Catholic School, Latino Family Traditions

Ash Wednesday and Lent, Memories of Catholic School

catholic church
Catholic Church, photo by Jason Mrachina, Tn. Flickr.com

 

Today is Ash Wednesday, a Catholic tradition that marks the start of the Lenten season. Or to us Catholic school kids, who’ll never forget, it’s time to give up something for 40 days to remind us of sacrifice.

Everyone strolled around the neighborhood with their ash crosses on their forehead, a mark of a ‘good Catholic,’ on Ash Wednesday. You didn’t have one, you must be late to church, hurry, the priest is there until eight at night.

During grammar and high school, no student got a free pass on the ashes. If you were on your death bed, you got ashes. And don’t try to tell a teacher you went to church at six-thirty in the morning with your mom, washed your face and the ashes came off. We had to wash around the ashes. Everyone knew that. A double dose of ashes for you.

The teachers lined the entire school up, two by two, like little kids boarding Noah’s Ark. First graders walked to church first, followed by the rest. The trip to church was the best part.

We counted how many kids fell off the sidewalk, ran into a pole, or lurched over a fire hydrant. They didn’t get any sympathy from the teachers because they ‘should be watching instead of talking.’

Smoldering trails of incense, sweaty kids, and corn chips smelled up the church on Ash Wednesday. Into the pews went the first graders until the last eighth grader sat.

ash wednesday
The last one in line typically got this smudge of ashes.

 

Row by row we stepped into line, waited for the priest to smudge our forehead. First graders got a nice, neat black cross. The eighth graders got either a letter J or some kind of ashy Rorschach blot.

Dinner conversation on Ash Wednesday covered the items we had to give up.  Candy, soda, or Hostess cupcakes were the standard fare. The Hostess cupcakes was a good one because we rarely had those. They didn’t put those items out at the Weber Bread outlet, only those crusty apple, or lemon turnovers.

If it was Friday, we had fish, or shrimp with nopales (cactus), or nopales with chile, or mac and cheese, anything without meat.

We counted off each day until Good Friday, not because we looked forward to fasting one meal but because of the Passion Procession.

Kid you not, we had a genuine procession from the old church to the newer one with real people playing the part of Christ, Mary, and the Roman Soldiers, with their uniforms and everything.

The procession brought out hundreds of people to the street. I’m talking about viejitas swathed in black shawls to babies in strollers, visitors, religious orders, and a few gang bangers. By the time we got to the crucifixion hundreds of people were in tears, shouts rose, the motorcycle cops looked scared.

Each year I attended it always got cloudy when the cross went up. Sometimes the wind kicked up, or a drizzle fell, or all three.

We got older and less Catholic (except Mom of course). Ashes were still de rigeur but giving food up wasn’t as important as doing something positive or less negative: giving up cussing or alcohol, be nicer, or pay people compliments every day.

I like this message from the Pope:

Pope Francis
Pope Francis Words on Fasting-Lenten Season

He’s on Twitter. Some more wise words:

 

You don’t have to be Catholic to know these are wise words for Lent or life. Have a great week!

 

Family, Inspiration, Parenting, Strong Women

The Pope and My Mother

old 1950 Mercury car
1950 Mercury

I’m not a Catholic anymore, but like millions of people, I watched Pope Francis’ visit to Washington D.C and the other parts of America.

Since the day he became Pope, I admired his Christian demeanor and his actions above rhetoric. His compassion for the homeless, the children, and immigrants reminded me of a lesson my mother taught my siblings and I a long time ago.

Those were the days of welfare commodities, those big silver containers of oily peanut butter, Spam, powdered milk and eggs. Mom was a divorcee, a single parent with four kids who went to night school to get her diploma after her full-time job.

An asphalt parking lot separated the housing projects, the apartment buildings where we lived. The lot served as a playground for roller skating, a game of tag, or kickball between cars. 

Amid the old Chevy’s, work trucks, and cars on their last legs, sat a hulking tank of a car, decades old, early 1950’s Mercury. Rimless, faded paint, and worn tires made it look ready for the junk yard. The car had a larger front end than a behind with a huge dashboard full of newspapers and junk, blankets in the rear seat.

We found out a man lived in the car. White stubble dotted his chin and neck against the mahogany of his skin color. He appeared overweight since he wore layers of clothes. A black jacket with sweaters over shirts, blue overalls, red bandanas in his pocket. Skimpy mittens stretched over large hands to ward off the cold. He wore a Charlie Chaplin type hat.

The round man who matched his heavy set car slept in a parking lot of cars that left at dawn for the packing houses, dairy, or vegetable fields. Sometimes he used someone’s water hose to douse his head and face. Drying himself with his bandana.

Sometimes he got drunk on cheap wine, telling us he was from the south, never naming the state or maybe we didn’t ask. There was no work, his jalopy broke down near our apartments and he pushed it into the lot, living there ever since.

When he got drunk he’d reach into his pockets, pull out pennies and nickels and throw them into the air. Kids dove for the coins, it was like bolo, being at a Catholic baptismal when the baby’s godfather threw coins on the church steps to celebrate the event.

One morning he came to our back door, hat in hand, asking my mom if she had some spare bread, water, maybe a sandwich?

We watched her from the kitchen table, making a sandwich with some of our fried Spam. She found a mason jar and filled it with iced tea. He glanced from her to us, to his scuffed brown boots and back again, staring at the concrete.

He took his sandwich and tea with many thanks, a big smile, saying “God bless you,” several times. My mom nodded. When she shut the door one of us said something about the wino and why did she give him some of our food. She corrected us saying he was down on his luck, and he needed help. She grew up during the great depression and knew what hunger felt like and we were Catholics, it was our duty to help other people.

After that, mostly during payday, Mom would make him refried bean burritos, kept hot by wrapping them in aluminum foil. She filled the mason jar with tea and send us out to the parking lot to give to the man. The other neighbors occasionally fed him too, bringing him something they picked from the orchards or field. One day we went outside to play and his car was gone. 

I imagined he found a job, lived a better life, but I don’t know what happened to the homeless man. What I do remember is the compassion my mother showed to someone who was poorer than we were, reminding us we had a duty to help others.

Pope Francis quote on mercy and compassion
Pope Francis on Compassion