Behold the Handmaiden of the Lord

Comparing my grandmother to Mary

Jennifer Furner
Nov 5 · 3 min read
Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

My grandmother is a saint, at least that’s what Father John called her, and he should know, even if he did drink and smoke and curse like a sailor. She did, after all, raise five children in a house built only for two, cooked all their meals, made sure they said their prayers. She raised them in the Catholic Church, raised them to be altar servers, ushers, and Eucharistic ministers, raised them to devote every weekend to the Lord. She and her children and later her grandchildren volunteered at every Lenten fish fry, every summer church festival.

The night she died, we were at Saturday evening Mass, as we were every week, praying for her like she knew we would be. Father John filed us down the side aisle of the church from of the front two pews we occupied, out the large wooden doors into the parking lot. My brother and two cousins looked on from the chancel in their serving robes, unable to follow, frightened and confused. With tears in our eyes and holes in our hearts, we filed back into the church and finished Mass.

My grandmother is Mary; she was not a virgin but I imagine she was just as scared and alone when she was sent away to the convent because she was pregnant out of wedlock. My grandfather, like Joseph, took her as his wife and loved her son as his own, though he wasn’t. I imagine the angel Gabriel coming to her in the night to tell her of her forthcoming hardships. “Well, if that’s the way it has to be, that’s the way it will be,” she’d say, then close her eyes and return to sleep.

She is Joseph, too. She was a carpenter alongside her husband, raising walls and pounding nails. She believed the only work was hard work. Her hands built warm and comforting homes for all her children, and when my mother sold her home because she couldn’t afford the upkeep, it was like my grandmother had died all over again.

When cancer came to her, my grandmother told it to go ahead and take her breasts; what did she need them for anyhow? I think of how she faced herself every day in the mirror, seeing her scars, and I wonder if she ever faltered, ever wept at her loss. But all I can imagine is her standing up straight, sticking out her chin, and spitting in death’s eye. When I thought cancer had come to my breasts, I looked at my scar in the mirror, choked back my tears, and thanked God for the cancer gene inside me, because that was the only thing I had left that belonged to her.

My grandmother is a bird, at least that’s what she is to me; that is how I imagined her when I was five and my mother told me she was up above looking down on us. I could always find a bird soaring across the sky; I’d close my eyes and feel the same wind rush across my face and pretend like I was gliding along next to her. I envied her freedom.

When I was young and dealing with my parents’ divorce and my dad’s alcoholism, I always wished I could fly away with her. Now that I’m older, she’s out of the sky and etched in my skin as a bluebird with a yellow beak, forever in flight, so I always carry her with me.

When I say the Rosary, it is in veneration of her. She is full of grace. The Lord is with her. She is blessed among women. And I pray to her and not to Mary when I need strength.

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Jennifer Furner

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Essayist writing about writing, motherhood, and the 30-something experience. Michigander through and through.

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