So this is the job.*
My father, Joel Alvin Olberg, a Lutheran preacher born and raised in Minnesota, a Norwegian, a graduate of St. Olaf’s College and a former Marine, would rise in the dark early hours on Easter morning, waking his wife and children if we were needed at the first service of the day, the sunrise service. My mother would have made cinnamon rolls the night before, and my father would eat one of them, standing up in the quiet kitchen, with a cup of instant coffee. Then he would dress in his white robes and purple vestments, or sometimes a suit and tie, depending on his plans for the morning. He would step into the garage and get into our green Ford station wagon, either alone or with those from the family who were needed for the service or just wanted to go. He would leave earlier than the distance required because he did not like to be late for anything.
He would have selected a special location for the sunrise service, in a park or an elevated open space, where the gathered few could watch the sun rise over the foothills of Northern California. It was usually cool and clear, but sometimes fog would surround everyone. In any case it would be a quick and informal service, with a couple of simple hymns that did not require accompaniment, a brief sermon, and sometimes some special things. Once for an Easter sunrise service my father asked my eldest sister Charlotte to stand away from the crowd behind a tree and, on cue, sing the hymn Beautiful Savior a cappella.
The main event of the service would be the reading of the Easter story, of Mary Magdalene and her women returning to the tomb where they had laid Jesus to rest only days before, his battered body wrapped in linen, after the crucifixion. At the tomb the women found the stone rolled away, and no need for the spices and ointments they had prepared for a dead body.
“He is risen!” my father would bellow in his deep voice, his arms stretching out wide, with genuine joy. He was a fervent believer. It was not just for show.
My mother, Borghild Elizabeth Towe Olberg, the daughter of another Lutheran minister, also a Norwegian, might have been needed at the service too for any number of duties — arranging Easter lilies, leading hymns, or taking care of her children or an infirm parishoner. In our early years she was a relaxed preacher’s wife who knew the expectations and fulfilled them with poise. For a few Easters, perhaps just one, she sewed matching dresses for my two sisters and me. Her sewing was just about perfect, and she took great care with it. She meticulously starched and ironed our Easter clothes. We sometimes had new white patent leather shoes too, gleaming from a hand-rubbed polishing with Vaseline.
Our brother Mark, ten years younger than me, and fifteen years younger than Charlotte, would often have a new spring-colored shirt and haircut for Easter. He had a stubborn, white-blond cowlick and a sunny disposition. My sisters and I fawned on him terrible, as did my parents then.
Late on the night before Easter, my mother would have not only made cinnamon rolls, the homemade kind, with yeasted dough that would require careful rising under tea towels, she would have also made Easter baskets for each of the children and placed them just inside the front door of the house. They would be filled with green plastic grasses and candies and would always include a large milk chocolate bunny, in profile, with one white and yellow hard-candy eye.
Sometimes we had chicks, too, real ones, that arrived at Easter but later disappeared, probably to the dinner table. My parents loved animals, and we had many of them — cats, dogs, parakeets, turtles, rabbits, even chinchillas — but my father was a farm-raised man, and in the end the chickens at least were put to a practical purpose.
Although my father appeared to enjoy the sunrise service on Easter, it was also the beginning of a long and important day for him and for the business of the church. I didn’t realize it when I was very young, wearing new dresses and white patent letter shoes. For him there was a singular pressure to the day. As a mission pastor, someone whose job it was to move to promising communities and build new congregations from nothing, my father knew that Easter was the day when new prospects would come to the church, many with the idea of joining the parish if it felt right. Increasing membership in the congregation was a constant pressure, even a competition among fellow pastors in the region, and their wives.
In and around the two towns where we established churches in Northern California — Fairfield, in 1956, and Cupertino, in 1963 — there were many undeclared Protestants whom my father called “C&E-ers,” people who attended church only on Christmas and Easter. It was important to make a good impression if they came, to make people feel welcomed and attracted to the congregation. So much depended on it, and it was something my father did well — the welcoming of people, the face-to-face greeting from a new preacher to a new person, old or young, the immediate transmission of trust and graciousness — these came naturally to my father.
He once told me that he learned to remember people’s names by visualizing on their foreheads the first letter of their first name – O for Oliver, J for Julia, and so on. I still do this now when I meet new people and struggle with names and faces as my father never did.
I’m sure it helped with bringing in new members that my father was a handsome man, full of life, who made people feel at ease. He had a welcoming face, tanned from a love of the outdoors, a wide smile, bright blue Scandinavian eyes, a strong deep voice, and a solid handshake. He transmitted the earnestness of a true believer, yet he wasn’t too pushy or too religious. He had chosen a profession that fit him very well and you could see that.
Before Easter Sunday my father made sure there was a special round of cleaning and decorating in the church foyer and sanctuary. Floors were vacuumed and polished, windows washed, lights dusted, and alter candles checked and replaced. When I was in my teens, my father would bring home the stubs of spent church candles for me, since I liked to melt them down to make new candles. Church candles were made of the best bee’s wax, so they were treasures. Making candles at home was a fad for a time, like macrame. My parents were amazingly tolerant of these messy interests of their children.
These pre-Easter rituals took place at the end of the Lenten season, during Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. It is a cinematic week, with so much material to work with for Christian churches and their pastors — the welcoming of Jesus into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey over palm leaves placed there by welcoming crowds, on Palm Sunday; the Last Supper and the creation of the Eucharist; the invited betrayal of Judas; the confused trial before Pontius Pilot; the denials of Peter, one of my favorite biblical stories; and finally the crucifixion, the resurrection, and those women finding the stone rolled away. Whether you believe it as gospel or myth, it is powerful stuff, with plenty for an earnest preacher to use as source material and inspiration for a week of church events.
Beyond all the special services, cleaning, choir rehearsals, and sermon preparation, my father had regular ministerial activities to attend to during Holy Week. If there were church members in the hospital or in need of special counseling, my father made sure these duties were not left undone. These were his highest priorities, visitations and calls that few people knew about outside of those he visited and his family. We knew how often he was gone, and how we were expected to understand and support these attentions to others. We were expected to put others in the church before ourselves. That went without saying.
After the sunrise service, which usually brought out only a small crowd, there were two additional Easter services, the first from nine to ten o’clock in the morning, and the second, larger service from eleven to noon. Sunday School classes took place in between, although sometimes not on Easter. It was always a very full day after a long season of Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and finally Easter.
The eleven o’clock service was the centerpiece of the day, and brought many new people, young families and a few single people, newly alone from divorce, relocation by the military, or just alone.
By this final service, the front of the sanctuary would be full of potted Easter lilies, brought in by parishoners, and the scent was almost too powerful, too sensual. The women were often dressed up, with new hats, dresses, shoes, gloves, and purses; most men were in their Sunday best, some in military uniform. Many children were in picture-perfect Easter clothing too, their shoes also shiny and new.
There might be special music for this service, sometimes brass horn players or a soloist. My mother either sang in the choir or sometimes directed it. Others in the church made felt banners for Easter, in purple and white, showing an empty cross or more Easter lilies. These images were also featured on the front of the church bulletins, sent to my father by the American Lutheran Church, the ALC, his real employer in these days. Each Saturday my father would type a special stencil of the program for the Sunday services and use a mimeograph machine to press his particular program on to the blank side of the colored bulletins. I helped on many Saturdays to fold church bulletins into neat stacks for each service. They always smelled of fresh ink.
The Easter sermon was often shorter than a usual one, because of the special music and readings, or maybe because it was a better for making newcomers feel comfortable. My father wrote and delivered wonderful sermons and he was proud of them. Sometimes he would practice his Sunday sermons on Saturday night, sitting in the station wagon in our attached garage. He said he liked the acoustics in the car, and he could practice alone, at home. Ours was a small house, so we could hear his muffled, deep voice preaching away from the garage, as we sat in the kitchen or family room, while my mother made cinnamon rolls for Sunday morning, ironed clothes or linens, or attended to sewing projects. These were our halcyon days.
By noontime on Easter Sunday, all the services were usually over. We would return home at about one o’clock or one-thirty, after all the people had been greeted and invited back; after the last talkative church member had huddled with my father or mother to discuss a sick parent, wayward child, or troublesome neighbor; after the offering had been counted and placed in the dark brown cloth bank bag, for deposit the following day by the church treasurer; after the sanctuary lights and heat were turned off and the flowers taken away by members or guests, or those going to make hospital visits. After, after, after. My mother and her children would so want to get home by this time on any Sunday, but especially on Easter.
We would return home, and the house would smell of ham or roast beef, which my mother would have prepared in advance with carrots, onions, and potatoes and placed in the oven earlier in the day. We would sit down for Sunday supper together, the five or six of us, my father and mother, my two older sisters and me, and later my brother. We would eat too quickly, as we often did, and tell stories about people in church, not all of them charitable.
My mother would have made a special dessert, maybe banana or chocolate cream pie, and she would make coffee to go along with it. After Sunday supper, after a long season of preparations and three Easter services, my father would retire alone to his recliner in the family room and fall asleep in front of the television, broadcasting a baseball game if one were on. My mother would carefully save leftovers in small bowls covered with plastic wrap. She would rinse the dishes and load the dishwasher. Then she would carefully take off her Easter clothes, put on a house dress, and lie down for a nap in the master bedroom at the back of the house. We children would change out of our Easter clothes too and eat our chocolates, too many of them.
Fifty years later, my eldest sister Charlotte continues to send me an Easter package every year, a remembrance of these times, filled with green plastic grasses and chocolates, much better ones now.
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“”This is the job,” as I recall is the first sentence of another book, which I am trying to track down. When I do, I’ll ask the author or permission to use it here. – Diane