Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Apostles Ate Stew

by Douglas J. Eboch

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. And on Easter morning Jill Boyer was desperately trying to stave off thoughts of homicide as she tried to get her family ready for church. On a normal Sunday this was a task that could reduce a Navy SEAL to tears. On this Easter Sunday three additional factors turned it into something rivaling the trials of Hercules.

The first was the need to dress the family in especially fancy clothes or risk raised eyebrows from the older ladies in the church. Jill had two daughters: Mary, who was four, and Susie, who was two. Both had spent the entirety of their young lives perfecting the art of whining. The donning of frilly Easter dresses was an occasion for them to attempt their greatest heights of whinery. However when it came to fancy attire, the winner of the whining trophy was Jill’s husband Kevin. Kevin was no more fond of getting dressed up than the little girls and couldn’t care less about the eyebrow positions of the older church ladies.

The second factor impacting Jill’s Easter morning preparations was Barry the Bunny. Barry was Mary’s Sunday school class pet and Mary had been selected to care of it while the teacher was on a much needed vacation. Mary was delighted by the bunny and took it out of the cage at every opportunity. She discovered just such an opportunity when Jill was preoccupied with trying to convince Kevin that even his best tennis shoes were not appropriate for Easter. Unfortunately this occurred after Jill had shanghaied Mary into her dress. It took almost twenty minutes to clean the paw prints off the white cotton and lace.

But the factor driving Jill to nearly intolerable levels of stress was the fact that her in-laws were coming over for Easter brunch after church. Jill’s relationship with Ron and Carol Boyer was not any worse than the average woman’s relationship with her husband’s parents. But it wasn’t any better, either. What really made things hard on Jill was that Kevin’s mother was a wonderful hostess. She could whip up delicious appetizers or full meals, mix exotic cocktails and maintain charming conversation all without any sign of exertion.

Jill truly wanted to be such a hostess. She watched cable TV shows and subscribed to magazines that promised to impart those skills. But she could never seem to pull it off with her mother-in-law’s grace. Yet she continued to try, hoping one day to live up to the standard Carol Boyer had set.

So in addition to dressing her family and cleaning up bunny paw prints, Jill was managing the early stages of preparation on half a dozen Easter dishes in the kitchen, including the star of the meal: a baked maple glazed ham. The last task of the morning was to put the ham in the oven so it could bake while they were at church and be ready by the time Kevin’s parents arrived.

Jill closed the oven door on the ham and herded the family into the car at 8:52. They arrived only seven minutes late to the 9:00 service - beating their average tardiness by several minutes.

When they returned home two hours later, Kevin, Mary and Susie dashed to their rooms to shed their church outfits. Jill went into the kitchen to take the ham out of the oven. It had turned out beautifully, the maple glaze glistening just like the one in the cook book. Jill set it on a rack to cool.

At that moment the doorbell rang. Ron and Carol had arrived. Jill barely got to greet them before they were dragged off by Mary to see Barry the Bunny. After that, Carol presented the girls with Easter baskets. Much nicer and heavier laden baskets than Jill had made for them, of course. A minor youth rebellion broke out when Jill informed her daughters that they would have to wait until after brunch to dig into the candy. Once the rebellion was quashed, Jill took coffee and tea orders from her guests.

When she entered the kitchen, she forgot all about the beverages, however.

There on the counter was Barry the Bunny. Apparently in the excitement over the Easter baskets, Mary had failed to lock him safely away in his cage. And the rabbit had found the ham, presumably drawn by the maple scent of the glaze at which he was now happily licking. Jill lunged forward to shoo him off before he could do any more damage and startled the poor creature. Barry jumped and in the process knocked the ham off onto the floor.

Tears welled in Jill’s eyes as she picked the ham up. She briefly considered if there was a way to save it but the surface was far too mangled. She could still make ham sandwiches for the girls out of it - they wouldn’t care about rabbit saliva - but she would need to come up with something else as the centerpiece of her brunch. She brushed away her tears. There was too much work to be done to waste time crying.

She did a quick inventory of her refrigerator and pantry. Unfortunately the only thing she had in enough quantity that was suitable for a main course was canned stew.

Jill figured if she was going to serve stew for Easter brunch, she was going to have to be clever about it. Fortunately she had paid attention in church.

After serving soup and a frittata for the first courses of the meal, Jill brought out her big pot, the lid hiding the contents. She noticed Kevin’s look of confusion and before he could say anything about ham, she cleared her throat to get everyone’s attention.

“My family has an Easter tradition,” she said. “According to a story my Grandmother told, on the first Easter morning Mary Magdalene and the other women put the makings of a meal on the fire before going to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body with spices. This was the meal which the women served to the Apostles upon their return from finding the empty tomb, and this was the meal the Apostles were eating when Jesus appeared to them. That meal was stew.”

And with that Jill removed the lid from the pot.

“It is our family tradition to eat stew on Easter,” Jill continued, “to symbolize the coming together of disparate peoples to form the early Christian church.”

The other adults gathered around the table looked at each other, unsure what to say. Then Mary piped up, “is there onions in it, Mommy?”

“Yes dear,” Jill replied. “You can pick them out.”

Then Jill ladled out bowls of stew to everyone and they ate.

After the meal, Carol graciously offered to help Jill clear the table. Jill was far too exhausted to turn her down. While they were in the kitchen, Carol put a hand on Jill’s arm and said, “You know, I think that whole story about the Apostles eating stew is a bunch of baloney. But the meal was quite good and I’m glad you didn’t serve ham. Everyone serves ham at Easter and I don’t really care for it.”

Carol went out into the living room and for the first time that day Jill relaxed. And from that day forward stew really was a Boyer family Easter tradition.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Sunrise Service

by Douglas J. Eboch

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Every year on Easter morning they hold a sunrise service in the courtyard. This year, Easter fell on an unusually early date and happened to coincide with a late winter freeze. When Pastor Henry O’Donnell awoke at 5:00 AM the thermometer outside read a chilly twenty-five degrees.

Henry took a quick, hot shower to wake himself up, then put on a pair of colorful boxers with pictures of Easter eggs and bunnies he’d bought in honor of the holiday. He tried to rouse his wife Jennifer.

“Leave me alone,” Jennifer grumbled at him, her face buried in the pillow.

“But honey, it’s almost time to go to the sunrise service.”

“You go ahead without me.”

“Did you see what I’m wearing?”

Jennifer lifter her head and looked at him through narrowed eyes. He modeled the boxers. “Cute,” she said and pulled the covers over her head. She had not been as amused as he thought she would.

“Come on, get up,” Henry pleaded. “I’ve got a present for you. For Easter.”

“Can it wait ’til later?” she asked.

“I suppose…” Henry said.

“Good. Katie and I will meet you for the 9:00 service.”

Jennifer was still annoyed at Henry for repeatedly violating the diet they had both agreed to go on over Lent. She was even more annoyed that despite his transgressions he’d lost three more pounds than she had. So she was not in the mood to get up early and head out into the cold darkness just to play the part of dutiful pastor’s wife.

Henry arrived at the church at about six, half an hour before the service was scheduled to begin. He found church secretary Tammy Billings already in the office. Tammy had given up coffee for Lent and now that it was Easter she had gotten to church early so she could make a big pot to break her fast. But after nearly six weeks without coffee, the caffeine was having a much greater impact than she was used to. She bounced around the office, vibrating with nervous energy.

“Good morning!” She yelled, then without pausing for a response, continued, “The pathways in the courtyard are really icy so Ralph is putting salt on them and then he’ll need your help to roll the piano out of the lounge for Walter so do you want a cup of coffee before then because I made a whole pot and I‘ve already had two cups.”

“Okay,” said Henry. He could use a little bit of that kind of energy.

“Great!” shouted Tammy. “I’ll get it.”

However, when Tammy was rushing back with Henry’s coffee her caffeine heightened enthusiasm led her to stumble and spill the cup of fresh, hot java all over the back of Henry’s suit pants.

Caught off guard by the sudden scalding of the back of his legs, Henry let out a scream that woke four people and six dogs in the surrounding community.

“I’m so sorry,” Tammy gasped. “Are you alright?”

Henry was in fact not badly burned. It was more the sudden shock that had elicited the yell. After reassuring Tammy that he did not need to be rushed to the emergency room, he went to the bathroom and rinsed out his pants in the sink, shivering in his Easter boxers.

Dressed again, he went to help Tammy’s husband Ralph and Walter Tibble, the organist, roll the battered old upright piano from the lounge out into the courtyard. This particular piano didn’t have the greatest tone but it was a sturdy old instrument that could take the abuse. Moving it into the courtyard was a tricky bit of business on the freshly salted but still icy cement paths. They just managed to get it positioned in time for the first arrivals, Del and Karen Winslow.

As it turned out Del and Karen were not only the first but the last worshipers to arrive for the sunrise service. It seemed most of the congregation was not inclined to attend an outdoor service in below freezing weather. Karen Winslow’s family had always gone to Easter sunrise services when she was a little girl and she determinedly kept the tradition alive out of nostalgia no matter what the weather. Del was simply a tough old guy who didn’t let a little thing like cold stop him from making his wife happy.

So the service started, Del and Karen sitting in the middle of the neatly arranged rows of metal folding chairs Tammy had set out. Pastor O’Donnell led an opening prayer, then Tammy led them in a hymn and Ralph read an extended passage from the bible.

As Ralph was reading, Henry heard a strange rhythmic rumbling coming from over by the piano. He realized the noise was emanating from Walter. Walter was not really a morning person and it seemed he had fallen asleep. As his snores grew louder, Henry and everyone else just tried to politely ignore them.

However, as Walter fell deeper into sleep he began to lean forward. His head came to rest against the piano. The salt still had not completely melted the ice from the cement below and the piano began to slide.

It slid out from under Walter, who fell forward. His forehead struck the piano keys, eliciting a jangled, atonal chord from the instrument and a jangled, atonal yelp from Walter.

The piano kept going. It spun slowly toward the two person congregation. Del and Karen scrambled to get out of its path.

Pastor O’Donnell leapt to his feet to help - and heard a ripping sound behind him.

Unbeknownst to him, his wet slacks had frozen to the folding chair which in turn had frozen to the cement. When Pastor O’Donnell jumped up, long strips of cloth had torn away from each pant leg leaving his Easter boxers and a good amount of his burn-reddened thighs exposed.

Ralph had arrested the progress of the piano before it reached the Winslows. “Disaster averted,” he said. But then Tammy started to laugh. She was the only one who could see what had happened to the Pastor at that point. Henry was flustered and turned in a circle, trying to assess the damage and unintentionally exposing himself to everyone else. Soon they were all cackling uncontrollably.

Henry had never been so grateful to see the sun rise as he was when it finally peaked over the steeple a few minutes later. He plowed through his sermon as fast as he could, his teeth chattering from the icy breeze now blowing up his backside.

Nobody complained about the truncated service. They were all happy to get inside and enjoy a nice hot cup of coffee. Henry, meanwhile, had to run home to change his pants.

When he walked into his kitchen, he discovered Jennifer awake and much more chipper than she had been earlier. She got a good laugh out of Henry’s story of the runaway piano and his frozen pants. Then she asked, “did you say something about a present earlier?”

Henry took her out to the garage and presented her with two bicycles. “I thought maybe when the weather got better we could start riding bikes. You know, to get some exercise and spend more time together.”

Jennifer was delighted. She gave Henry a big hug. Henry beamed knowing that he was finally out of the dog house for his recent dietary slips. And he had already planned the route of their first ride. One that would coincidentally take them right by Norm’s Normal Burger stand.

It was turning out not to be such a bad Easter after all for Pastor O’Donnell.

(c) 2008 Douglas J. Eboch