Many people cherish the custom of decorating eggs because, for them, it symbolizes a new season and a fresh beginning. For me, however, Easter eggs signify the beginning of an end as they always evoke memories of a particular spring when I became gravely obsessed with egg art, thanks to my then-employer, an elderly widow named Dorothy Wetzel.
My first job was being a lawn boy for Mrs. Wetzel, who was a German immigrant, still had quite a strong accent and, at age 80-plus, clearly resented that she needed help doing household chores. At first, she made me feel rather like an intruder. Soon enough, however, I was spending every Saturday at her house mowing the lawn, weeding the garden, washing windows, vacuuming or dusting. Not that there was ever much dust. Mrs. Wetzel was compulsively neat. She ironed her dishtowels.
We managed to dispense with chores relatively quickly as I recall, turning then to lunch preparation. She'd prepare robust old-country fare such as oxtail soup or pork cooked in sauerkraut and while we ate she'd tell me about her Bavarian childhood. This was just two decades after World War II and I now realize that she'd lived through the horrors of Nazism. But I was too naive to ask and she never spoke of it.
Mrs. Wetzel was probably a little lonely. How else was I to understand why she paid me the same hourly rate whether I was raking leaves or learning how to knit?
As our weekly routine developed, you see, most of our time together was spent on increasingly elaborate art projects.
Master of all handicrafts, she taught me to make slipcovers for clothes hangers by weaving tight knots of yarn onto them. We fashioned hot plates that looked like clusters of purple grapes, but were actually felt-covered bottle caps. We crocheted bath mats from supermarket bread's plastic bags, cut into long strips. Mrs. Wetzel didn't find it at all peculiar that I expressed no interest in sports or friends my own age, but preferred to spend afternoons with her, learning to sew or cook spaetzle. Probably, I was a little lonely, too.
My three years with her, roughly from ages 11 to 14, might have happily continued. Instead, once when we were seated together, I noticed through the short sleeve of her blouse that a deep, ominous-looking red scar now emerged from her armpit. She began draping a scarf around her head and when it slipped, I saw she'd become bald. Mrs. Wetzel never mentioned her illness. Neither did I. We had more important things to worry about.
Like Easter eggs. Over the years, we'd assayed various decorative techniques. She taught me to make natural dyes from beets, carrots and dandelion greens. We'd nearly perfected the art of batik, drawing on eggs with wax, so the tint wouldn't take where wax was applied. That final spring, though, Mrs. Wetzel devised a new challenge. We'd poke a pin into both ends of an egg, liquefy the yolk and blow it out into a bowl. Then, with a pair of manicuring scissors we painstakingly snipped a window into the shell and decorated its inside.
Faberge had nothing on us as we labored with jeweler's magnifying lens attached to our foreheads. We both went a little crazy, I think, as we created ever more elaborate miniatures. We spent hours with tweezers and toothpicks and teeny droplets of Elmer's Glue. One clumsy move and the whole would be crushed, and hours of work wasted. Watching Mrs. Wetzel labor to arrange a line of sequins, one by one, into a perfect spiral, I learned patience and stick-to-itiveness. "It's not finished till it's finished," she'd always say.
The fragility of it all. And, yes, the unlikeliness not only of our enterprise, but of us -- an odd couple to be sure. Sometimes, Mrs. Wetzel would tire and I'd catch her dozing. It was strange to be in her silent, immaculately clean house, the only sound being an occasional chirp from a sinister cuckoo clock. Our exquisite little world was starting to crack.
Which is why I worked so hard on my piece de resistance: a forest fantasy, the egg's interior painted as if at dusk, with tiny evergreen trees in the foreground and, way in back, a lone deer up on the hill.
She opened her eyes. "Yes, dear."
I showed her my egg. "It's Bavaria." I was thrilled to be speaking this exotic word out loud.
She peered at it through her jeweler's glass, smiled, and put it in a place of honor in her Easter basket.
"It's finished," she said.