The Relics of Ordinary Saints

I sat in the living room on a quiet and cold winter Saturday looking over some keepsakes my aunt sent me from the estate of my recently departed grandmother. Small bits and pieces of several lives were represented there in the form of holy cards, prayer books, and notes.

Pinwheels and Moon Shots

Funny how little things create a living memory.

Here in this pile of odds and ends was a little window into three lives, my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my own mother. No — four lives — because see, my life is inter-twined with all these women, with their faith and their hearts.

Examining the small stack of keepsakes, I first picked up a medium-sized black-covered book with a cross embossed on the cover: Key to Heaven: A Complete Manual of Prayers and Catholic Devotions. Paging through I notice Great-Gramma’s name written inside the back cover — it had been a gift from a friend. The book was published in 1940, and it has a certain feel to it that is difficult to describe — and a faint scent that reminds me of a woman I knew briefly but remember vividly. Great-Gramma was already old when I was new to the world. She lived in a little apartment on the west side of Fort Worth, where my mother took me to stay while she went to substitute teach at St. Alice School.

Great-Gramma would wrap her arms around me warmly and smile. I was perhaps four or five — too young for kindergarten — and I vividly recall wandering about the house looking at the wondrous things she had. One in particular was a small plastic statue of the Infant of Prague. She had such fine clothes for the Little Jesus that I would sneak back into her bedroom to peak at Him whenever I got the chance.

She loved to give me chocolate cookies — pinwheels — and I would eat lunch with her then go home when Mom came to get me. We watched the moon shots splash down on her TV and I learned how much I loved spaceships because of her. Great-Gramma’s apartment seemed like a castle at the top of what certainly was just a little hill. But to a four-year-old boy, it might as well have been a mountaintop with marvelous concrete stairs with a steel railing leading to her kitchen.

I can remember how upset Mom was when she got the call that Great-Gramma had died. I was eating a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup in our living room on Diaz Street when Mom came and told me; she cried and cried. Mom loved her Gramma so much and knew it would be a long time before she might see her again. In Gramma Rose’s prayer book, there was a book mark at the page that held the Evening Prayer. Was Great-Gramma planning to pray her Evening Prayer and never got the chance? Tucked away inside the prayer book was a Novena in Honor of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus (of Lisieux). Can the spiritual connection — the witness of Gramma Rose — have been so great that she instilled a love for St. Thérèse in my own heart? St. Thérèse looks out from my shelf and her autobiography has an honored place in my library. “Everything is grace” St. Thérèse had said — and Great-Gramma echoed.

The Scent of Holiness

Another small book lay beside the first — The Holy Sacrifice of The Mass With Indulgenced Prayers and Novenas. Tiny, almost pamphlet-sized, but packed full of the prayers and devotions I grew up with. It has the same familiar smell — old paper mixed with a certain scent that I can only describe as holiness. Those who have been in an old church — one where the faith is practiced devoutly and reverently — know the scent. Incense mixed with wood oil and paper. It reminds me of my parish church and the red carpet and, well, of Gramma.

The book was made to be carried in a pocket or purse, and it’s obvious from its condition that it was carried and prayed from often. Touching the same pages as she did brings a flood of memories — from the home, school, and church. In a way, my dear Gramma’s hand is turning the same pages, reading along with me. It’s like sitting in her lap, a boy again, wide-eyed at the world and learning the amazing story of our Savior and His sweet mother.

As a small boy, I settled on the name “Plain Gramma” for her. You see, my paternal grandmother wanted to be called “Grandmother,” so I had a “Great-Gramma,” and “Grandmother,” and a “Plain Gramma.” It made perfect sense to me when I was only four or five.

When Mom got her teaching job full-time at St. Alice and later Holy Family, Gramma used to keep me in the library with her until she went home at noon. I always got 15 cents to buy a carton of chocolate milk and considered it a bonus if the milk was frozen — the nice ladies who ran the cafeteria would give me a spoon so I could dig out the icy chocolate. Gramma would take me home with her and we’d have lunch and watch Twelve O’Clock High and Sea Hunt; then Mom would come and collect me.

Gramma was always there, and her presence in the family was central and strong. She was with me at all the momentous occasions of my young life, and I still associate holidays with being in her house.

Easter-Bread-making was one annual family tradition, among many, that is most vivid. The kitchen, filled with the smells of baking “pies,” ham, bacon, and cheese, was also filled with love and family. We worked together, each with his or her own job, to make twenty or so Easter Breads. Progress and growth was measured in the job you got to do. When I got old enough to chop the cheese and ham, I knew I was getting to be a man. Gramma protected her “secret recipe” — perhaps to ensure we always made it to her house to be together for Holy Saturday. I have made or eaten Easter Bread in my house every Easter (except 2003 when I was in Kuwait) since I went out into the world to make my way as a man. Every Holy Saturday morning, I’m returned to Gramma’s kitchen and the smells and sounds of love and good Italian food.

On second thought, the scent of the prayer book reminds me of Easter Bread.

From Bud to Flower

The last set of odds and ends are keepsakes from my Mom that Gramma kept. Mom preceded Gramma in death and we all imagined her at the gate with St. Peter and Granddad, waiting for Gramma to come along. The mementos that Gramma kept were certainly some of her most treasured memories of her daughter Pam. Written when Mom was only seven or eight, there is a valentine, some Mother’s Day cards with “spiritual bouquets” enclosed, and a letter from when she stayed with her aunt and uncle in Kilgore.

Eight-year-old girls must be among the sweetest things on earth. As the father of an eight-year-old daughter, I can attest to this fact — at least anecdotally. Here in the few short words she wrote is a window into the heart of another great woman. Indeed, it is the heart of a woman within a young girl that makes her so beautiful, because she is the flower that has not yet opened. Mom was so very sweet in her letters home — the very soul of new womanhood, still unwilted by the world.

“Dearest Mother,” she writes on May 9th, 1952, “Happy Mother’s Day! I have made this card especially for you. Each flower is a prayer for you, to thank you for the many things you have done for me.” On the top of another, “A.M.D.G.”, the abbreviation for Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam — For the Greater Glory of God. A valentine that Mom must have made as a Girl Scout lies beneath, two hearts cut out of red construction paper with a small black-and-white photo of Mom in her uniform. A paper lace doily is glued to the back.

Mom’s handwriting is almost the same as I remember it — and although her penmanship and spelling improved as she matured, her writing retained the same formality laced with the sweetness of an eight-year-old girl. At heart, she remained that lovely young girl.

She was the great woman in my life — my model of what the Blessed Mother might have been like in her own home. Mom would have laughed at the comparison, because there was a cantankerous streak to her as well, but she was a devout woman who loved her husband, children, family, and God so very much. She always made sure we were together at dinner-time, that we had what we needed, and that treats were earned. But once earned, she lavished them on us!

Even in these few small snapshots of her life as a girl, I see the glimmer of the woman she would become. The memories of her flood back — the hint of perfume (Charlie) and the jingle of jewelry. She loved to wear green, her favorite color, and she loved her Dallas Cowboys. Roger Staubach never had a bigger fan — the Super Bowl with the Cowboys in it was like a second Christmas.

Mom gave me a love of books and literature. She introduced me to the glory of other languages and as a result I can now converse in several languages. This would not have been possible without her love and example. We went camping, had great adventures in the woods and national parks of Colorado, and laughed around countless campfires in east Texas. Mom taught me to love life and to live it fully.

Perhaps the greatest influence of my mother was upon my faith. I can still remember her getting ready for Holy Mass and the reverence that she showed for it. Bits and pieces, like candid photographs, reveal her devotion: her black lace veil that she wore to Mass, her voice during the prayers and hymns, her humility and reverence when receiving Holy Communion. Through her, I came to know Jesus Christ as a Person — as the One Who loves me. The seeds that she and the other great women in my life sowed would save me years later when darkness had begun to creep into my heart. Like the good Mother of Jesus, my own mother quietly told me: “Do whatever He tells you.”

No, none of these women were perfect; they were human and although I believe humanity is destined for perfection, few achieve it here. Surely, if I tried hard enough, I could remember, or someone could remind me, of the faults and failings of these three ordinary women. But that’s really not the point. Memories are intended to be rosy, and as the years wear on, my memories get rosier and softer. Love and time soften the blunt edges, dull the points, and haze out the ugly parts.

The thread of faith is what connects these three great women to me over the decades, and I remain connected. They have all, in His mercy, gone home to God now. For a little while we’ll be separated by time and space.

And yet… there is a little piece of each of them here in the “relics” of these ordinary saints.

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

Lt. Col. Mickey Addison is a career Air Force officer with various assignments in the United States overseas. He recently concluded an assignment at the Pentagon. He and his wife have been married for 18 years and they have two children. He can be reached at [email protected].

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage