As a child raised in a Catholic family, I knew nothing else except by example when it came to religion. Mom always on her knees, praying for miracles that never seemed to be fulfilled. Children alongside her on knees repeating the prayers, while rocking side to side since the hard wood floor hurt. Never meat on Fridays, only fish or salads or pasta, and Lent was especially tough on everyone, because in addition to all the sacrifices already made; one had to give up something truly special as well. I always gave up Kool-Aid, since I could make lemonade and survive without going thirsty for something sweet. Candy and sweets were out of the question, since we rarely got those type of treats anyway.
Visiting grandmother was always a favorite time for me, as it was in the big city and great-grandmother lived around the corner, as well as a great aunt and her husband, living a few doors down, and in the center of it all was another aunt. As a six year old, and the first grandchild, I was spoiled with attention, although not necessarily with material things. The family was not poor; although certainly not one of great wealth. Great-grandmother was in her 80's and owned a small cafe in the front part of her home, so it was always busy with customers sitting down for breakfast or lunch. She did not serve meals after 3:00 p.m. She did however, serve me hot sliced peach pie with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream on top whenever I was taken to visit her. Our family was one who believed in hard work, no matter how old or young, honesty and loyalty, especially to oneself, and of course....food was a huge part of that love. My great-aunt liked to feed me, and always had a huge pot of chicken soup or beef soup or a stew of some kind brewing. My favorite thing at her house however, was her delicious iced-tea that was to die for! A pitcher of fresh brewed cold tea, and another pitcher of ice cold fresh squeezed lemonade. She would fill the tall clear glass with cubes of ice, then pour half sweet tea, and half lemonade, then she would drop a thin slice of lemon and a sprig of fresh cut mint as the final touch.... mmmmm... I can taste it now. The other aunt had been struck with polio but she was feisty and loved the Mogan-David wine, or any wine she could buy without anyone knowing. I'd watch her sip on a bottle when she thought no one was looking, and I'd think to myself..."what's wrong with that?" She liked to feed me too; but she preferred to give me chips and cheese slices, since those were her favorites, as she wasn't into cooking so much.
My grandmother was the Matriarch of the family even though she was not the oldest. Somehow she had that determination about her that no one questioned. I loved her more than anyone in my life in those days, and although she was strict with me, she also showered me with love and special attention. She was "in charge" of me whenever I visited, and she chose when I visited the other aunts, she chose what I wore, how I brushed my hair, and everything else that I did. She had a nice big house, with plenty of rooms, but she always insisted I sleep with her and I hated that part. Oh, the bed was soft and tall so that I had to climb onto it by using a stepstool. The bed was made of feathers, and the pillows were always crisp and white, and there were layers of soft handmade quilts. The yukk part was that my grandmother wore flannel nightgowns buttoned at her neck and trailed to her slippered feet. She slept with long white billowing pantaloons under the gown, and at least two pairs of socks. She also wrapped her hair, which fell to her waist, plaited into a long braid, then wound into a knot, with a white flannel bonnet that covered everything except her ears. To top it all off, she would wear a satin mask over her eyes. I was made up to look like a miniature clone of my grandmother, and told to sleep on the side of the bed that faced the wall. I hated that side of the bed. I hated all those flannel hot night clothes. I hated being scrunched up and having her twist and turn and I especially hated hearing her snore so loud that she could wake up the truck drivers on the main highway miles away. There were alot of "hates" but not the mean kind...just the "I really disliked" kind of hates.
What I did love about my grandmother were more things than I could count on both hands, but she did have a habit of dragging me everywhere she went. Every morning, bright and early we were up with the rooster who squawked his lungs out in the backyard. I know... I said she lived IN the city, but she had a large plot of land on the corner and the other aunts and great grandmother owned some more plots of land, so that they literally owned about two full city blocks of homes and land in that neighborhood. They had lived there for years, and their homes were nice, and the yards well manicured, so what was one noisy rooster? Anyway, grandmother had a lovely bedroom with what I thought to be "old" furniture when I was just a child, so obviously, it would really be antique now. She had a crystal dish that sat on her vanity, and it was always filled with coins. I never touched the dish or the coins, but I did sit on the stool and brushed my hair and pretended to be a movie star from one of her Movie Star magazines. Grandmother loved the movie stars, and had stacks of movie magazines. She did not look like a movie star, nor did she act like one. My grandmother was sensible from her head to her toes. No makeup, except a little dab of light lipstick, a puff of face powder, and a dab of perfume behind each earlobe. Her long hair would be brushed shiny, then twisted and turned into a beautiful chignon and pinned at the nape of her neck. She would dress in simple cotton housedresses, and sensible shoes with stockings. Wherever she went, slung over her shoulder would be a large black leather purse with ample pockets.
Once we were up and dressed in the morning, she would give me a half slice of toast, while she ate the other half. She drank a black coffee and I had a cup of milk. A hanky would be pinned to my head, and she would have a scarf or a small hat on her head, and off we'd go to the Catholic Church down the road. Entering the huge double doors of the church, I genuflected, with one hand in the holy water fountain, dabbed it on my forehead, shoulders and heart as I made the Sign of The Cross. Grandmother would grab my hand and pull me toward the alter, as we always were there before Mass began. To the left of the main alter was a section where candles were displayed for people to light and knee benches for kneeling and praying.
Grandmother always gave me a nickel for my candle, and she would point to the same white candle on the bottom row and stand there while I lit the candle, then I would kneel, bow my head and say my prayers. She would do the same, except she always put in quarters and would light a Red candle on the very top row. Every day, on the walk home I would ask her what she prayed for, and she would say, "it's between me and God" and I would ask, "does God answer your prayers?" and she'd answer, "Oh yes! God answers my prayers....you must believe." Well..so much for that! I was doing something wrong because God never answered my prayers, so how could I get to be God's favorite so He would listen to my prayers and answer them too?
Several days passed and God did not answer my prayers, and so I decided to take matters into my own hands. When Grandmother was dressing the following morning, I made sure she wasn't around, and I slipped two of the quarters from the crystal dish into my sweater pocket. She gave me my nickle as usual, and we did the same ritual at church. This went on for several days, with this exception; while she was with bowed head and deep in silent prayer, I would scoot away from her as quietly as possible, and I'd stand on the edge of the kneeler and light a Red candle as near to the top as I could reach, dropping two quarters into the money slot. I lit my regular white tiny votive and placed my nickle just as grandmoter instructed, but I also lit the big red candle with the two quarters, and said my prayers.....but still.... no answered prayers!
The following week, grandmother sat me down and asked, "have you been taking money from my crystal dish?" I knew I couldn't lie to her, but I also knew that I would get a swatting with a limb from the mulberry bush out in the back yard. Those bush limbs hurt alot, and she made sure that I cried hard....then she would hug me and say, "it hurts me more than you." There was no way my getting spanked hurt her more than me...but I didn't argue. "Yes ma'am, I took the money, but.....but....I took it and gave it to God." Grandmother asked me why I stole money to give to God? Well, I did my best to explain.....
"Grandmother, you always pray, light the big red candles, and your prayers are answered. God answers prayers when you pay for them with big money. God doesn't answer prayers when you pay for little white candles with only one nickle." She looked at me for awhile, then she said.... "Do you think God approves of you stealing from your grandmother so you can ask for something for yourself?" Gee....I don't know; it made sense to me at the time. I didn't steal the money to buy ice cream or soda pop... I "borrowed" the money to give to God so He would answer my prayers. Mom never got her prayers answered, and I'd watched her pray and pray for all my life, and she didn't pay anything for her prayers. Sometimes mom bought a large candle at the store and she'd light it, and we would all pray and then the candle would sit on our stove for days without ever being blown out.....if the candle light went out on it's own...that was a sure sign that God wasn't listening...so we were careful to never blow near the candles when they were burning.
I did get a switching... and my prayers did not get answered, and my six year old mind figured it was just all a waste of time and effort. I didn't think I learned a thing, except that it didn't pay to steal period.
Now I'm grown, and I wonder why this memory remains with me after all these years. It confused me then and it confuses me now sometimes. Oh, I eventually became a Christian, and learned to read the Bible and not just the Catechism, but I also learned that I can pray directly to God without intercession. I also learned that God does not always answer prayers....at least not in our time... and sometimes never! I did learn that He does answer prayer in His way, in His time, and when a prayer goes unanswered, it's because He has another plan. I'll probably never get old enough to understand any of this, but I do understand that when a child is first learning about the world around, that it's very important that those who care for us, show us the right way, but also explain in simple terms....the why's .... even if it may be hard to do so.. When I think of almost losing my faith in God entirely over this simple experience that followed me most of my young adult life, I am so thankful that I was able to meet others who could and would show me better ways to reach for my God. He doesn't care if I have a nickle or quarters or millions.... He does care if I love Him and believe and trust Him.... Prayer does not have a price tag! We can each afford to pray... free of charge...whenever we want....wherever we want! Thank you!