“Will she have the dye?” I asked. It was getting dark outside.
Without diverting his eyes from the Shreveport Times sports section, my father replied, “What?” before catching himself to add, “Oh, right. Yes. Jesus died for our sins.”
I paced about the living room, first checking a window facing the street and then a side window overlooking our driveway. Back and forth I went until the headlights of our gold 1972 Dodge Dart brightened my mood.
“Mama’s home!” I yelled.
“Don’t use the phone!” Daddy hollered back from two rooms over. “She’ll be home soon!”
Flinging my 7-year-old self through the front screened door, I ran toward the car like our house was on fire.
“What on earth?” Mama said, glancing at me briefly while trying to reassemble the contents of her purse. It had slid off the slick front bench seat and onto the floorboard.
“Where’s the Easter egg dye?” I panted, scanning the car for a grocery bag.
“The what?” she asked, before her realization and mine hit like a delayed grenade: she’d forgotten it.
Now, this was a big deal. Not only had she forgotten to get it two days earlier, but my father had also forgotten to get it the day before. This was our last chance before I had to show up at school with a dozen creatively dyed eggs for my second-grade Easter egg contest. The winner would take home a large chocolate bunny. The rest of the class would draw numbers to swap their eggs for someone else’s.
“What time is it?” Mama asked. The car was still running. “I don’t know,” I replied. “Get in,” she said.
Powering through Piggly Wiggly, we learned they were out of dye. So was A&P. So was TG&Y, which was about to close. Passing the counter, we spotted a little basket with neon green plastic grass. “How much?” Mama asked, holding it aloft. “For this little one? Free,” the clerk said. “Y’all have a happy Easter.”
I held it in my lap as we sat in silence on the drive home.
“What are we gonna do?” I asked.
“Well, I’ve been thinking,” Mama said on our way into the house. “Grab the blue felt from the drawers in the dining room and the green-and-red Christmas tree skirt in the pantry. And find some scissors. Oh, and get some glue and your magic markers. I’ll start boiling the eggs.”
“No time for questions,” she said, looking perturbed. “Just do what I say and meet me back at the kitchen table.”
As I hastily gathered the ingredients for whatever she was cooking up, I overheard this exchange.
“Johnny, did you eat some of the eggs we bought for Deedee’s school deal?”
“Well, I scrambled a couple for lunch today. And yesterday,” Daddy said. “Why?”
“Because we only have seven left!”
Distraught, I placed everything on the table.
“It’ll be fine,” Mama said, arranging things to her liking. I watched her use a pencil to draw shapes on our Christmas tree skirt.
“Help me,” she implored, tossing some felt my way. “We have to make hair and clothing.”
From our Christmas tree skirt?
I burst into tears, but Mama paid me no mind.
“If you’re not going to help, then go to your room.”
At that point, Daddy poked his head into the kitchen. “Freddie Lee, what’s for supper?”
“Whatever you’d like from the freezer,” she said, paying him no mind either.
Daddy motioned me toward the freezer. “Let’s see, what shall we make?” We perused some Swanson TV dinners. “I’ll cook us up something. And Dean Martin will be on soon,” he said reassuringly.
As we ate at our TV trays, Mama was busy in the kitchen, but I couldn’t bear to see what was happening. I went straight to bed.
The next morning, Daddy woke me up to get me ready for school. Mama had left earlier for work.
“Come look at this,” he said, beckoning me to the kitchen table. “Your mother wanted you to meet the French Egg Family. They’re having a picnic!”
The French Egg Family?
“This is Pierre with the beret,” Daddy said, channeling Captain Kangaroo. “And here’s Louie, the grandfather. He has the big mustache.” I stared blankly at the presentation. “This is Collette. She has curly red hair,” he said, flicking the tiny strands of felt Mama had glued on at some point during the night. “Oh! And here’s the baby, Jacques.”
Jacques’s tuft of red felt “hair”—a twisted curl glued to stand straight up—soon came into focus, as did his eyes, nose, and mouth, which, like the rest of his family’s faces, had been drawn on with black magic marker before Mama’s energy undoubtedly petered out.
“There’s one thing you should know, though,” Daddy said. “Make sure Jacques stays in his blanket. (He was swaddled in toilet paper.) Your Mama glued him in because he’s got a crack down his backside.”
I gazed into my cereal.
“Now, don’t be like that,” Daddy said. “Your mama stayed up late last night making these. You should be grateful.”
I nodded to be agreeable but drifted into what the French would call existential despair.
Before long, Daddy and I were walking toward my school, which was two blocks away. En route, the French Egg Family rolled around in the grass of their picnic. Collette was facedown. “I think she’s had too much to drink,” Daddy said, making me smile—but only temporarily.
As my elementary school loomed near, I hugged Daddy goodbye and continued on—but at a snail’s pace. I stopped and looked back. Daddy was heading the other direction. I looked at the eggs. I looked up at the school. I looked back at Daddy, who was fading out of sight. I then spied some large azalea bushes in front of a house close to the school. And before I knew it, I was tossing the French Egg Family under the bushes. I found another shrub next to the school to temporarily stash my basket.
The deed was done. No French Egg Family would be accompanying me to class. But my decision to ditch them had me in hot water. I would need to fib about their whereabouts. I told my teacher I’d left my eggs at home.
“Oh no,” she said, looking disappointed, but in a comforting tone added, “Well, that’s perfectly fine. Why don’t you help me set up the tables?”
The assignment helped the day fly by. A winner was chosen, Easter eggs were exchanged, and no one seemed to notice I had no eggs in the game. When the bell rang, the teacher called me to her desk. “Thank you for your help today,” she said. She then gave me six colorfully wrapped chocolate eggs. I put them in my little white purse with pride. Her compassion meant more to me than she would ever know.
Outside the school, I retrieved my camouflaged basket, added my chocolate eggs, and breathed a sigh of relief. The crisp spring air put a pep in my step, and Daddy and I met half the way home.
“Hey, hey! You won!” he said, gleefully taking my basket. “Your mama’s gonna be so proud.”
Not wanting to tell another fib, I didn’t say a word. I simply smiled. The same went when my mother got home and saw the golden eggs. “How wonderful!” she beamed. “You see? It pays to be creative. You don’t have to be like everybody else.”
I retreated to my room, where my Barbies’ complicated lives helped distract me from the guilt that lingered through that Easter weekend.
By Monday morning, I thought the drama was behind me—until I came upon the house near my school. Something smelled to high heaven. It was a stench I recognized: rotten eggs. The crazy French Egg Family was taking its revenge—not only on me, but also on the homeowners. (I’ve often wondered what they thought after finding the odiferous culprits, one of them wearing a beret.)
Thirty years later, my mother joined my husband and me at an Easter brunch. It was an annual event hosted by our friends Julie and Michael Sunich, who at that time lived in the picturesque, horse-filled countryside north of Tampa, Florida. Several years earlier, my mother had retired and moved to Sun City Center, an hour south of Tampa, but by now, her health was failing. We didn’t know it then, but that Easter would be her last. She would soon be diagnosed with lung cancer.
But for the day’s festive occasion, Mama found the strength to dress in her Easter best and savor a sultry afternoon on the Suniches’ long screened porch (which can be seen in our book Porch Parties). Bourbon punch and shrimp and grits paired beautifully. So did the Spanish moss swaying in the trees and the excited voices of children hunting for eggs.
Eyeing some of their colorfully dyed finds, Mama regaled the crowd with a story I had long since buried: The forgotten dye that led to the birth of the French Egg Family. Collette, Jacques, Pierre, Louie, and the rest came back to life. And by the way she described them, all were worthy of being displayed at the Smithsonian.
“Oh, how she cried,” Mama said, dramatically placing her palm against her forehead as she detailed my youthful skepticism and disappointment over the felt-wearing eggs. “But they won!”
“You two are so funny,” Julie said. “And so creative.”
While some friends practically cried with laughter, my own eyes welled with tears, but for a different reason.
Whether I should have taken the crazy French Egg Family to class is a question best left to a therapist. But in that moment, I saw the situation with fresh eyes—and humility. Mama had come home from work exhausted, driven around Shreveport fruitlessly searching for dye, skipped dinner to boil what few eggs we had (and surely fretted, maybe even cried, when some cracked), and sacrificed our Christmas tree skirt to make eggs I could be proud of: eggs representing her indomitable sense of joie de vivre.
Thankfully, I had the wherewithal to tell her right then and there how special those eggs were—and how I loved her for making them. She smiled and gave me a loving little pinch.
Text by Denise Gee
In our 2022 essay series, author Denise Gee shares memories and personal tales that celebrate the inimitable joys and escapades of Southern life. A Natchez, Mississippi, native, she is the author of six acclaimed books on Southern entertaining and design. Denise has worked for decades as a writer, editor, and stylist for magazines including Southern Living, Better Homes and Gardens and Coastal Living—and now, Southern Lady. She and her photographer-husband, Robert Peacock, make their home in McKinney, Texas. For more, visit denisegee.com.
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