The Relic

October 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

When I was a kid my family owned a religious relic.  It hung for years from my bedpost.  Diamond shaped, it was covered with satin the color of a cobweb, or a fingerprint on a pane of glass.  The letters IHS were embroidered on it in lichen green. 

My father’s family, hard-headed Swedes, were Protestants or what my grandmother called Shouting Methodists.  Theirs was a practical faith made manifest in casseroles, Swedish meatballs, and yellow cake served in Fellowship Halls. 

The relic that hung on my bedpost was Italian Catholic in origin, passed down on my mother’s side of the family.  Her parents, who were first cousins, had needed a papal dispensation to allow them to marry.  The pope’s blessing must have trumped the stacked deck of DNA.  The Catholic cousins produced no idiots or two-headed offspring.  The relic sprang from that same well of faith and mystery.

 A relic can be anything from a scrap of cloth to a piece of the saint’s corporeal body.  Our reliquary was too thin to contain a tooth or a knuckle bone, or anything more substantial than a bit of fabric or a lock of hair.  Still, my friends and I debated its contents intensely through junior high and high school.  The question was titillating and powerful and unsolvable.  We never, in all those years, considered slitting the ancient ribbon that bound its edges to see what it actually contained.  Having endured years of catechism classes I knew about sacrilege.

 At some point, probably when I left home for college, I lost track of the relic.  It may be wrapped in tissue in a drawer or on a shelf beneath the fallen leaves of family photos.  Wherever it is, I understand it better now.  The relic was an ordinary thing, elevated by its chance contact with an extraordinary life.

 At the very bottom of my correspondence basket, hidden by the utility bill and credit card offers, is an Easter card written by my mother.  “Get yourself a little something,” it says.  Inside the card was a twenty–my mother always slipped a bill into each card she signed with an XXX and an OOO.  And she always sent her cards early so they would be there in plenty of time for the holiday so I got the card well in advance of that Easter.

By the holiday I was at the hospital with my mother who had had the first in a rapid cascade of strokes.  My dad and I had brought her a white hyacinth from Shop Rite, wrapped in crinkled cellophane.  We held the waxy flowers under her nose hoping to bring her back with their Easter scent.  “Smell this, Mom.  Do you remember what this flower is called?”  But how could she name a flower when she couldn’t name her own daughter?  Or herself?

It took her six weeks to die.  The Easter card remains.  In her Palmer method handwriting she sends me her love along with a little money.  Like a scrap of cloth or a lock of hair, the words inside the card are a memento of an extraordinary life, a gift from a woman whose personality was more important to shaping who I am than the questionable DNA to which the Pope once gave his blessing. 

 That yellowed card contains the last written word from her to me.  A relic.

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