It was a different time. Television remote controls meant the youngest child turned the dial on command (at least in my family). We had a particular skill at setting the “rabbit ears” so the screen fuzz would matriculate into a picture — at least as long as the aluminum foil at the tip of the antenna held the signal.
The family phone line was shared by all seven of us and when the timer rang, no matter the importance of the call, someone else was in line. There were things that were just bound to happen — like what my Dad would give up for Lent.
It was a different time. Marlboro Reds went where my Dad did. Every shirt had a pocket on the left hand side for the box of Marlboro’s and I found the familiar hint of smoke part of the smell that made my world feel safe and right. It meant my Dad was home.
Lent was different, though. At the mark of 12 a.m. on Ash Wednesday, he would pack up any leftover boxes and they went on the shelf in his closet. It still amazes me that he had this amazing resilience to make the choice not to smoke during Lent, and keeping a few handy in the closet made it a choice, not a removal of the possibility. Even when a quadruple by-pass made the decision to quit a final one, he kept a carton of Marlboro Reds — just in case he changed his mind. (Clearly, that portion of the DNA structure got used up in my four older siblings as I prefer not to have the source of problems within my reach).
Every Lent he stopped on the moment that Ash Wednesday began and started again at the moment that the chimes began to ring in Easter. There was the annual conversation as my mother would implore him to keep up the Lenten fast after Easter Alleluia had begun and he would simply respond, “But if I stop smoking, what will I give up for Lent? There is simply nothing else to change.” With the emphatic blend of Irish and German wit and clarity she would quickly retort, “I would be happy to provide you a list of what else needs to change.”
What I didn’t know until far into my adult years was that there was a second part to the Lenten formula. In my Dads dresser, there was a mason jar for Lent and into that jar, even in times of financial distress, there was a daily deposit for every day of the smokeless Lent. On Easter Sunday, every dollar saved was equally divided between their two favorite charities, half to St. Jude to whom my mother gave credit for my father’s return from the war, and half to the St. Vincent De Paul Society, a passionate work through all of my father’s life. No fanfare or acclamation or recognition, just a check written at the end of Lent, even when the weekly food budget was stretched beyond reason.
I’ve been thinking in the last few days about how my sense of Lent was shaped by watching them. Not words, but actions. Not lectures, but living. Not dramatic statements of perfection, but the evidence of change. Refraining, releasing, refusing is not really the lesson of Lent. But it’s what happens because we make the choice. While I thought the point of doing without the Marlboro Reds was the sacrifice of withdrawal, in fact — it was the only way that there would be something to give to others. I nearly missed the point.
Maybe, the real point, is to keep the outcome hidden — get our habits that keep us stuck in ourselves out of the way, so God’s light can shine through us. Perhaps, what today means for us is to let go of that which takes up our space and time, so that we are able to give from the hidden jar of treasure that we don’t even realize we have. We abstain from one thing so that something else is possible. It’s not the abstinence that is the point, it’s what it makes possible. And yet, without letting go of the Marlboro Reds, there would have been nothing to give.
Sometimes, the Marlboro Reds in my life are clear — but more often, I have to look for the source that blocks the giving. More often, Lent becomes a detective novel of discovery in the interior chapters of my life to see what needs to be on the fasting list. Then, I can discover the feasting of giving instead of needing.
Happy ASH Thursday — the warm-up days before the real training arrives!