The Mildred Mysteries

What the Rosary Means
Rosary of Queen Bona Sforza (Photo by Jan Majdecki / Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve kept my father’s rosary in the top drawer of my desk since his funeral sixteen years ago. I’ve taken it out, held it, stared at the tiny wooden cross with the hollow back containing a tiny glass vial, inscribed “LOURDES PAT. PEND.” But only this time did I notice that it was broken—or rather, that it had been broken and repaired. How had I failed to notice the odd bead sticking out sideways from the middle of the last decade, attached only at one end? A count revealed the rosary five beads short of whole. The last two decades were fused; sometime in the rosary’s life, one Our Father and four Hail Marys had gone missing.

On this occasion, I’d taken it out to wrap as a gift for my brother Chris. We seven siblings, the four sons and three daughters of Ron and Mildred, were about to gather in Dallas for twin celebrations: Michael, at seventy-nine, was marking fifty years as a priest of the Congregation of the Most Precious Blood, while Chris—the youngest, at sixty—was to be ordained a deacon. We hail from rural Nebraska, but live hundreds or thousands of miles from each other. When we come together, it is a great joy, with food and drink, pictures and stories of kids and grandkids, and endless games of bridge.

The time seemed right to pass on the rosary. Close examination of the beads shows bespoke wiring, with tiny contrived anchors, and a whisper of thread. Seeing these repairs, I had an immediate vision of my father. He is sixty-nine, with a score of years still to live. He hunches over a card table in the basement, squinting through his bifocals, still embarrassed about the sound the lost beads had made bouncing this way and that on the church pew. He wields needle-nose pliers with unwonted delicacy. His life’s work had been on a bigger scale—building grain elevators, maneuvering boxcars, scooping rotted corn from rain-ruined bins. Dad’s work made him a handy improviser.

Put rosary away. Go out to live in humility and gratitude, amen.

I imagine him finishing his project, reaching over to turn off the lamp, and spotting that one bead he’d overlooked, sitting at the edge of the table. He stares at it for a second and cusses a little. He doesn’t want to take the rosary apart again, but to discard the bead would be wrong and, worse, wasteful. The result is a quick-fix compromise: the bead is included, but it is not part of the ring. A dangler. I will call it the Dad Bead. When I picture him praying the rosary, it is a communal event, an indistinct murmur of old people before the lights are turned on for 8 a.m. Mass. Without thinking, he lets his thumb linger on the odd bead during the prayers not accounted for, as he waits for the congregation to catch up. I doubt that the missing beads ever tripped him up.

Or perhaps the dangler is the Mom Bead. My mother Mildred did not live to see man set foot on the moon, or her eldest son become a priest. Maybe it was during those darkened early morning rosaries of the half-century following her death that our father, that brusque and guarded man, would allow himself the space to think on her, to miss her, to mourn her, while his speech was knotted safely inside this circle of prayers.

To pray the rosary is to engage in a sustained contemplation of mystery. After all these years, the memory of our mother is remote to us, her children, especially to me and Chris, who did not even get to be teenagers with her. All of us have been allotted more time than she had. With our ages spanning sixty to eighty, we now face our own mortality. So here, in honor of Mom, inspired by Dad’s handiwork, is a version of an ancient rite. The Mildred Mysteries, to be prayed on a broken and mended rosary.

The First Mystery: Humility. We pray ten Hail Marys to remind us to take strength in normality, to cherish the quotidian, to give thanks for surviving times of dry fields, little food.

The Second Mystery: Humor. Ten happy Hail Marys to contemplate the grace in making each other grin. Oh, Mildred, daughter of Irish affability, teach us to laugh. Oh, Ron, son of adversity, teach us—in that odd phrase of yours—to let the hide go with the tallow.

The Third Mystery: Learning. Ten Hail Marys to contemplate the mystery of contemplation itself. Embrace the book, figure out the problem, fear not the Other. 

The Fourth Mystery: Acceptance. Nine Hail Marys on coming to terms with sorrows and regrets. Pause on number ten, half-attached, the Mom Bead. We are all broken and mended, but we are graced with joy. Making this turn, we are left with six Hail Marys to dwell in gratitude for all that we are, for all that has been given to us, for the gift of each other.

Recite closing prayer of your choice. Put rosary away. Go out to live in humility and gratitude, amen.

Published in the May 17, 2019 issue: 

Jon Volkmer’s books include a postmodern travel memoir, a collection of poems about grain elevators, and a young adult biography of Roberto Clemente. He teaches literature and creative writing at Ursinus College.

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