Pale light was filtering into my bedroom when I awoke. My first thought was to wonder whether my big brother, Casper, had returned home.” Sliding out of bed, I padded over to the bedroom window and pulled the curtain aside. His car was parked in its usual place in the farmyard driveway below my window. In bare tree branches near the house, several small birds twittered and trilled their spring-time joy.
Only a few small patches of dirty snow still dotted the yard. Yesterday I’d helped Daddy make shallow trenches in the driveway to help hasten drainage from the lawn around our house. Although it was still early morning, they were already filled with water. I smiled, Easter would be warm this year and I could wear my lavender coat and flowered hat to church.
No one was in the kitchen. I grabbed a slice of bread and buttered it. Hearing voices in the basement, I slowly crept down the steps, munching on the bread. Mom and Casper were working at the sink, gutting and washing small fish that were only three to four inches long. Next to them was a large milk-can nearly full with more fish.
Spotting me sitting on the steps, Mom said, “Good morning. Go change into your day-clothes and then you can come back to watch.”
With a mouth full of buttery bread, I asked, “When did Casper get home?”
Scraping entrails into a bucket, Mom said, “In the wee hours of the morning.” I nodded and looked at my brother with awe. He’d left home after work yesterday to drive to Lake Superior for the smelt run. How quickly he must have filled the huge milk-can and then drive all the way home again! If he slept at all, it was for only a few hours.
Catholics universally abstained from meat every Friday during my childhood. We did it as a penance in commemoration of Our Lord’s crucifixion on a Friday two thousand years ago. In September 1983, Canon rules were passed by bishops stating that other penitential practices could be substituted. The requirement to do penance on Fridays was not discontinued. All adult Catholics are still required to abstain from meat on Lenten Fridays, in addition to being required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Mom loved fish meals. I once said to her, “Eating fish on Fridays isn’t as much of a penance for you as it is for others.” Thinking back on it, her penance was having to patiently put up with our carping over it.
While I love community smelt fries, Friday fish fries at restaurants and freshly caught walleye, having to choose fish instead of what I really want on some Fridays is doing penance. Having to eat canned tuna, is doing a huge penance!
Growing up in Central Wisconsin, one fish that I never ate fresh was salmon. In the year 2000 my husband and I took a vacation in Seattle with our 18 year-old daughter. One afternoon while visiting the Belltown neighborhood, only blocks away from Seattle’s famous fish market, we stopped at a restaurant bar. Seeing salmon on the menu, I said, “If anyone knows how to make and serve salmon, this would be the place. Let’s order fresh salmon to see how it tastes.”
When the salmon dish arrived at our table, I took a taste and made a face. Arnie took a bite, shoved the plate away and shook his head. He looked as if he wanted to spit it out. Our daughter watched our reactions and very carefully took a very small forkful of the greasy, pink meat. Tammie quickly chewed, swallowed and gulped down water to make the fishy taste go away.
Arnie had the opportunity to fish in Lake Michigan with our neighborhood dentist a few times. During Lent a year after my husband’s sudden and unexpected death, Dr. Martin gave me two fillets of salmon from Lake Michigan. Thinking, “Yuck!” to myself, I politely said, “Thank you, but I’ve never cooked salmon.”
He said, “Use your grill. Once you get the briquettes to be coals, push some to the right and the rest to the left. Then put the salmon on a cedar board on the grill above, between the two piles of coal. Season it with salt and pepper.”
I invited my bachelor brothers to share a meal with me on Good Friday. I said, “Instead of eating a big, fancy restaurant meal, let me make a humble little meal with this salmon. I’ll make a loaf of bread and a small salad to go with it.”
Casper brought a bottle of his wonderful homemade wine to drink with our meal. After pouring a glass for the each of us, I turned to take the bread out of the oven. It was fragrant, crispy-crust perfection. The green salad tasted like happy spring-time hopes. Ten minutes after shutting the grill lid over the fish, I dashed outside to save it. Far from being ruined, the fish was soft, moist and delicious.
We ate together in pleasurable silence. After my last bite I laid my fork down on the dish and said, “The Lord has a good sense of humor. I thought I was making a humble Good Friday fish supper. He made it turn out to be a gourmet meal!”