Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Old Black Rosary

It's been a while since I've posted any of my more serious efforts at writing... and since it's the month of October, traditionally the month of the Rosary, I thought I'd post the story that really started me off. It was actually published in November 2000 in a defunct Catholic Family magazine known as Our Family. And though my grandparents died before I could ask them about their devotion to praying the rosary, I witnessed it myself, and so I think this story is true, or as true as I could make it. The old black rosary is on my night table these days, within easy reach.

Have a happy Sunday!
The Old Black Rosary
He stood at the edge of the field, shading his eyes against the hot sun, trying to determine how much soil had drifted the day before.  He could still taste yesterday’s dirt in his mouth – the wind had blown so fiercely that by noon, he and his wife had packed up the children in the wagon and gone to his brother’s place, where the soil wasn’t blowing over the yard.  He scanned the windblown prairie, but it was clear that none of the second seeding, if it had even sprouted, had survived yesterday’s gale.  The first seeding hadn’t even come up.  What folks were starting to call the “dirty thirties” could hardly get any dirtier.  There hadn’t been any rain, and there was bound to be more wind, though there wasn’t a breath of air today.
He trudged across the field, his rifle over his shoulder in case a rabbit should make an appearance.  Rabbits had been plentiful last spring, but had been mostly hunted out through the fall and winter.  In spite of that the farm families were doing all right – they could get together and slaughter an animal now and then to have something to go on.  It was the town folk who were really suffering, without money to buy farm folks’ meat, eggs, butter, anything.  Even if some miracle should happen and a late rain brought on the crops, the economy was too depressed just now to improve much and there was no market for grain or cattle.  Some of the farmers around him were packing up their families and possessions and heading to Alberta in hopes that they could work as hired hands for a few seasons where conditions were a bit better, and eventually settle their own homesteads.  One of them had invited him to go along.
He knew he wouldn’t find anything growing out here.  He just wanted to take a walk by himself and think.  As he left the farmhouse, he noticed the worry lines around his wife’s eyes and wondered to himself if maybe he should follow his neighbour to Alberta.  Maybe it would be better there.  But give up here?  Saskatchewan’s soil had been good to them up until things got so dry – just the last few years had been tough.  It had to get better – the gamble called farming wouldn’t break him and his family.  Or would it?  How long was he supposed to hang on?
With the back of his hand, he wiped the sweat from his forehead, and considered his dilemma once more.  There were many blessings: his resourceful wife, five healthy children and one on the way, a cozy home, relief – $8.75 a month – at least it was something.  There was also the support of extended family nearby, and livestock and preserves (if the garden survived).  Not a bad list. 
The list of difficulties facing him was almost the same length: no rain, no crops, little money for family needs, no money for farm payments, no seed for next year, not much feed for livestock.  Not good.  For the moment, it seemed that the blessings might outweigh the problems, but would that still be the case at harvest time?  Who knew?  He firmly believed in Divine Providence, but had no clue as to whether Divine Providence meant for his family to stay here, or to go to Alberta with the others.
He reached into his pocket and found the rosary his wife received from a visiting priest and gave to him.  It was a new black wooden-beaded one held together with silver links, and it had carved beads between the decades.  He turned the cross over in his hand and looked at the silver corpus.  What would You have me do? he silently asked the figure of Christ.
Crossing himself, he began: “I believe in God…” He often prayed the rosary as he walked through the fields.  It was a comfort, the rhythm of the prayer fitting the rhythm of his solitary steps, or, in seeding, the rhythm of the oxen’s hooves as he walked behind the plow.
He raised his eyes from their focus on the uneven, dust-crumbling dirt clods and looked across a dry slough at his brother’s field.  Surprised mid-prayer, he changed direction and walked across the cracked slough bed.  There, on the hill, the second seeding had come up, somehow.  The slender green stalks were a small sign of hope for his troubled heart.  Perhaps there would be enough for seed, and a bit extra.  “Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name…”
*          *          *

She looked out the living room window towards the darkness and saw her reflection looking back at her.  Moving closer to the window, she saw that the street was empty.  No surprise this cold winter evening.  She wondered if anyone had ventured to the Seniors’ Drop-In Centre for a game of canasta tonight.  Not that she felt like playing canasta.  She was finding it difficult to shake her deep sadness.  Someone had given her a book on grieving, and one of the psalms in it kept drifting through her mind, something about, “my tears have become my bread night and day.”  Which psalm was it?  She turned to the bookshelf, picked up the book, and sat in her favourite chair.  She flipped through the pages to Psalm 42, verse three: “My tears have been my food day and night…”  How was it that the psalmist expressed her feelings so accurately?
It had been two months since the accident.  It seemed like yesterday; it seemed like years since she had opened the front door to find her son and his wife standing on the step on that frosty December day with the news.  While on the way to the weekly auction in the next town, her husband’s car had hit a patch of black ice and skidded across the highway, head on into the path of an oncoming truck…
Of course, she still had her family.  Most of her children came home that very evening; all were present within forty-eight hours.  In the following days, all the grandchildren made it home except one who couldn’t be reached overseas.  The house was filled with friends and relatives bringing food and condolences.  Memories of those days came back in blurred bits and pieces.  Her children had helped her make decisions about the funeral.  They took up residence in the kitchen, and welcomed those who came to the house.  Family from out of town made beds on couches and floors in the homes of family members nearby.  How everything got done, she still wasn’t sure, but the whole experience of being helped through it all made her certain that God was present. 
Taking the book on grieving with her, she closed the curtains.  She paused in front of the television, but decided to forgo the news for tonight.  It had been their ritual to watch the news together every night, but without his commentary, she seldom found much in it to keep her attention.  Extinguishing the living room lights, she went to the kitchen for a glass of water, remembering the time he had spent with his sons, building and installing the kitchen cabinets in the house after they moved from the farm to town.  Those valuable skills went with the boys, who, these days, were building all sorts of different things for their families, from tree houses to hope chests to rocking chairs.   
Sleep didn’t come easily, but she kept to her usual routine, hoping that soon the routine itself would bring back some sense of normalcy.  Climbing into her side of the bed, she found her prayer book on the night table and followed that routine, too.  As she finished, she looked at Psalm 42 once more.  She almost startled herself when she spoke the last lines out loud: “Why are you cast down, my soul?  Why groan within me?  Hope in God; I shall praise You still, my Saviour and my God.”  She found herself vaguely comforted by the psalmist’s promise.
Closing the book, she removed her glasses, and turned out the lamp.  She reached under his pillow and found the old black rosary she had given him some 50 years ago.  He had always carried it with him, and she remembered how she watched over her mending one evening as he painstakingly repaired it when the crucifix had somehow broken off.  He had been buried with a newer one in his hands – this one was hers, now, the one that had lived in his pocket, the one that they had used to teach their children to pray.  The black color had faded from a few of the wooden beads over the years.  They had prayed those beads together almost every day since she had given them to him.
And they still prayed the rosary together.  It was a comfort for her to think about the communion of saints and about how those loved ones who had gone ahead still prayed with those left behind.  She kissed the worn crucifix and began, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…”

*          *          *

The retreat chapel was silent.  The sun streamed in through the high windows and touched the top of the west wall as she sat down in a comfortable chair facing the altar.  She reached into her pocket and found her grandmother’s rosary, crossed herself and began:  “I believe in God…”
The day of Grandma’s funeral, eighteen months earlier, started with a rosy sunrise as she, her husband and their two-month-old daughter began the three-hour journey to the small Saskatchewan town that seemed like home, even though she had never actually lived there.  It was a peaceful journey, and they arrived at the Church just before the coffin was closed.  Grandma looked so tiny and frail without the life that had filled her body for 86 years.  Her spirit had never been a small thing, and her return to God was about to be celebrated in the packed church.  
All of the family was there; seventy-four of seventy-seven grandchildren had made it – the other three were overseas.  And how many great-grandchildren did Grandma have?  Forty-five?  Fifty?  Grandma had known them all by name. She cared about and kept track of everybody in the family – she knew who had switched jobs, who had moved, and who was expecting or engaged.  Without Grandma, such news wouldn’t be communicated to concerned family members as easily.  She was the hub of the wheel.
Grandma’s priest brother was celebrant, and seven other priests were present – a clear reminder that a priest rarely set foot in town without experiencing Grandma’s gracious hospitality.  As the granddaughter entered the church, she heard the closing prayers of the rosary, and remembered the times, during summer holidays, that she had slipped into Grandma and Grandpa’s pew in the middle of the rosary.  Grandma always found an extra rosary in her pocket for her visitor, even if the visitor was a bit late in coming.
The funeral was a celebration of Grandma’s life.  The granddaughter couldn’t help but notice the handmade doily and baby quilt tucked in among the flower arrangements, things that represented Grandma to all who knew her well.  Grandma had made every one of her grandchildren a quilt as a graduation gift, and most of the grandchildren had a few of her doilies in their homes.  How Great Thou Art had been the closing hymn at Grandpa’s funeral almost twelve years earlier, and it brought a few tears when everyone sang it again as the pallbearers bore Grandma from the church. 
Riding with her sisters and parents out to the town cemetery, she heard her mom tell some of the stories of small graces around Grandma’s peaceful death.  In his homily, Father had talked about Enoch and how he walked with God (Gen. 5.24).  Father had commented that he imagined how when Grandma slipped into a coma, she found herself taking a walk with God and Grandpa.  After a time, they all realized they were closer to God’s house than to hers so God invited Grandma to come stay at his house.  Mom said that what Father couldn’t have known was that one of Mom’s sisters had in fact found a note in Grandma’s handwriting on the desk in her kitchen: “Just gone for a little walk.”
There were too many people to fit into the church hall for the funeral luncheon, so some spilled over into Grandma’s house next door.  Looking for a quiet place to feed the baby, the granddaughter discovered in the house an atmosphere more like Grand Central Station, as cousins stopped in to pay a visit to Grandma’s house before travelling home, to say hello and goodbye to other cousins, uncles and aunts. Someone had found a box of Corn Pops cereal, a treat Grandma always had on hand for her grandchildren’s breakfasts, and a large bowl of it was gradually disappearing.  She asked, but other grandchildren had already enjoyed the few remaining lemon drops in Grandma’s stash. 
The granddaughter found that there was no one in Grandma’s bedroom and was nursing her little one when an aunt who had been staying in the room returned. They chatted a little about the celebration and how it had been a summary of Grandma’s life and faith.  Then Auntie asked her if there was anything in the house that she would like to have as a remembrance of Grandma.  Nothing came to mind.  It was hard to imagine Grandma’s possessions being given away.
Auntie went to Grandma’s dresser and returned with the old black rosary in her outstretched hand.  Grandma would have wanted you to have this, she said simply.  The granddaughter’s eyes had filled with tears.   She put it gently into her pocket and said a silent thank you to God and Grandma, and gave her aunt a hug.
When she got home late that evening, she put the rosary into her dresser’s top drawer in the cotton of a small jeweler’s box.  Though she took it out occasionally, she rarely had time to pray the rosary – two small children seemed to fill her day.  Grandma had once mentioned that she prayed the rosary every day, to keep the life of Jesus at the forefront of her mind.  Grandma had twelve children, and few of the labour saving devices found in modern homes.  How did she find the time?
The rosary had rested in the granddaughter’s dresser drawer until this weekend retreat.  It was a treasure, an heirloom too special to carry around every day.  Instead, she usually carried a cheaply strung wooden one in her pocket as a comforting reminder of God.  Something had made her bring Grandma’s old rosary along on this retreat, and for the first time, as she sat in the silent, sun-filled chapel, she examined it carefully.  The links between the faded black beads were tarnished, and the cross had been re-attached with wire that had been carefully twisted into a tight knot.  Some of the wooden beads had tiny cracks and gouges, but the cross was well preserved.  It was a man’s rosary, not like the dainty extra rosaries that Grandma had carried to church for a visitor who might need one.  Perhaps it had belonged to her Grandpa.
In all likelihood, now that she thought of it, this rosary had belonged to Grandpa first.  Grandma had kept it.  Both of her grandparents had prayed with it.  A warm and comforting thought, that.  Perhaps they were both smiling on her as she rediscovered their rosary, and perhaps they were praying with her.  She realized that she had been daydreaming for some time, and smiled to herself.  Gratitude filled her as she closed her eyes and thanked God again for the gift of the beads in her hands, and for the faith of her Grandma and Grandpa.  “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…”


  1. Hi, Maria. I found myself at this posting and found it to be very moving. I can only wonder at the continuity of faith some families enjoy and pray that faith begin in my family with me.
    God's will be done.

    1. You're a good start, Eleanor. I'm praying, too...


Take a minute and tell me what you think...