My grandmother Sophia was thought to be a saintly woman. After all, she lived with my Grandfather James.
Grandfather James “adored” my grandmother and it was only through her that special favours would be granted by him to his 5 children. His kids thought it similar to going through the Blessed Virgin Mary to get favours from a cranky God. It was also said old Jim could make a penny squeak he was so reluctant to part with it. Shoes would be worn out or impossible to get a foot into before they were replaced, socks were darned and darned again until they were lumpy and near to causing blisters before new ones were reluctantly purchased. He was so stubborn and bad tempered that he refused to open a Christmas gift sent from my mother packaged in a tooth-paste cardboard box. Believing that he was given toothpaste he was deeply insulted. Grandpa only opened the box months later when my mother, not having had a response to the gift, inquired by mail how he was enjoying the new pipe.
His Irish pessimism was a defining characteristic. Since things and people were just not dependable he always had a back-up plan. Extra harnesses for the horses were prepared and ready if any snapped while in use, cash was kept in a locked box hidden away as well as in the bank, and a carbon copy of all farm records were stored separately from the main ledger. He checked his sons’ work around the farm and was ready to lecture if things were not to his satisfaction. He voiced distain for others who did not plan accordingly and had little sympathy for those poorly prepared. His belief that disappointment was inevitable played out in all his decisions.
Grandmother Sophia, by contrast, was considered a font of grace. A kind, even tempered and gentle woman she was recognized as a healer in their farming community. She knew the right herb for what ailed the seeker. Her soups were legendary in treating the flu. And she knew how to recognize the mould on old bread that would cure infected wounds. How this “saint of a woman” put up with Jimmy was anyone’s guess.
My grandparents revered Mary, the mother of Christ. Statues of her in a range of sizes and incarnations appeared in every room including my grandparent’s bedroom, where one in particular stood at the foot of their bed. This Immaculate Heart of Mary statue stands about a foot high and embodies the grace and kindness of the Blessed Virgin. Her gaze, like the tilt of her head, is slightly downward her facial features soft. Mary’s gently draped robes are pure white with gold trim. The index finger of her right hand points to her exposed and radiant heart of gold imploring the devotee to keep an open and loving heart. A ring of white cotton batten surrounds her spotless feet. Nestling within is a rosary of fuchsia coloured glass beads, its crucifix softly resting atop the heavenly cloud of cotton.
This is a statue Grandmother Sophia revered and prayed to morning and night. It was said the Blessed Virgin’s intercession to God for help was responsible for many personal miracles in the community and that Sophia’s prayers had influence.
My grandmother faced her final illness and died at home in her own bed as was the custom in her time. Three days after her death, my grandfather was startled to see that a gossamer and white veil had appeared on the statue at the foot of the bed covering the Virgin’s head and shoulders. The sun-shine passing through the veil lit up a slight smile on Mary’s lips.
Grandpa James ran from the room, down the stairs and out the door, not stopping until he reached the priest’s house down the road. The priest declared the veil on the Virgin was a sign from God that Sophia had been taken into heaven. He encased the statue in a bell jar where it was protected in reverence for decades as my grandfather passed it to his son Basil who in turn passed it on to his son, Frankie.
By the 1970s signs from God were rarely seen and seldom believed. My uncle Basil died and his son Frankie became an educated professional with no religious practice. His curious 10 year old daughter heard the story of the veil and not taking in the spiritual significance removed the bell jar to investigate. The veil disintegrated in her probing fingers. Now the unveiled Virgin faces an uncertain future stuck somewhere out of sight. The once revered statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary with the sign from God has passed into oblivion proving my grandfather’s belief that people could not fully be trusted.
However, cheap as he was said to be, old Jim erected an elegant and simple statue of the Virgin Mary at my grandmother’s grave. She stands with open arms and outward palms adding grace and solemnity to the graveyard. For my grandfather, I imagine this graveyard statue was evidence of his love for his wife, the faith he had in the blessed mother Mary and the importance of a back-up plan.