Today I want to re-share a blog post from last year. It tells the story behind the "Child of Mary" medal with the blue ribbon that you can see in yesterdays May Altar post.
I grew up in a Catholic family. I have memories of my Grandmother teaching me prayers as we shared twin beds in my room during her visits. I would lie there and watch her as she went through the pages of her prayer books. The pages thin and marked with years of fingerprints, pieces of paper delicately folded and placed between pages, remembrance cards of people she loved who had died, novenas she had been given and would pray when special intentions were needed. Religion was as much a part of her life, her day to day routine as breathing. Prayers when she woke, prayers as she sat in the comfy chair near the fireplace. Watching the traffic of us kids going in and out, "Say hello to Granny" as we came in the door from school. "Did you give Granny a kiss Goodbye?" as we went to run back out the door. Prayers after dinner, prayers before bedtime, prayers of thanks when happy, prayers of help when sad.
When my Granny was a young girl she belonged to the Child of Mary. I don't know very much about it. As a young girl I imagined it must have been like an Irish version of the Girl Guides, only with prayers. When you joined you were given a silver medal. It had your name engraved on it and it meant that you were a member for life. You wore your medal on a blue ribbon and on your death you were to wear it on you as you were laid out in your coffin. This medal was one of Granny's prized possessions. She talked about it wistfully, it had gone missing some years before. Not truly lost but misplaced in the farmhouse she had spent her married life in with my Grandad. The house that I had spent happy weekends in as a child. The house with high ceilings and high beds, layers of heavy blankets and throws that held you tight to the mattress. The house with no central heating, no plumbing in the original house, just an added on bathroom downstairs and out through the back kitchen. Too far and too cold for young feet or arthritic knees to creep to in the dead of night. A house with chamber pots under the beds. Oh the fun of hearing Granny pee into the enamel glazed metal in the dark of the night! A house that in recent years she had spent the summers in but when the winter winds descended she would go visit from son to daughter, and on to another and another, 4 weeks here, 6 there until the Spring re-emerged and the warmth returned and so would she to the farmhouse once more. But then the years went on and she aged and she delayed returning to her house a few more weeks, and a few more, until finally she slept there no more. Still the house stood solid and empty with its rooms ready for her return.
The years passed and I grew up and became a student nurse. I worked hard and partied harder with the friends I rented a house with. We did shift work which sometimes involved nights. Nights meant seven 12 hour shifts in a row and then seven glorious days off. Many times as I came off my last night I would get on a bus to the farm in Kilbehenny. I would sleep on the journey and my Auntie Mary would be waiting for me at the local town. I was greeted with bear hugs, smiles, fast conversation in strong familiar accents, genuine welcomes as though I had returned home to where I belonged. I would leave behind all traces of city life and truly relax. I chose my clothes from the big airing cupboard each day. Whatever overalls would fit would be mine to wear as I shadowed my Uncle into the milking parlour, my Aunt around the kitchen as she provided a never ending supply of food and cups of tea for uncountable numbers of cousins and local friends that came in and out of the back kitchen door all day. Heaven on earth!
There was one week I told my Granny I was going to Kilbehenny on my week off nights. I would have been about 19 or 20. She asked me to do something for her. When Granny held your hands tight in hers and looked you square in the eye you knew it wasn't a question you could say no to! She asked me would I go through her house, room by room, drawer by drawer, cupboard by cupboard. Would I find the silver Child of Mary medal that was somewhere inside? Permission to go into the big old house? Permission to go through hat boxes, photo albums, everything that would have been off bounds to us curious kids in earlier years. I could have bitten her hand off in excitement. And so that trip to Kilbehenny stands out in my memory as one of the most special and magical few days of my life.
I stood in the hush of the empty rooms and listened for ghosts. I closed my eyes and pictured my Mum growing up surrounded by her siblings. The stories I had been told in my childhood swirled around my head in a delirious jumble. I felt like the kids in the Chronicles of Narnia as I opened big wooden wardrobes and inhaled the smell of mothballs. I ran my hands through the hanging clothes under the watchful eyes of imposing paintings of saints hanging on long triangles of wire from the high picture rails. I went through fragile boxes and opened tissue paper wrapped memories. The hours flew by and I heard the call to lunch. I walked back over the field to my Aunt's kitchen and we all sat and ate the main meal of the day from steaming plates overflowing with chicken and potatoes and veggies.
Had I found anything? Not yet. My Uncle looked at me with his weather beaten face. His head tilted to the side as he asked me a serious question. "Now Gina, as you went through the house did you find any money? Anything? A single solitary coin at the back of a drawer? A penny? a tuppence? Anything? " No I replied. Not a single one. I looked around the table as silence hung in the air and then back at my Uncle. His face stayed serious and then his eyes twinkled and the biggest, deepest belly laughed roared out of him, his hands slapped his thighs in mirth as he laughed and laughed and laughed. "That'd be right" he said. "Your Granny has never been known to leave even a penny unaccounted for!" The laughter rippled around the table and the conversation returned to the farm, the weather, the jobs still to be done over the fast approaching afternoon.
When food was eaten I went back again and continued my search. The afternoon sun started to slip away and the chill of the evening was settling in. I was hungry again and hours had slipped by since I had returned to the house. I had just gone through the final room, my Grandmother's bedroom. I had thought this was the most likely room to have the medal tucked away and so I had purposely left it till last. I hadn't wanted to find the medal straight away because then I would have forfeited the right to explore through the rest of the house. And yet I had been through every drawer, every box. I felt disappointment fall over my shoulders. This wasn't what I had planned. I knew dinner would be ready soon and I didn't want to return to my Aunt having failed my task. I thought I would have to start again from scratch the next day.
I stood in the middle of my Grandparent's bedroom. The big bed on my left and the old window on my right, the Fireplace behind me and the open wardrobe in front. I reached out to close the door when a black patent leather bag caught my eye. I lifted it up and turned it over in my hand as I had already done before. I re-opened it and my hand moved around the empty space inside when my fingers felt the edge of a small zip. My heart pounded as I pulled gently on the zip. I knew I had found it even before my fingers curled around the thin metal oval. I pulled it out and breathing deep uncurled my fingers to find it cradled in my palm. It was bigger than I imagined and it was a dark grey, years of oxidising had made it dull and indistinct. But it was found!
I ran across the field dividing Granny's house from my Aunt's. Jumping the small trickling stream without my usual hesitancy, running through the thick grass avoiding cow pats as I went. My Aunt was standing at the sink looking out the window and saw me running. She knew! The delight on her face made my heart race even faster. Within minutes she had got out the pot of Silver polish and was helping me to clean the medal until it gleamed. She found a ring box to keep it safe and promised that we would drive to town the next day to buy a pale blue ribbon to hang the medal on before I gave it back to Granny.
I don't know what it felt like to be the first man to step on the moon, to be an explorer discovering a new land or a pirate finding buried treasure. All I know is that I would not trade places with any one of them for the moment I found myself back in Dublin kneeling next to Granny's chair. This time I was the one holding her hands tight and making her look me square in the eyes. I know she cried as she opened the little ring box and held the medal tight in her hand. That through her tears she told me that she would now be able to have the medal around her neck as she was laying in her coffin, and that before the coffin was closed the medal was to be taken off her and given to me to treasure always. It was my Uncle with the twinkling eyes and booming laugh who did just that as the rest of the world celebrated the arrival of a new millenium and we mourned the departure of our dear Grandmother.
So here is the medal. Still with it's pale blue ribbon bought by my Aunt in 1990 and handed back to me by my wonderful Uncle in the early days of the year 2000. Worn by me as I laboured to bring my babies into the world and lying today on a crochet cloth made by Granny many years ago.
Gone but never forgotten. xo