... seemed like a good idea at the time.
Joe, about eleven years old, maybe only ten, is sitting next to his mother as
they head toward Boston on what was then known as the Boston Elevated
Railway. They're on one of the rail cars whose ultimate destination will be
Forest Hills where, upon arrival, it will be turned around and headed back to
its original starting point, Everett.
Everett is where they got on after a trackless trolley ride from Malden. The
trolley stop in Malden is almost directly in front of Joe's house on Cross
Street. If its a rainy day, passengers who are waiting for the trolley will come
up and stand under the roof of his front piazza to stay dry.
It's not raining today and Joe and his mother are relatively comfortable as
they sit on the bench-like seats that run front to back of the El car. There Ôs
another bench directly opposite them with most of the seats occupied.
Almost nobody is standing in the large corridor-like space that runs between
the benches. During rush hour on weekdays this space will be crowded with
standees holding onto poles or hang straps which will keep them from
falling as the train rolls and lurches forward to its next stop.
On the wall area just above and behind the hang straps cardboard adverting
signs about 1 foot high and three feet wide repeat one after another down
the length of the car. Joe is mindlessly looking up at them until one of them
brings him to a riveting stop. "Peanuts for Lent," it says.
The sign itself is printed in leaden purple, the same color as the shrouds that
cover the statues at church. The statues will stay covered all during Lent. It's
the same color as the vestments the priest will wear when he says Mass
during Lent. Purple, the color of fasting and abstinence, the two
requirements of the faithful during the 40 days of lent.
It is also the color of the sign that says "Peanuts for Lent" a sign that has
provoked a feeling of joy in Joe's eleven-year old heart. In accordance with
instruction and admonition he has given up something in observance of the
Lenten Fast. Joe has given up candy. It is a painful sacrifice.
An opportunity at hand.
The sign is a life changer. Previous to his commitment he could go to
Vellman's a tiny little variety store near the corner of Cross and Tufts Streets,
where for three or even two cents he would identify his pick from a number
of sugary, jelly candies that were in the open box displays behind the glass-
covered counter. Mrs. Vellman would reach in and pick them out, one by
one, with her bare hand and stick them into a little envelope-like, wax paper
bag which she would pass over to Joe.
This whole delicious experience would be gone for the forty days of Lent.
But the sign on the El changes everything. The issue is now peanuts for Lent
and peanuts which are not candy. Joe loves peanuts. He loves them as much
as he loves candy. He feels elated by the liberating sign which excludes
peanuts from the give-up-candy deal he made for Lent.
A self-justified substitution.
Joe's favorite are the Planter's peanuts that come in a transparent pouch-
like, cylindrical bag. You can see the peanuts which are the big, yellow ones
that are sprinkled with big granules of white salt. The peanuts are kind of
shiny because they're covered with some kind of oil which makes the salt
granules stick to them.
The oil presents kind of a problem. If you pour the peanuts out of the bag
into your hand you're left with a greasy palm after you've eaten them. To
avoid this you tear the top off the bag, open it, and then hold your head
back to pour the peanuts down into your mouth. After you get a mouthful
you close the bag and save the rest of the peanuts for later. The process
leaves at least two if not three delicious mouthfuls left and your hands are
dry as a bone.
The peanut deal seems almost to good to be true and everything comes
apart when Joe's Mother says to him while he's chomping away, "What are
you eating?" She is not a screamer or a yeller and instead of a dressing down
for reneging on his Lenten commitment she starts with the questions. One
by one they come and Joe knows that he's slowly being backed into a corner.
The killer question comes when she asks, "Aren't you eating one thing you
like instead of eating another thing you like and then calling it a sacrifice?
Where is the sacrifice you promised?" In a fall-back defense he tells her
about the peanuts sign on the train but she responds with a sad smile. Face
it, Joe says to himself in a wordless concession, I am totally screwed on my
Right or wrong over Joe's whole lifetime Lent has meant giving something
up. He continued the candy thing for years and in High School included a
newly acquired habit, smoking. When Lent was over he would go right back
to what he had given up, sort of a goofy vindication of his 40-day sacrifice.
Even in Korea he felt that he had to give something up for Lent. You really
had to look around to find something you could give up when you are in
Korea during the war. For Joe it was the first piece of fresh fruit he had seen
in months. The orange he had saved to eat later instead was passed to a
scrawny Korean guy dressed in tatters who walked by Joe when he was
pulling guard duty on the road that ran by his Battery.
Instead of feeling inspired by his sacrifice he was infuriated with himself. He
was doing something because of a compulsion to give something up for
Lent. What's so holy about that?
Getting a grip on things.
Eventually his attitude would change. He realized that he wasn't dealing with
a compulsion but with an intention. Giving in to an unreasonable demand
wasn't the issue. Giving something up for Lent wasn't a goal in itself, but it
was a way of recognizing and honoring what Someone Else had sacrificed.
There have been some unexpected, unintended benefits to the ongoing
giving things up for Lent. The first year he was married Joe gave up smoking
for Lent. Smoking was cool in the late 50's, adverse health was never a
consideration. His intention of giving up smoking was a way to endure a
Lenten sacrifice not to stop a habit that was bad for his health.
In Korea he could buy cigarettes for 10 cents a pack. A meaningful habit
resulted that carried over all through college and into his first job. By the
time he was married he was smoking three packs of Camels every day. He
didn't realize what he was getting into when he went cold turkey on his
A holy trick of the trade.
If quitting hadn't been based on a committal to do it for Lent Joe never would
have made it. He refused to bail out on that promise. It took longer than 40
days to be free of the habit. He had been an addict who just didn't know it. It
wasn't until years later before the unexpected results of not giving up on his
Lenten commitment became known. He realized then that his "give it up for
Lent" pledge resulted in benefits that he never expected when he started the
The ugly yellow nicotine stains were gone from his fingers. His meals didn't
taste like they had been strained through a tobacco filter and above all the
intermittent, day-long hacking cough was gone. He recalled that none of
these things had been anticipated benefits of his original quitting
commitment. He recalled, too, that without the commitment he never would
have even considered giving up smoking. And, unlike his other 40-day
commitments he never returned to smoking when Lent was over.
Many years after he had stopped the consequences of smoking became a
highly published social issue. Debilitating health, even life-threatening
issues for smokers resulting in multi-million dollar lawsuits were part of
heavy media coverage about the consequences of smoking. Now in his
fifties it was not lost on Joe, that he, too, quite likely would have been one of
the victims of a smoking habit.
Every once in awhile he thinks of the reason he quit. If it was not faith it was
at least faith based. He gave up something because it was Lent. Not a perfect
reason but close to it. Sometimes he ponders about how differently he feels
now about this commitment he made when he was in his late twenties. This
was a pledge made not to improve his own health but so that he could better
recognize Someone Else.
Joe's long past the obligations imposed by a Lenten Fast. Still, he finds
something to give up. He chuckles when he thinks of Mrs. Vellman and the
sugar candies. He thinks too, of his orange and the guy in Korea, and instead
of anger feels happy that he did it.
March 6, 2015