—and let us pick from the modest selection of packets of Easter egg dyes. You could buy just the basic packet, just a strip of cellophane sealing in six or seven concentrated little pills of dye, but we always yearned after the fancy boxes with the circular perforations on the back which could be punched out to make a holder for the dyed eggs to sit while the dye dried, which also contained a couple of wire holders, a set of transfers on thin tissue paper, and a plain wax crayon, with which JP and I could demonstrate our artistic prowess. Grannie Jessie always relented, and bought the fancy box of egg dye with the transfers and implements.

On the appointed day, she boiled up all the eggs in her biggest kitchen pot, and brought out an assortment of egg-cups, old teacups, small bowls and measuring cups, and the battered old spoons. The kitchen table was already covered with an oilcloth, but she brought out a couple of Grandpa Jim’s old shirts, and aproned us in them, back to front and rolling up the sleeves. Then she boiled up a kettle of water, while we opened the dye packet, and placed the little colored pill of dye at the bottom of each cup or bowl. Grannie Jessie’s kitchen was never fashionable, in the way of the women’s magazines: functional in the way of a farmhouse kitchen, a gas range with a metal match safe on the doorjamb next to it, and bead-board cabinets with varnish which had gone slightly gummy with age and wear. The sink was enormous, the size of a baby’s bathtub, and the plain vinyl countertops were edged with a band of metal. Her original Kelvinator fridge, with the round metal coils on top was replaced about the time I was born with something slightly more up to date. Her kitchen things were an assortment from the dime store, sturdy but worn — Depression era jelly glasses, tin metal measuring cups given away by the flour mill companies. (Many of them, disposed of at garage sales when she moved into the Gold Star Mother’s home in the mid-1970ies are now the sort of thing I see for sale in the antique malls for quite astounding sums.)

The kitchen table at Grannie Jessie’s was wedged into a narrow ell, against the wall where three windows, their sills a little above the level of the table, overlooked the driveway, the next door neighbors’ back yard, and Mt Wilson in the far distance. In the morning, the sun came into her kitchen through these windows. Grannie Jessie’s chair was wedged into the space between the head of the table and the hutch, where her crossword dictionaries were shelved next to the old-fashioned coffee grinder. Grandpa Jim’s chair was at the foot of the table, an elbow-length from the door to the utility porch, with its concrete sink and the old-fashioned washing machine with the rollers on top to squeeze the water out of the clothes and sheets. The long side of the table, facing the windows, could accommodate two chairs, three at a pinch, and was where JP and I sat for meals, where Mom and Uncle Jimmy had doubtless sat in their turn.

When the kettle boiled, Grannie Jessie brought out the bottle of vinegar and the tin tablespoon measure.
“It sets the dye properly,” she explained. A tablespoon of vinegar in each cup, and a splash of boiling water, and we watched, breathlessly as the dye pill dissolved instantly, transforming the water into opaque, vividly colored liquid. She put on another kettle of water to boil, and brought over the pot of eggs, now cooled to luke-warm, and only a few of them cracked or broken, while the steam and the scent of vinegar rose up around us. (Grandpa Jim would have egg-salad sandwiches for a couple of days.) Carefully, loading each egg into the wire holder, we slid them each— carefully, carefully— into the cups of dye, where they sank to the bottom. If the cup was one of the shallower ones, we would have to turn the egg over and over— otherwise there would be a paler oval on one site of the egg. As we gained in experience and expertise, JP and I experimented with different colors— holding an egg half in the dye of one color, then turning it over in the wire holder, and dying the other half in another. The wax crayon came into play, first resulting in pastel eggs squiggled over with a white pattern, and then JP upped the ante by dying an egg yellow or pink, then patterning it with the crayon, and then putting it into a darker color. He spent twenty minutes one year, cutting finicking tiny squares and triangles of scotch tape, to color an egg in checkers of yellow and maroon.

Even when we had dragged out the process long enough and all the cups of dye had cooled, and only one or two eggs were left, the fun wasn’t entirely over. Grannie let us pour a bit of each dye into the largest cup, and the last egg ceremoniously dipped in the murky mixture— it usually came out a rather subdued greenish or bronze color, contrasting with the pastel blues and pinks and yellows. She cleared away the cups and poured the dye remnants down the sink, but we weren’t done yet. She poured boiling water into a washbasin with a couple of clean white dishtowels in it, and while they cooled, we cut apart the delicate paper transfers— flower and bunny motifs, and crosses and mottoes. Placed bright sides down against the dyed egg, and closely wrapped in a hot towel; the transfer inked itself blurrily onto the eggshell within a few minutes. There were always more transfers than eggs— sometimes we tried two of them to one egg, but there was always the difficulty of getting the transfer to be pressed against the eggshell without wrinkling.

Eventually, that job would be done too, and the finished eggs replaced in the paper cartons they had come from Don’s Market in, and put away in the refrigerator, until Saturday when Mom would drive over in the green Plymouth station wagon, and take us— and the eggs— home. She and Dad would hide them after Easter dinner, for JP and Pippy, and I, and the children of any families who had been our guests, and we would have the fun of finding them, which was somehow never quite as much fun as that of decorating them.

Lately, I have noticed that at Easter-time, the grocery store stocks ready-dyed eggs; what possibly can be the fun of that, I ask you?

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