My Rosaries’ Keeper
I don’t know where my grandmother, Maida, got her rosary. I would imagine it was a gift to her in her faith as a young girl growing up in New Orleans; there were a few Great, Great, Aunties down there but I cannot say for sure and, as you will see, that tale is long lost to history now but before we mourn the origins of this magical string of well-worn beads let’s talk about their journey through the last century that I do know something of.
Maida was always almost a caricature of someone in a 1930’s black and white southern melodrama. Proper, I mean PROPER. White gloves always, perfectly coiffed, correct length dress and sensible low-heeled shoes. Our mother, Maylou, was her only child and raised in New Orleans until, at 19, she met and when I say was swept, I mean scooped up by a tidal wave of a tall, dashing, charismatic Greek god of man from Maryland which made him, barely, Southern Acceptable. He was also what we call Yankee-adjacent. And off they went to Maryland. Into a subdivision house not far from his parent’s and, as good Catholics, began producing not just a brood but a full baseball team. There were infant deaths along the way, three babies out of the nine she eventual bore died quite quickly so there had to have been great sadness but yet the joy of the next newborn and the care required buoyed her onward.
I came along when they moved next door to me and like any mother who was rearing up a herd, she just slipped me into the mix. And I stayed. For 60 years so far. The red-headed stepchild in a family of olive-skinned Greeks or Freeks as we dubbed ourselves. Maida came from French southern stock and another grandmother was a French immigrant so; French and Greek = Freek. And we were just that, it was the 60’s and we were wild and feral. We lived on a farm in the country and ran wild through the woods on horseback all day and told ghost stories in the rambling old haunted house that was home.
Maida, by now moved north to keep an eye on things, was not fond rural life; of horses, or of dogs, or for that matter children, having raised her one requisite daughter through Catholic school in the mid 1930’s New Orleans world. We were always admonished not to be too loud, too filthy, too human or we would offend Maida’s tenuous sensibilities. That always went well…or not.
Through the decades of teen angst and bad behavior (there was that infamous Flight From Hell where the Permanently Punished cousin, Susan, was ushered home to New Orleans by Maida and where we hooligan hicks came to see her off at Dulles dressed in barely decent, ragged, cutoff jeans and almost non-existent tops. Maida refused…REFUSED…to acknowledge us or to sit with Susan on the flight home. We thought it a great laugh!) Maida eventually did develop, if not a fondness, at least a favorite out of her grandchildren, Nan. For some reason this oldest granddaughter struck a chord in this southern doyenne and over the decades they bonded. Maida helped the rebellious Nan attend Dumbarton College, her real entrée into the art world that would craft the remainder of her life. A few discreet gifts, a car, some cash, some careful admonitions to not push too far too fast and a lifelong joining of what I believe were like-minded souls; albeit souls trapped in different generations, different worlds, and different embodiments, was formed.
Life moved on. The Dashing Greek turned out to be just that, a dasher; parlaying dozens of off-market dalliances into on-demand cash IOUs during the ensuing divorce proceedings. Maida had been right all along but was still there to buoy up her only daughter and actually become the titular head of the dynasty as was and is the case in so many a truly southern household; made-for-prime-time-dramas, one and all.
So, Maylou moved out and on, getting herself a “hi-rise apartment in the sky” and taking Maida, who was now in the end stages of advanced cancer, in with her. It was so advanced that Maida was already in a hospital bed and on hospice almost immediately. I got the call in South Carolina that she was dying and should come home. Nan got the call while she and Max were sailing off the Cape in Massachusetts. We all rushed to Maryland to hold hands and watch life unfurl.
I got to mom’s with Nan and the hospice nurse was there patiently explaining what we should expect. She said hours to a day, maybe. The three of us agreed to take 4-hour shifts sitting with Maida and Nan wanted first up. As mom and I walked the nurse down the long hall to the elevator Nan came out, frantic, calling us back. We all rushed back in and the nurse confirmed that it was now time. We all stood about Maida, holding her hands, telling her to let go now and she imperceptibly slowed herself down and out of life. While the nurse was prepping Maida she told us that before she called the mortuary we should call family and have them come to say goodbye.
Shit. Calling family in our world meant a crowd…in a hurry.
We looked around the room and it was starker and colder and worse than any hospital room in a State Ward; stuff in boxes all over yet to be unpacked, nothing on the walls and Maida, well, she had had cancer for a long time so she had no hair and in her world that was NOT a going-out, anywhere, look, period. We found a wig that, with a quick comb-out, helped while the nurse showed us how to tie up her chin with a festive Hermes scarf so that her jaw would “set” in a closed position (all news to us!). Once we had her dressed and presentable, we looked around the room and tried to figure out what could be done on really short notice. We rummaged around and found a crucifix but had no tools so I yanked off my shoe and pounded it into the wall above her bed feeling all the while like some infidel at the gates….it just seemed so wrong until….we all just broke down and laughed until we cried; the Theater of the Absurd that passed for family was in full swing and we, thankfully, saw the utter absurdity in all of it. We also found her well-worried rosary. We laced it through her fingers as it so often had been in life.
I wish we had thought to take a photograph. You’ll see.
And now the generations tick onward; husbands and wives come and go, children and grandchildren and great grandchildren come, and come, and come. Now, Maylou has taken on the granddame mantle and the generations stretch out at her feet. And now we come to present times. She ended up living with two of her daughters for extended periods of time over the years, her eldest, Nan, and her youngest, Mimi. Nan’s home continued to be the vibrant, couch-surfing, all are welcome, and none are ever refused center of the universe. Family gathered often at her central location (with a pool!). She commanded art be captured at every turn; and it was.
Somewhere along the decades Nan contracted early-onset Parkinson’s Disease. She managed it well, coping with the slow, inexorable creep of debilitations, increasing drugs, and oddities only those who have lived the journey can describe or endure. Her artwork changed of necessity, but it continued until her shaky hands could no longer hold a brush, a pen, or a camera. And here then, she turned to another source for inspiration, the journals she had started writing to her daughter 50 years ago; The Brooke Books. Painstakingly, laborious, with a lot of help along the way, she crafted the first of these into a loving memoir of all of our lives as we welcomed the newly arrived Brooke Corinne into our already chaotic world.
It was her last artistic endeavor and she published it not months before her end in this world; her crowning achievements, her daughter and her so-named book. It was to be a series (there are over 30 journals!) but even had she ascended to the likes of St. Germaine she could not have finished this earthly project. And so, like Gilgamesh, she chose to be mortal in the end believing that immortality is attained by leaving lasting works of art and culture in the living world.
As she left this plain, her daughter and her husband at her side, her mother also chose that day to depart. Nan said it would be in those last weeks, she willed it into the world as she willed herself out of this world. The same way she knew that her daughter would be born on HER birthday, she knew she would die with her beloved mother on their day.
After she left, Corinne prepared her body and called friends and family who wished to say goodbye before they came to take her away. She chose a favorite scarf to wrap about her head, and an old embroidered top. But strangely, because Nan was not a religious person and strangest of all Corinne had not been present when Maida had died; only Nan, mom, and myself were there, Corinne chose to lace a rosary through Nan’s fingers…….the same Rosary that we had laced through Maida’s on that night in 1993. Rituals come from unseen places and unknown times; witnesses to futures yet unborn.
This time a picture was taken. True to Nan in every detail throughout her life and now her death.
Art is Everything
One more thing. When Corinne was pregnant with her daughter, she was completely tight-lipped about names. She kept this most momentous moment just to herself. When this, newest daugher was introduced to the family it was stunningly perfect and profound.
Her name is Maida.