Cathy Hamilton: Family's Lenten notions shaken, stirred

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The last time I gave anything up for Lent was in 1966, when I was 11. That was the year my newly converted Catholic father renounced booze, and I swore off candy. It was a supreme sacrifice for both of us.

The 5 1/2 weeks from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday that year were interminable. OK, I honestly don't remember it that well, but knowing my penchant for sugar at the time, and my father's fondness for martinis, I'm sure it was a hellishly torturous month and a half. It's a wonder we didn't kill each other, our family and all of our fellow parishioners.

What I do recall, in surprising detail, was sitting up with Dad on Easter eve until the stroke of midnight. He wasted no time downing a couple of belts of vodka while I happily gobbled mouthfuls of jellybeans. After weeks of anticipation, all we could think of to say was "Happy Easter, Dad!" and "Happy Easter, Cath," and that was it. He turned in at 12:20. I bounced off the walls until 3.

Although I never considered such an extreme oblation again, Dad repeated his liquorless Lenten sacrifice for the next several years. But, as the seasons rolled on, his perseverance faltered. What began as a cut-and-dried deal with God became increasingly complicated with Dad's self-imposed, creative regulatory exemptions.

In 1966, his vow was no alcohol of any kind for the duration.

The next year, it became "no alcohol of any kind, except on Sundays. That's the Sabbath, after all, and God doesn't want us to tax ourselves."

The year after that: "No alcohol of any kind except on Sundays, St. Patrick's Day and family birthdays."

Then, "no alcohol of any kind except on Sundays, St. Patty's Day, family and friends' birthdays, Friday night fish fries and Mondays during 'Get Smart.'"

In subsequent years, he bent the rules further and further, until he abstained only on Tuesdays and alternate Thursdays. Finally, our exasperated parish priest approached him one Sunday and said, "Good Lord, man. Why bother?"

I never thought less of Dad for his Lenten waffling. It's not like he was a raging alcoholic. But, the guy had a wife, five rambunctious kids and a hectic insurance office to run. That's a lot of stress, and this was before the days of Zoloft and Paxil.

Besides, his heart was always in the right place, even when willpower eluded him.

The one-year anniversary of my father's death is next Wednesday (where has the time gone?) and last week, I thought it would be a fitting tribute to him if I gave up liquor for Lent.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I made the declaration aloud, in front of witnesses. Big mistake.

"I'm giving up booze for Lent, in memory of Grandpa Tom," I announced to my dumbfounded family.

"Whew. OK," my husband sighed breathlessly, a look of pure terror on his face. "So, when is Easter this year?"

"Well, I don't know exactly," I answered. "About six weeks from now, I suppose."

"So, Easter is AFTER Spring Break?" he queried. "When we plan to go to, uh, New Orleans?"

A hush fell across the room and I visualized myself on Bourbon Street, Diet Coke in hand.

"Yeah," I said, "but God doesn't expect me to abstain on vacation. Besides, for all its debauchery, New Orleans is a very Catholic city. He'll understand ..." (Did I sound defensive?)

"So, what about March Madness?" my son inquired. "You know how nervous you get during those games." (Did he sound concerned?)

"And my birthday?" my daughter added. (Did she sound worried?)

"Mine, too," said my husband, "it's my 55th, remember? You expect me to toast myself?" (No question, he WAS worried. He's always preferred me a little mellow, especially in the postmenopausal years.)

I thought, this is why Dad had so much trouble navigating the straight and narrow path to righteousness. There are too many detours, so many stones in the road.

"And what about Friday nights at the brewery?!?" they all cried, in unison. "It's a family ritual. A tradition!"

"Settle down, everybody," I pleaded. "I said I was giving up booze for Lent. I never said there wouldn't be certain regulatory exemptions. Vacation, family birthdays, the occasional basketball game (Grandpa Tom would insist on that) and, OK, Friday nights at the brewery. Just remind me to order fish."

What can I tell you? Like father, like daughter.

Cathy Hamilton is a 53-year-old empty nester, wife, mother and author, who blogs every day at BoomerGirl.com.

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