My sister opened a book and a precious memory fell out.

My mother, who passed away in 2009, had tucked a charitable contribution form into a novel, a political thriller. She’d lived with my sister and brother-in-law for eight years, so it was not surprising to find something of hers in a book at my sister’s house.

It was what Mom had written on the sheet that struck me. She was going to make a contribution to the Association of Marian Helpers. That is a lay group which supports the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic holy order whose headquarters are in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Mom had written down the name of one of her sisters, to be remembered during a novena (prayers or services said over nine days) to be prayed in honor of St. Jude (the patron saint of lost causes). On the reverse side, she had listed special intentions for other family members.

She asked that another sister’s health problems “would improve.” That a friend’s medical issues “would vanish.”

Mom expressed hopes for her two daughters, and for one of her sons-in-law. Later, I joked to my husband, Paul, “I guess she thought you were doing OK, because you were the only one she left out.”

Ironically, when my sister showed me this form recently, I was reading a historical mystery called “Dissolution,” by C.J. Sansom. The book takes place against the backdrop of King Henry VIII’s campaign to close and confiscate the Roman Catholic monasteries and other religious houses of Britain.

The dissolution, as it was called, was carried out by the king’s chief minister, the notorious Thomas Cromwell, between 1536 and 1541. It was prompted by the Protestant Reformation, amid claims that the Catholic religious orders were rife with corruption.

Additionally, Henry wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry his lover, Anne Boleyn. This was prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church. So Henry broke away and created the Church of England, which, conveniently for him, permitted divorce.

One of the contested practices of the old Catholic Church was the awarding of “indulgences,” which was, basically, paying to reduce the punishment for one’s sins.

The modern Catholic practice of paying (in the form of contributions) for masses to be said, candles lit or novenas prayed has always seemed to me to be a kind of indulgence. But I’m sure my mother didn’t see it that way. Her faith was as strong as her handwriting on that contribution sheet.

It was as strong as the intentions she wrote — clear, focused and deliberate. Her friend’s health problems were going to vanish.

I don’t recall ever hearing my mother speak so declaratively. When my sister and I were growing up, she was the kind of mother our friends wished they had. She was pleasant and sociable, characteristics that served her well in her career in retail.

When my sister and I exasperated her, the worst she would say was “Paciência meu deus,” meaning “Patience, God,” in Portuguese, the language of her parents.

Her day-to-day faith was humble and pragmatic, unlike the surprisingly forceful determination displayed in her list of intentions. If I felt down, some evil spirit was to blame. The Holy Ghost could help with that. Mom wrote down a prayer for me to say, to lift my spirits.

OK, I admit it works. Probably because Mom gave me the prayer, which makes it special, it takes my mind off my worries for a while. Just like saying the rosary did for her.

I grew up praying to statues and believing that my words would be heeded. But then one frigid January morning in 1980, the police came to our house. My father had been in a terrible accident. We needed to go to the hospital to see him. St. Anne’s Hospital. Of course.

I prayed for my father. He liked to tell me not to pray to God, who was busy, but to the Blessed Virgin Mary, particularly as she had appeared to three children in Fátima, Portugal, in 1917. It is a particular weirdness of Catholics that we pray to specific representations of the holy ones.

My mother was always fond of the Infant Jesus of Prague, for example.

I prayed fervently to Our Lady of Fátima. But when we got to the hospital we learned that my father had died instantly, of a massive heart attack. He ran his truck off the road, landing near a dam, a landmark in an adjoining town.

After that I only prayed for the strength to deal with life’s tragedies and adversities.

My mother’s death was one such adversity. It was bittersweet, years later, to see her handwriting, her thoughts, her convictions. I felt her presence so strongly, but only for a few moments.

The book the sheet fell out of was “Saving Faith,” by David Baldacci. A play on words for the author, but not for me.

 

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].


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