By Kelly Foster
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
—T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”
Jesus said Mother I couldn’t stay another day longer
He flies right by and leaves a kiss upon her face
While the angels were singin’ his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place.
—Patty Griffin, “Mary”
My maternal grandmother died somewhat unexpectedly last night. Two weeks ago, she entered the hospital and then a rapid-fire sequence of strokes took their toll on her body, already deteriorated by years of advanced Alzheimer’s and emphysema. Last night, my family all waited beside her hospital bed, watching her collect already shrunken breaths, scattershot and infrequent.
I was able to spend a few hours with her on Friday evening. She was still able to recognize me, which has not always been the case in these last few years. On Saturday, she slipped into a coma. By Sunday morning, she was completely unresponsive. She died around 10:30 last night, and according to her doctors, did so feeling little pain.
My grandmother lived a brutal life.
She grew up in a large family in one of the many poverty-stricken corners of South Mississippi. She married at sixteen to a man who beat her and worse. She married again to a man who was unfaithful to her and who died when my mother was only an infant. She married again, this time for fifty-five years, to a man with whom she forged a sturdy, if occasionally violent, relationship.
Over the years, she mothered five children and helped raise many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. During the years when she had no mate to help support her, she started a beauty salon behind her house. My earliest memories of her are of twirling in her barber’s chair and rifling through foam curlers, sticky with hairspray and redolent with stale tobacco. In the barbershop, she kept a deep-freeze and above it there were jars upon jars of vegetables that had been “put up” for winter—squash, tomatoes, homemade pickles. In the back of the freezer, she kept Flav-O-Rite popsicles. My brothers, cousins and I would fight for blue, purple, and red.
My grandmother was an excellent cook, intuiting her way through years of Southern meals—steak and gravy, butterbeans, biscuits, buttery grits, fish and hushpuppies, pot roast. I remember staying with her as a girl and eating hot sausage and eggs in the morning in a kitchen that smelled of bleach and cigarettes, while Merle Haggard and George Jones sang in the background on the radio that sat on the back of the table.
According to the local Catholic community, the patron saint of Mississippi is the Mater Dolorosa or Mother of Sorrows. This has often struck me as a very appropriate choice for a state so scarred with the trafficking and exploitation of human beings, and with the bitter legacy of violence and poverty that lingers.
There is one classic polyphonic hymn of the Renaissance written to honor Mary as she stood at the foot of the cross: the Stabat Mater Dolorosa. In English, “the Sorrowful Mother was standing.” Traditionally, she contemplates the seven sorrows that began with the dedication of Christ in the temple and the prophecy of Simeon: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own heart also.”
In icons of the Mater Dolorosa, she leans her mournful face against her hand, often a sword is depicted piercing her heart.
As I watched my sorrowful mother tend her mother this weekend, I wondered what sort of icon could be made from this: a hospital bed in an undignified corner of Brandon, Mississippi, my uncle watching a football game in the background, while my aunts, marred by years of hard living, came and went from smoke breaks outside with a perpetual stream of Diet Cokes and coffees.
But as I watched my sorrowful mother tend her mother this weekend, I wondered what sort of icon could not be made from this savage beauty—the way my mother’s hard-earned forgiveness of her often unforgivable family lent a stark luminosity to the emaciated features of the dying and all who tended her. The way our disparate, frequently garish family sat together in a sacramental hush, my mother making sure that someone was always touching my grandmother’s withered arm.
My favorite scene in Mel Gibson’s much-maligned Passion depicts Mary rushing to comfort Christ as he stumbles under the weight of the cross. She remembers him stumbling as a child, and knows he is going where she can no longer help him.
“See?” he tells her, “I am making all things new.”
So we hope from all these our sorrows: redemption, rebirth, beauty, forgiveness. So I pray for my beautiful grandmother, all her life as intractable, as unbending as flint. In old black and white photos, she stands, hard and elegant as Joan Crawford, long-limbed and high-cheekboned in a black dress and wide brimmed hat, her lips and eyes lined darkly.
Friday night, she looked over at me.
“Hi, honey. Hi, honey,” she said sweetly, and then slipped away again, smiling and laughing her measured smokers’ laugh in her sleep. It did not seem a bad way to end, sad memories subsumed under the better gravity of the joyful, surrounded by the voices of those to whom she had so long mattered.
Still I contemplate the manifold sorrows of my mother, left without a mother to tend, left holding the weight of her whole life’s unresolved love, left to clean her parents’ house and pay their bills and tend her brothers and sisters as she has always done, always the most mature, always the most responsible. I marvel at my mother, this remarkably powerful woman, bending forever to the will of God with such deft gentility and humility.
“Thy will be done,” she says, as Mary must have done, even as it pierced her heart.