A Sign of Peace

by Mary Murphy

Sacred Journey, December 2000

Marion enters the dark Cathedral by the side door on Madison Avenue. The frigid December wind follows her in as she slips alone into the pew in front of Olivia and me. She is unnoticed by most of the people around us. Those already deep in the ritual of Sunday Mass pay no attention to the red-faced, ungainly woman as she genuflects and makes the sign of the cross before entering the pew.

I am chilled by the sight of her, so I slide my eyes quickly down to be warmed by Olivia, busy with crayons and coloring book on the seat next to me. My daughter doesn’t notice that I’ve tensed, but I have. I’ve been reminded how fragile daughters can be.

Marion’s only daughter, Meredith, was flying home from Europe one Christmas to be with her family after a semester abroad. But Meredith was killed in the space between her mother’s heartbeats by an explosion aboard Pan Am Flight 103 as it flew over Lockerbie, Scotland. December 21, 1988.

Marion is in constant pain. It’s easy to see in the dark grooves and hollows of her face, the always unkempt gray-shot black hair, and her brimming, red eyes. The eyes overflow often - tears going unwiped over cheeks, chin, and neck - never seeming to bring relief from her terrible dry longing.

I read about a rescue worker at the time of the crash who found two severed arms in the debris of the passenger section of Flight 103. The arms were those of a woman and child still joined together holding hands. Those two were the lucky ones, I think, as I watch Marion kneel and lean over the pew in front, her head held in both hands. Her back moves up and down in a huge sigh or a long drawn-out sob.

A sense of self-preservation keeps me from getting too close to Marion. Although she is the figure of sorrow, whatever compassion I feel is smothered at once by the fear that her anguish is a communicable disease. I have too much to lose to risk contagion.

Olivia sits on the padded kneeler coloring for awhile but eventually grows bored and restless. At the age of five, Mass is a marathon that must be endured for who-knew-what grown-up reason. I get her to recite the Our Father with me and then the priest tells us to offer each other a sign of peace. Olivia, free at last, turns immediately and sticks out her hand. “Peace be with you,” she broadcasts to the family behind us. She shakes hands with a man, two women, one of whom is elderly, and a small boy. The boy squeezes her hand too hard so she says “ouch” and tattles on him to the younger woman.

Marion must hear the noisy handshakes but she doesn’t turn around until Olivia pulls on the back of her navy pea jacket. The old lint-strewn wool coat with trailing uneven hem is Marion’s protective shell. She huddles into its folds in every season but high summer. As she turns around I notice that she is crying. Olivia notices too and points it out to me in a loud stage whisper.

“I know” is all I can whisper back as I turn away from the hopeless tears. Olivia’s stare is full of sympathy until an idea suddenly sets her in motion. She reaches for her small white purse and quickly tosses a grape sucker, a kitten playing with a ball of yarn tattoo, her Classic Barbie keychain (no keys), and a package of rainbow gummy bears to our pew. She is looking for something that seems to have hidden itself beneath a fold of satin lining. Eventually she manages to free her rosary from the purse. The rosary consists of cheap yellow plastic beads held together with string in five groups of ten Hail Mary beads separated by single Our Father beads. The string is unravelling at one end near the crucifix where a blobby figure of Christ blends into his cross and becomes one with it.

The rosary was given to Olivia last summer by an elderly nun. The nun had very wrinkly skin and was one of the few in her order who still wore a habit. Olivia had clung to me as the old woman bent her face close and told her she looked like a favorite pupil from long ago. Sister Mary, as she said to call her, reached deep into a pocket of her long black skirt and pulled out what Olivia took to be a necklace with Jesus on it. She offered it to Olivia with a shaky hand and told her to pray always to get whatever she wanted. Olivia put the rosary on over her head at once. I often see her rubbing the cross the way Aladdin rubbed his lamp: eyes closed, lips moving, full of silent wishes.

On this day she seems to hit upon the rosary as something with which to distract an unhappy adult. She hurries past me out of our pew and slides in next to Marion. She stands on the seat and holds the rosary open like a Hawaiian lei. Then she motions Marion down to her level. Marion, who has been staring wetly at Olivia since she felt the tug on her jacket, kneels obediently, as though to receive some formal blessing. Olivia pulls the rosary over Marion’s head, wrestling it past her ears and patting the melted-looking crucifix into place over her heart. “Guess what?” she whispers loudly, “It’s a magic rosy. You’re supposed to rub this white part, close your eyes, and make a wish. Don’t tell anyone what you wished for, or it won’t come true.”

Marion is still crying but manages to croak, “What’s your name, honey?” through a large, smooshed up wad of kleenex she’s taken from her coat pocket. Olivia says her name shyly and endures a bear hug from Marion before dashing back to our pew and hiding behind me, shocked now by her forwardness with a stranger.

When Olivia and I return to our seats after Communion, I notice that Marion is kneeling at the foot of the Sacred Heart statue near the Madison Street entrance. Her eyes are closed, her fast-moving lips produce no sound. She fingers the beads around her neck and kisses the little white cross with such tenderness it would seem to bear the image of one even more dear than the crucified Christ.

Mass is drawing to a close and Olivia is coloring again. Marion quietly appears at my side offering me the rosary in the palm of her hand. From the altar the priest has begun the final blessing. “Lord, make your face to shine upon us and be gracious to us.” And then Marion smiles at Olivia. The smile is the first miracle I’ve ever been allowed to witness. The gloomy church grows suddenly lighter - as though a candle just lit shot its flame high in the air fed by a spurt of oxygen. I close Marion’s fingers over the sticky, oval rosary beads, squeezing her hand too hard.

After a moment the smile fades and Marion pulls her hand from away from me. She pockets the rosary and moves slowly up the aisle. I watch her until she is swallowed whole by the dark shadows at the back of church.

After Mass, Olivia and I walk up the street to the museum. On the way she asks, “Was it ok to give the rosy, I mean rosary, to the crying lady?” “It was a very good thing to do,” I tell her. “I don’t think it’s really magic anyway,” she admits. “The other day I asked it for a Easy-Bake Oven, and I didn’t get it.” “Well,” I say, “It helped Marion a little. I saw her smile today.” “But I bet that’s not what she wished for,” said Olivia. “No,” I agreed, “I bet that’s not what she wished for.”

We enter the museum through the revolving door, Olivia pulling on my hand, eager to see the giant insect exhibit “Monsters in Your Own Backyard.”