My grandmother was a practical and pragmatic woman. Grandma descended from hardy Czech and Bohemian stock, but she suffered much loss in her life. My grandmother lost her parents at the tender age of twelve and was sent to live with an aunt. An early-life marriage at seventeen that turned brutal, ended in divorce, the lost custody of her two boys at the tender age of 5 and 4, an excommunication from the Church in 1921, a second marriage in 1925 that gave her three more children, the loss of a fourth child in her seventh month of pregnancy due to an appendicitis attack, and the death of her second husband at the age of 62, all of which should have made her into a bitter woman.
Living during the Great Depression, she had to learn how to make a little go a long way. Grandma never threw anything out, knowing that there would be a use for whatever it was. She knew how to sew her own clothes. She’d take the summer’s garden bounty and can it for the long, cold winters of living in the Midwest. I recall that she’d spend an hour with a paring knife carving every shred of meat off the bones of a Thanksgiving turkey so that nothing went to waste. These leftovers were usually made into the next day’s meal in new and interesting ways. Practical and sensible in all ways possible, my grandmother accepted the risk and consequences of living a life full of hardship, sacrifice, and heartache, and found contentment in the living of it.
My grandmother spent her life giving of herself in joyful and humorous ways. I remember my grandmother had many “old world” sayings typical of her generation. “Knock on wood” would always be said to secure a wish for something or as a guard against an ill omen. If her palm itched, she would invariably be heard saying, “Coming in to some money soon!” When something excited her, she would say, “Jesus, Mary, and Jehoshaphat!” As a child, I always thought she was saying it wrong, and that she really had meant to say Joseph, referring to Mary’s husband and the earthly father to Jesus. But, perhaps my grandma had inside knowledge of greater talisman and insight about faith and resiliency. You’ll find the story of Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 17-20.
I recently came across something I had hidden away in an old forgotten jewelry box. My mother had given this keepsake to me shortly after my grandmother passed away in 1984. On a small ball chain I found attached two Miracle Medals, a small medal of the Blessed Mother, a large brass Crucifix with the “Shrine of the Little Flower” stamped on the back, a horse shoe with the head of a horse depicted in the center with “good luck” stamped on the shoe, a rabbit’s foot, a safety pin, and a gold wedding band. I think that this was my practical and pragmatic grandmother’s way of covering her bases. I’d like to believe that my grandmother kept these things as talismans of hope, luck, and the resiliency to not let life’s burdens take her spirit.
I believe my grandmother’s faith was once very important to her and that as a young mother she had a special devotion to The Blessed Mother. In all the time I knew her, while she had been excommunicated and did not attend Church, I’d like to think she kept the Miraculous Medals as a reminder of the Miraculous Yes and of a mother’s sacrifice. I think that the Crucifix from the Shrine of the Little Flower certainly speaks of my grandmother’s subtle and little ways she showed great love. Like taking the time to pare off the shreds of meat from a Thanksgiving turkey, she made sure her family had a next meal even when times were bleak.
The horse shoe must speak to my grandmother’s Bohemian roots. The Bohemians were once considered part of gypsy lore and had many superstitions in their way of life. Holding on to a horse shoe ensured luck would be at hand and was used as a guard against bad luck. The rabbit has been a talisman since 600 BC, as at that time the whole rabbit that was considered a symbol of communication with the underworld as it burrowed under the earth. The rabbit’s foot had once been held as a talisman against arthritis and in the early 20th century became the symbol of good luck as a mishmash of past lore and superstition.
The safety pin is a tool for holding things together. A safety pin can be a talisman to have at hand when one’s life is suddenly torn asunder; such as losing your parents while very young, or losing your own children to divorce when they are very young. Holding things together can become a way to survive. The wedding band must be from her first marriage. I’d like to think she held on to it, even though she probably could have sold it, as a reminder of a life once joined that was worth holding onto spiritually even though she had been forced to let it go physically.
Some people may find these things sacrilegious, but my grandmother always showed great love by her hands, her home, and her humor. Altogether these simple objects were a reminder of a life once held together by faith, love, a little luck, miracles, and talismans guarding against evil. In my grandmother’s practical way she shared her faith and love through actions and she never dwelled on all she had lost in her lifetime. She was not a bitter woman, although she had much to be bitter about. Now I know she is where I get my own practical and pragmatic ways; perhaps this is why I was her favorite of the grandchildren. I reminded her of her own self and today remain optimistic even in times of trial and suffering.
Today, I endeavor to carry on her legacy of faith and love. Raising my own family in the Church, and sharing a life of sacrifice, love, humor, and practicality with them has offered me much about which to be joyful and thankful. Every day I gaze upon the Crucifix, and I am reminded of the ultimate sacrifice, of ultimate love, and of God’s eternal covenant and promise. Holding on to the Crucifix, in choosing to turn to our Lord in times of need and in times of happiness, I find the greatest talisman a person can have.
This week, as we stumble into the Triduum walking the way of Christ’s Passion by witnessing the institution of the Priesthood and the Eucharist, suffering through his Crucifixion, and wait in tortuous sorrow of the Vigil as Christ lies in the Tomb, are we ultimately rewarded by the resiliency of our faith by His Resurrection.
~Observations of an Accidental Catholic