Lenten memories of meatless Fridays and Aunt Cora


Tomorrow is the day when the little red fish appears on the Roman Catholic church calendar and stays there for 40 days.

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, a day for the seafood sellers to rejoice. The shrimp and cod vendors also can count on seven meatless Fridays until this somber season of repentance is over.

I've never relinquished my fascination with the Christian observance of Lent, a time of the year that neatly coincides with the dreary last weeks of winter. It all goes back to my distant youth, when this period of Christian moral muscle-toning meant business. Lent was a mine field of hidden and obscure religious rules then.

The strangest day of the Lenten calendar was Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. Holy Saturday was marked by a half-fish. Years of religious study taught me that Lent officially ended at noon this day. Thus, in the afternoon, you stopped fasting, stopped eating seafood and gorged on meat and other treats that you gave up for Lent.

One February 30 years ago, I piously decided that the way to address Lent's rigors was head on, like some good medieval soul.

I would rise early and walk to daily mass with my Great Aunt Cora O'Hare, whose room was two oak doors down the third-floor hall.

Aunt Cora was the high priestess of the old family home on Guilford Avenue. She was at the first mass at 6:30 a.m., rain or shine. In addition, she held memberships in the Legion of Mary and the Third Order of St. Francis. She was on a first-name basis with the church sexton. She washed and ironed the altar cloths, too. She was a pillar of SS. Philip and James parish.

Aunt Cora determined the Lenten menus at home because she was 50 percent of the cooking staff. Her sister, my grandmother, never set foot in a church and, therefore, was not boned up on the rules. She was, however, a superior fryer of fish and oysters, which guaranteed her solid employment during the Lenten season. Meat -- in moderation -- was permitted during Lent, but Baltimoreans generally regarded the season as a sacred excuse to pile on the lobster, oysters, shrimp and fish.

Aunt Cora believed in doing things the tough way. She rose in the pitch black, predawn hours and alerted the other sleepers by lowering her windows. The clatter of sash weights and their chains clanking at 5:15 a.m. is a match for any Baby Ben. Aunt Cora always slept with her windows wide open, curtains tied back to admit the healthy night air.

She also held that rising at a sunless hour necessitated no special use of electricity. Her one concession was the Chesterfield cigarette she lighted. Its glowing ash made for a strange sight as she negotiated the twists and turns of the hall staircase.

As I soon learned, Aunt Cora had friends who shared her religious fervor. Four good Christian women met and had a jolly time at this hour when only the milkman and paperboy were about.

The 29th Street gang consisted of Aunt Cora and her pals Sue Martin, Mary McTeague and Loretta Byrne, who was secretary to the director of public works.

Loretta was a delightful woman. Years after her death, she is still fondly recalled around City Hall, where she exercised considerable power during the last McKeldin administration. It was said she could have any alley in the city paved by baking one of her nut-and-spice cakes for the work crew. I am sure she still exercises such power in the alleys of heaven.

The ladies cackled away as they made their way to church. Once inside, they headed for separate pews. After mass, they set out on their appointed rounds. I'm sure Loretta was dispatching dump trucks by 7:30.

I made it through a week of early rising until I dropped out. Quitting never brought a word of censure from Aunt Cora. After all, she told me, she was a year-round regular. Forty days in February and March was for the amateurs.

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