Mari Katherine Raftopoulos: An awkward holiday, a void filled

Sunday marked a much different holiday for me.

It was my first Greek Easter spent away from family.

A holiday on your own, without family, is like your 19th birthday - you're of age to do almost anything you want, but turning 21 is too far away. It's like an awkward birthday.

For example: There wasn't an Easter basket with malt balls outside my bedroom door. There wasn't a strapless spring dress hanging in my closet for Easter day service. The slaphappy feeling on Sunday morning you get from being at church until 3 the morning before was missing.

And my hands are not dyed red from the countless games of Christos Anesti.

What replaced it?

Hollowness in not being with my family on Easter. There was a void.

So, how did I fill this void, this awkward holiday?

Church.

Holy week in the Greek Orthodox Church is the most sacred time of year. It is the time of year when, no matter where you are in the world, if you are Greek, you find a church to attend for the week. And you know that if you have been slacking on your church attendance, an appearance to church during holy week can redeem you. Everyone shows up.

I woke up Sunday morning for Palm Sunday service to the buzzing of a text message from my mother reading, "Don't forget to go to church honey, LOVE MOM." It was her way of including me in my family's visit to church that day. On any other day, an early-morning text from my mother would have resulted in a phone silence and sigh of disgust.

But today, it was comforting to know that we would be in the same place, just 1,000 miles apart.

With 30 minutes to spare and only a 15-minute commute, I was ready.

This was different from another tradition from my youth. I was never early to church.

I cannot remember a time when I had my hair in place, the right shoes with the right dress and the right attitude to go to church on time.

Most of the time, I was the reason the whole family was late to church on Sundays.

"When you get older missy," my mom would lecture, "I can tell you right now, you will want to be to church on time."

My standard response would be a calm, "Better late than never."

But today, I was ready.

I was ready to prove my mother right in something I always wanted to prove her wrong in.

I would be to church on time.

As I reached for the door of the church, I got butterflies in my stomach like it was my first day of school. I was accustomed to the norms of my church back home and was nervous that I wouldn't fit in here.

In my church back home, there are unspoken rules that everyone knows. For example, there aren't place cards on the pews labeling where each family sits, but it is an unspoken rule that everyone sits in the same pew or area each service. This is the reason why, when I went to church, I sat in the side corner, making sure I didn't step on anyone's territory.

Still, the atmosphere was welcoming. And the nerves escaped me as soon as I sat down. Because my family wasn't there, I found individuals within the congregation that resembled members of my family. My Papou was three pews to the left, reciting all of the Ancient Greek hymns. My cousins were in the pew ahead of me, standing on the kneel step to appear taller. And my brothers were to my right, asking my mother what time it was until the potluck lunch.

Although these people were all strangers, I found within them characteristics of the people that make this holiday so special to me: my family.

I welcomed them into my family; they welcomed me into their congregation.

And the void was temporarily filled.

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