Like you, I too grew up during the 50's and 60's, but was raised in a catholic family, attending catholic schools. We were taught that Ash Wednesday and Good Friday were days of fast and abstinence. Throughout Lent, Fridays were always days of abstinence. I have never met any catholic who abstained for 40 days, unless it was by personal choice. (Ironically, the reason we were given for abstaining on Fridays was to encourage the sale of fish.)
It was also our practice to "give up" something of importance. For the kids, this challenge was usually in the form of candy. Our Easter baskets were always packed with all sorts of candy. Even then, I recall that sense of accomplishment, knowing that I had made it to the end without succumbing to temptation.
I also recall that during Lent, the statues in the church were covered. I haven't seen that practice in many years. On Good Friday, following afternoon services, the altar was stripped bare and the Holy Eucharist removed from the Tabernacle, leaving the door open. You are right, though, to point out that Lenten devotions were taken more seriously then than now.
As a convert, you will enjoy this story. A while back, one of the guests on Journey Home, was a couple who had just converted to catholicism. They spoke of the first Lent following their decision to convert. Though not yet catholics, they decided to follow a Lenten practice of either "giving up" or "taking on". After considerable discussion, they felt the most challenging thing to do would be to attend daily mass. After 40 days, they continued the practice, noting how much strength they had gained from the experience.
I feel Lent should be a time for personal sacrifice, and that we must be honest with ourselves in its selection. Daily mass is an excellent practice, as is time spent reading the bible or mediting on selected passages. More importantly, it is a time to reach out to others.
This is an excellent choice if it is at all possible.
During Lent our church has small faith-sharing groups that concentrate on the upcoming week's first and second reading, the responsorial psalm, and the Gospel.
This "once a week joining together with people from the parish is a wonderful way to strengthen your parish through evangelization, increase volunteerism and promote stewardship also.