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Khimm Graham: Mom’s faith led me to the fire of mysticism

When you’re 10 and you wear a white carnation corsage to St. Josaphat Church on Mother’s Day, old women pat your head and whisper a prayer in Polish because the white carnation is worn to honor your deceased mother. You mark time by ignoring such occasions, for all that matters is she died.

I wore a red plaid flannel nightgown with a ruffled hem and cuffs that cold, autumn night I was rushed to the neighbor’s house as noisy ambulance lights synchronized every flash of Hail Marys uttered from my lips. They say Mom screamed my name when she breathed a final breath, but I don’t know that to be true because I wasn’t there. I just prayed and waited because I was Catholic.

Mom was a kind, loving woman who gardened peonies and earthy radishes, and baked rye bread and tart cherry pies. Lauretta was tall and strong, danced a perfect polka, played the xylophone and seldom cursed or drank. She wore seersucker suits in the summer, black jeans when she mowed the lawn and a holy scapular under everything.

We vacationed at places like St. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec City, Quebec, a grand church in Canada where we climbed the healing stairs on our knees and said the rosary. I mimicked her movements as she bowed her head in silence and held each tiny, wooden bead with reverence. My ’60s, glow-in-the-dark rosary shone in the gloom of the shrine, where black and white photographs of people who were healed framed every step and the light of my rosary illuminated their faces.

They spoke to me in smiles and posed defiantly against the ravages of disease, still gracious and faithful. At the end of the homage, hanging like broken hearts at the top of the endless staircase, were rickety wheelchairs, polio braces, and crutches wrapped in yellowed linen – tattered and worn from years of strife.

I knew then that miracles really happen. Mom’s faith led me to the fire of mysticism, an unshakable foundation of spiritual truth to guide the way without her grace. Every step we took was her surrender to God, but I didn’t know that the pilgrimage we shared was Mom’s final plea.

She died with the rosary she favored, the one crafted in Lourdes and christened by her tearful meditations. On that last frenetic ambulance ride, she clutched the cross so tightly that it cut her calloused skin. But the rosary was lost in the hospital emergency room and I imagined that it went with her – straight to heaven.

Some 20 years later on Mother’s Day, I crossed the showroom of an old flower shop and found a rosary on the floor with worn, wooden beads. The name Lourdes was engraved on the back of the crucifix, and the heady odor of incense permeated the beads. “Could it be?” I thought. If it was, this rosary would be the only memento of Mom I’d possess. There was only one way to be certain, so I paid a visit to my eldest sister who held every memoir when there was nothing left to hold. She was at Mom’s side in the end and old enough to remember.

I set the old rosary on her kitchen table and waited for her to respond. “My God! Where did you find Ma’s rosary? We searched that hospital for days!”

“She gave it to me yesterday,” I explained and wrapped the rosary around my fingers, kissed the cross and wished my Mom a Happy Mother’s Day – even though the gift was forever mine.