This mother and daughter found a lifelong connection through their devotion to the Virgin Mary.
A font of holy water hung in the doorway of my childhood bedroom. Above the bowl, a ceramic Blessed Mother looked down with serene love at her baby—and at me. In our house of shouts and tears, Mary was always watching over me.
My mother had a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin, as did all the women in our family. When she gave me my first rosary, I was inducted into an adult sisterhood. I’d seen them cry out to Mary in the midst of disappointing marriages, kids sent off to Vietnam, and past-due bills. She helped them: this woman calmly smiling in her blue mantle, eternally reassuring. They were all so strong, and that strength had to come from somewhere.
I wore out that rosary with praying. The thin metal links connecting the beads broke, producing a shower of tiny pink beads that rolled toward cracks in the floor and scattered to unseen places, as prayers do.
As an adult, I’d pick my mother up on Thursday nights for eucharistic adoration and praying the rosary. We’d kneel side by side and murmur the prayers that we knew like favorite songs. She’d begun working as a maid when she was 12 years old. Mom had spent a good part of her life on her knees scrubbing floors, and by old age those knees hurt. I would urge her to sit for the devotion. She’d smile at me. “I’m fine, Sweetie. I want to,” she’d say.
The rhythm of the rosary, those Hail Marys, Our Fathers, and Glory Bes repeated bead by bead, it comforts. It’s like being curled up in a mother’s lap as breath goes in and out. You’re not sure if you’re hearing your breathing or hers. Or if there is even a difference.
With each cycle of 10 Hail Marys, the faithful are called upon to meditate on an event from the life of Mary or Jesus, events we call “mysteries,” a word I have always loved.
This small, tactile thing, a string of beads, takes you out of this world. Every Catholic child hears the stories of Jesus and Mary, from the Annunciation to the Assumption, over and over. But the rosary invites you to privately imagine those stories and thus make them your own. I know Jesus and Mary better for praying it.
As I grew, I stopped seeing Mary as the immovable lady in blue. Today, I prefer to think of her as a girl who said yes when God asked her to do an impossible thing, and who kept saying yes through all the glories, joys, and sorrows that made up her life. Mary’s life reminds me that you can be a fighter and still be at peace. This is the thing I most need to know now. So this centuries-old devotion has grown with me, or I with it.
In my mother’s last days, those beads connected us. She did not speak. I’m not sure she knew me. Alzheimer’s had taken so much of what she was. But when I prayed the rosary at her bedside, her grimace relaxed. I prayed it aloud every time I was with her, because it was the one thing that seemed to reach some part of her.
Shortly before she died, a miracle happened. There’s no better word. She spoke to me, calling me by name. This woman, who had been bedridden and silent for a year, was smiling and animated. She told me about visiting a magnificent church where everyone was clean and polite—two qualities my mother valued above all others. Mom only peeked into the church from an outer room, she said, where she’d been talking with Great-Aunt Mae, a woman dead 20 years.
“Would you like to go inside?” I asked.
“Yes, but you can’t come,” she answered sadly.
“You’ve got to take care of Charlie [my son].”
“Someday,” I told her. “You go now, if you’re ready. And I’ll see you when my work is done.”
She mumbled, “Mary, Mary, Mary, grace, grace, grace,” as I prayed. After a while, she handed me her rosary. “You give these to somebody who needs them. In my church, we don’t need them,” she said.
Then she grabbed my hand and said, “You’re a good girl. You’re praying all the time. In my church, we hear your prayers.” It was the last thing she said to me, though her body hung on for another month. I never did give her rosary beads away, because I can’t imagine anyone needing them more than I do.