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Essay: My great-grandmother’s rosary

A religious struggle ends with family

February 11, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST


Photo by Jonathan Stephanoff

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I only take it to funerals. It sits on my lap laced between my fingers, a somber addition to my black dress. It doesn’t whisper any words of comfort or put an arm around me when I start to cry, but it manages to ease the nerves and dry the tears.

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The rest of the time, my rosary sits next to my bed, inches away, just in case I wake up terrified in the middle of the night and need it for solace. It sits in an old dish right next to my birth control pills. I feel like I’ve tarnished it, like I don’t deserve it, like my disbelief in religion has made me a hypocrite for cherishing it, but I can’t seem to let it go.

The rosary isn’t mine. There’s no reason for me to have it, given that I was involuntarily raised Methodist as the granddaughter of a minister. My mom is Catholic, but her religion was never an option for my brother and me. The rosary was passed down to me as a little girl from my grandmother. It was originally her mother’s, and though I’ve never met my great-grandmother, at least I have a piece of her with me. The closest I’ve ever came to knowing was at Ellis Island, when I traced her name etched into the memorial wall with my finger.

Although my grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s, she remembers pieces of her mother’s life as if she was alive yesterday. She remembers that her mother immigrated from Poland with her husband and that she was always seen with a scarf wrapped around her head, hands around a broom sweeping off the front porch of the old farmhouse and her rosary in tow.

When my grandma gave me her mother’s only rosary, I was too young to know what it meant. I wish I remember the time of day or which worn chair I was sitting on and what sparked her desire to give me her mother’s greatest possession. But I do remember the story she told me.

Despite the hardworking, powerful stories I always heard about her, my great-grandmother was a scaredy-cat. My grandma laughed as she told me that her mom was terrified of thunderstorms — completely terrified. She would grab her rosary in an attempt to calm down before she looked for a candle. She would say her Hail Marys until the storm stopped, she fell asleep or her voice went hoarse, in which case, she would pray silently. That rosary was the only thing that could get her through the night, and now, it gets me through my own tragedies.

I can’t help but picture my great-grandmother in this scene every time I run my fingers over the smooth, tarnished beads. She found a comforting link to God in the rosary. I just found a comforting link. I’m not always so sure about the God part. I nevertheless clutch it when I feel alone. My great-grandmother is gone; she was before I was born. My grandma and my mom are too far away, and I live alone.

I’m still not sure what to do with the rosary, technically, that is. I remember my mom teaching me once at a funeral, but I’ve since forgotten it. It was a Catholic ceremony, and I suddenly felt a part of something I was never allowed. I find everything about Catholicism relaxing: the soothing incense, the priest playing therapist, the belief in a woman and the feeling of community. But the fact is, I’m not a part of this world. I abandoned religion a long time ago. For now, I just play with the beads and pretend that having them makes me a better person. Sometimes if I’m really desperate I attempt a prayer, but it always feels like I’m making a mockery of the necklace my great-grandmother was once so faithful to.

I don’t know why I take it to funerals pretending I have the same level of faith as my great-grandmother and all the old ladies who clutch their own rosaries. But there it is, and even though I might not be caressing it to be close to God, I am closer to my family.

Although I can’t identify myself with a religion, I can identify with my family. I love this rosary made of century-old silver and metal. I know the embossed Jesus on the cross is not going to save me. I know holding onto this trinket isn’t going to get me a ticket into heaven. It’s a comfort and a treasure, hypocritical or not. I might not be a Catholic or a Methodist or even an atheist. But I am Polish, and though my last name is different, I am a Szelog at heart, my mother’s daughter, my grandmother’s granddaughter and my great-grandmother’s great-granddaughter, no matter what.

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