Something was terribly wrong. I was only nine years old, but I knew something disturbing had happened at home while I was at school. In those days, we walked home from elementary school, unsupervised by adults. As I walked down my street, past wood-framed houses with small yards and wide sidewalks out front, I saw a priest standing on the front porch of our Dutch-colonial house. I still remember his name. Father Joyce was bald with a dark fringe of hair. He also wore glasses and had a kindly manner about him. My father liked him because he was humble and did not put on airs. If Dad liked him, that was good enough for me. Father Joyce beckoned me over to the stairs.
“You can’t go into the house. Go next door. Mrs. Harrington is waiting for you,” he said.
He said nothing of the reason. It was a big break in the routine for me. After school, I always had black raspberry jello with sliced bananas. Now I had to go next door and have a Harrington snack, whatever that might be. Little did I know that a big change was in store for our whole family.
As was more the norm in those days, Jane, my maternal grandmother, lived with us. We thought nothing of it. Sure it made our three bedroom house cramped for the four kids, mom and dad, and our boisterous Airedale, but that was just how it was. After spending the afternoon at our neighbors’ house, we were allowed back home. Little was said, but I looked at Mom’s furrowed brow and heard her sighs. Grammie had had a stroke and would never walk again. For the next four years of her life, Grammie never left her room. An intercom was set up on a nightstand next to her bed. My mother was always within earshot of that frail voice beckoning from upstairs.
On the other hand, I was a selfish little girl who pretended not to hear when Grammie called for help. I had more important things to do, like watch the latest episode of the Three Stooges. Every now and then, Mom would cajole me to keep Grammie company. It did not come naturally for me. It was boring to sit next to her bed and do nothing. I looked out the window and watched pigeons squatting on the roof. Sometimes I heard the neighborhood boys playing basketball in the yard. Grammie seldom talked and never smiled. Often, she held a rosary with tiny blue beads.
That was my memory of Grammie for decades until my sister researched the family tree and pulled out boxes of old photos. As I browsed through the collection I was shocked to see Grammie at a family picnic, smiling and happy. It was taken before her husband died suddenly, leaving her destitute. She was seven months pregnant with her fourth child — my mother. As I studied my grandmother’s face in the photo, a realization struck me. After many decades, Jane still mourned for her husband.
During all those years confined to her bed, Jane suffered quietly, praying for secret intentions. It seems likely that one of those intentions was her fidgety little granddaughter with big blue eyes and curly blond hair. Only by some miracle have I survived the sexual revolution to embrace the Catholic faith.
In his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton wrote about the war-torn world from the perspective of a Trappist monk living behind the thick walls of a strict religious order. As a novice, he writes about harvesting golden shocks of hay as afternoon shadows fell on the fields. A bright moon rises over the church and monastery, bringing a sense of peace to the young man. A fresh breeze carries pine scents out of the woods to mingle with earthy smells of hay. The novice master claps his hands to stop the men in their work. Merton wipes sweat from his brow and listens to the sound of crickets rising like incense. Out come the rosary beads and they head home. “Full of grace,” he prays. He writes, “who knows what grace overflows into the world from that valley, from those rosaries, in the evenings when the monks are swinging home from work!”
In this month of November we remember our faithful departed, unknown by the world, but loved by those left behind. I pick up my rosary beads and pray for Grammie, just as she prayed secretly for me so long ago, grace flowing from her prayers into my life.
Copyright 2018 Kathryn Swegart