When I was a little girl, Lent was a time of anticipation. I remember watching a vase of sticks underneath the statue of the Blessed Virgin. As the 40 days and 40 nights progressed, the twigs turn into beautiful yellow flowers, filling the church with the promise of better days to come.
And, of course sacrifice there was sacrifice.
I always gave something up for Lent. I got to pick my “give-up” except for the one big thing Mom picked out for the whole family, that I had to do whether I liked it or not.
Me and my best-friend-at-school Connie, liked to sacrifice by walking to church at Noon Hour on Fridays and doing the Stations of the Cross. We put on our snow-pants and boots, coats and mittens, and slap-footed out the big double doors; not the ones to the playground, the ones at the front of the school. Our moms wrote notes giving us permission; still we felt like the high schoolers, who could go downtown every Noon Hour, without notes from home. Me and Connie walked along with Daylene, who went home for lunch. Daylene’s mom was Cherokee, something I found out after I was all grown up. Nobody talked about where they were from, or who their ancestors were, that was as boring as History, we just talked about where our dads worked. Most of the dads worked in The Shop making cars; my dad worked for Bell Telephone fixing lines and phones and doing installations. He had all kinds of neat stories about strange people he met all day long and jams he got himself into. I was proud of my dad ’cause he did something no other dads did. Connie’s dad was a principal at a school that only had High School kids, not like ours that had high schoolers and grade schoolers and kindergarteners; he had loads of funny stories, too, and sometimes he told jokes that me and Connie didn’t understand, like the one about the Teddy Bear saying he had cotton balls. Connie’s big brother thought that one was hilarious; we never did figure it out. Our funniest joke was: What happened when the Indian drank too much Red Rose Tea? He drowned in his Tee-Pee. I never stopped laughing about that one.
Anyways, after Daylene’s house, we walked to St. Joseph’s and did The Stations. Sister said some people did all The Stations on their knees because they wanted to suffer like Jesus did; there was even a place overseas someplace where people walked on their knees four miles praying and saying the rosary. Me and Connie didn’t want to suffer that much, and we had to get downtown to buy some Faygo to have with our peanut butter sandwiches, so we just said The Stations in the usual way, except we walked around reading the prayers and genuflecting, instead of sitting in the pew while the priest and the altar boys walked around. There was no incense, like when the priest does The Stations, so I breathed in real deep to get some leftover smell from Sunday. I felt a little bit holy when we push the door open and the bright sun hits us in the face.
One year I gave up all candy. Every Sunday after church, Dad gave me a nickle to buy candy at Glebe’s, unless I was bad in church, then I got a scolding. Once when I was talking, Mom made me kneel in the vestibule and think about how bad I was for the whole rest of Mass, I didn’t get any candy that week. Most of the time I was good, though. The year I gave up candy, Dad let me spend my nickle anyway, and I put my candy away in a paper sack until Easter came. Every Sunday, I emptied the bag on my bed and counted up the loot. That was the keenest idea ever, ’cause when Easter came I added what was in my paper sack to what the Easter Bunny left, and I had three times the candy as all the other kids. All that candy tasted three times as good too, since I hadn’t had any for 40 days and 40 nights. I only did that one year, ’cause I had a bad cases of the runs the next day, and after that, even thinking about it gave me cramps.
Mom made the whole family give up television one Lent. The first week was really hard, because we didn’t know where to eat our popcorn on Saturday night. That’s the night we watched Ponderosa. Deanna liked Adam the best ’cause he was the handsomest. Bonita liked Little Joe; I liked Hoss the best, ’cause he just looked like he needed a hug and because most of the girls on the show were after Adam and Little Joe, so I figured Hoss needed someone to consider him the best. Mom always made a big bowl of popcorn, and put it in front of the TV so Deanna, Bonita, Vickie, Loren, and I could eat until our bellies popped out and we looked like we were going to have babies. That first week without TV, Mom just put the popcorn bowl on the floor in front of the TV anyway. We just sat around in front of a blank screen, chowing down looking like we were watching something. After that, Mom got Lad a Dog, from the Bookmobile and read it to us. I liked that a whole lot better than TV; still after Easter, I was happy to see Hoss on the Ponderosa again.
Back then, Lent was a somber time of the year: We fasted every day, abstained every Friday, prayed and sacrificed things that were important to us. There was a real sense of community supporting our efforts. Like winter twigs, we transformed, and we grew, and perhaps with a bit of forcing, we blossomed.
It’s difficult to know how good it was for my soul, but I know it was good for my spirit: It taught me how to focus and it taught me self-control, it helped me try new things, and it taught me that anticipation can make life a little sweeter. I’ve continued the practice, some years with more enthusiasm than others. This year, perhaps more begrudgingly than some others.
Yesterday, forsythias forced to bloom in front of the Virgin Mary sprouted up from my memory. I went out in the cold and clipped a vaseful of twigs. I hope they inspire me to do better, be better, and love more throughout the year.