Amanda Nava: Novena, short story
It’s Tuesday and we walked through Grandma Eta’s door. I guess it’s Grandpa Rudy’s door now that Grandma Eta died.
“Who is it?” asked Auntie Mary from the dining room.
“It’s just us,” I called out, taking off my shoes.
Julio did the same and I followed him through the kitchen into the crowded dining room. The yellowed tiled kitchen counter was full of snack foods and I added a container of brownies to the collection.
Going from family member to family member, we shared solemn hellos and kisses. All fourteen of the aunts, uncles, and cousins in our immediate family were present. It was a rare gathering unless there was a birthday or holiday, otherwise we’d see each other in smaller groups throughout the year. My heart didn’t break until I turned to Grandpa Rudy. He sat on his armchair in the corner of the living room staring at a corner. Calling his name didn’t break his gaze and he didn’t even flinch when I kissed his forehead.
Everyone grabbed a chair to bring over to the communal space reserved for Christmas and birthdays when everyone would open presents. Grandma Eta was the loudest in the center, pushing the presents onto the recipient whether they wanted the attention or not.
As we twiddled with the rosaries in between our fingers, I cleared my throat and said, “Hail Mary, full of grace…”
Each of us had time to grieve yesterday so the pleasantries were more cheerful today. Most of us hadn’t been inside a church in years, but there was something calming about chanting in a room full of people you love, even if you didn’t believe in their God.
Everyone ate after the novena and Uncle Kev brought out a bottle of Patron Grandma Eta bought for his birthday that year. Even those of us who were under twenty-one were given a shot much to my mother’s chagrin. We raised each glass with tears in our eyes.
“…our Lord is with thee.”
The rosaries were no longer placed neatly in a box on the fire place mantel. It was the third day, there were six more days of praying and it wasn’t like hiding our prayer tool would conceal our grief. Instead they were spread on the glass table tangled in a web, the beads weaved in and out of strings they didn’t belong to. Sometimes Grandpa Rudy would sit and untangle the rosaries, laying each of them one by one so that fourteen rosaries were in perfect rows. He’d stare at them for a moment before bunching them together into a ball.
If you listened carefully you could hear him praying under his breath, “Blessed art thou among women…”
In a corner of the kitchen May asked Liz, “Is it fruit of thy womb or your womb? Some people say both and I’m so confused.”
“I don’t think it matters,” Liz said.
Auntie Mary, eavesdropping as always said, “Both are fine, but I grew up saying, ‘…and blessed is the fruit of thy womb…’”
Family from out of town showed up today. It’s only two people, but it’s the first wave. Uncle Kev brought out the tequila again because of the visitors. There’s also wine and margaritas sitting on the counter next to food from Dragon House. Even Grandpa Rudy was lucid enough to take a shot with the family before returning to his arm chair.
It’s Friday and the sixth day of praying and we were novena experts. We had a set rotation of leaders and more out of town family gushed about how much everyone has grown. Pre-prayer they share stories of Grandma Eta, most of them set when everyone was younger and some of us didn’t exist. We laughed at the right moments, but wished it was just the fourteen of us. The intimacy of the ceremony was broken.
All the second generation talked about was the upcoming wake and funeral. We were bored, but grateful to have each other.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God…”
It’s a weekday but we’re still drinking. We finished off the Patron days ago, but someone bought two more bottles and instead of one bottle of wine there were several on the table. Now the alcohol outnumbered the amount of food — we’re Filipino so that said something. Everyone was drunk, especially the sophomore in high school.
“…pray for us sinners…”
A priest led our novena tonight. He stood in front of Grandma Eta’s open casket reciting those words. I did not repeat them. My tongue was heavy with grief as I listened to the stranger repeat words I never wanted to recite again. These words had lost their meaning, but they echoed in the room of heartache.
Together they chanted, “…now and at the hour of our death.”
On the day of the funeral, the procession was the worst. The fluorescent orange sticker on the window shield marked us as mourners. Somehow we were supposed to go to an all-you-can-eat Chinese food buffet when the performance was over, but at least there were no more Hail Marys to deliver.
The white flowers from the pallbearers’ lapel stood out against the mahogany coffin. The funeral home employees tried to lower Grandma Eta, but Grandpa Rudy clung to the coffin, refusing to say goodbye. We allowed him one last embrace, but eventually we separated man and wife.
Author’s Note: Throughout this course we were exposed to a lot of different types of narratives, but I noticed a common event and theme that occurred in multiple of the texts are novenas. Death is a common occurrence in novels and short stories because of its inevitable nature and its effect on the living and like most cultures, Filipinos have their own grieving practice that combines local tradition and Catholic prayer. I have been a part of a lot of novenas, so seeing that reflected in other people’s work inspired my own.
Currently, I’m working on a larger piece of work that consists of death and pregnancy within an interracial Filipino family. Having a scene with a novena makes the most sense because it solidifies the cultural foundation and brings together extended family. One of themes or common scenes that I want to come up in multiple places in my larger body of work is having community in difficult times — mostly in relation to familial community.
The works that helped shape and inspire my piece in this course include the novels One Tribe and even Leche. Although I originally wrote this piece while reading One Tribe, it wasn’t until I read Leche and the main character Vicente mentioned a part of the ceremony where the mourners have to recite the great mysteries. The only prayer element that I had consistently throughout the piece is the “Hail Mary” prayer, which I used to link together the different days. In One Tribe the narrator Isabel also mentions the prayers that are used during novenas. The characters show distain for the ritual and called herself “a complete fake” for going with the motions despite feeling disconnected with her culture and religion (Galang 85). There’s also an almost flippant attitude towards the ceremony because the narrator “had been to novenas all her life” which normalizes and solidifies the ceremony into Filipino culture.
In this particular piece, although it is not explicitly mentioned or explored, my characters are of mixed raced and all of the third generation kids are half-Filipino. Some of the dynamics that I wanted to explore was the confusion and hesitation from being raised agnostic in order for their families to assimilate into American culture. So, the kids being unsure of the proper prayers is supposed to be reflective of some of the disconnect they experience not only in this piece, but in the larger body of work.
One of my overall intentions for my work is to be able to combine dark elements and themes (like death, mental illness, etc.) and humor. Even though the setting follows mourning characters, they also seen drinking, eating, and spending quality time as a larger unit which they would not normally have unless they were brought together by tragedy. This is another commonality that my work, Leche, and One Tribe. Those novels have characters being thrust into situations and life events that they normally would not have been a part of. If it wasn’t for tragedy — a death in the family or an abortion — then these characters would not have arrived to where they are at the end of the novels.