A Memoir by Bethany Jarmul
I’m 7, standing in the spare bedroom in my grandmother, Nunny’s house. I’m alone; Nunny is cooking dinner in the kitchen—I hear pans clanging and smell the gas stove. I slowly pick up the clear heart-shaped music box that Nunny keeps on the dresser. I wind it five times, open the lid. The metallic melody of “It’s a Small World” greets me. A rosary of blue-gray glass beads is curled up inside. I weave them between my fingers—each bead a tiny round moon reflecting the overhead light. Jesus, hanging on the small metal cross, feels cool and pointy in the palm of my hand.
In Sunday school, I learn songs like “Jesus Loves Me,” but I’m not taught about rosaries. I know these beads have something to do with prayer, with Nunny’s beliefs, which are different from my parents’. I wonder if Nunny kneels when she prays, or if that hurts her old knees. Perhaps she sits on the bed, or stands arms raised toward heaven before crossing herself and whispering “Amen.” Does she pray for me—one of these beads serving to remind her of my round face and dirty-blonde hair?
Do these beads have special power—if I rub them will I gain a superpower? Will I feel closer to God? I roll them around in my fingers, close my eyes, feel the warmth of the sun on my face, breathe in the smell of dust and spaghetti sauce. At first, nothing, just the pinkness of the backs of my eyelids. Then, I feel a tug deep in my belly, a hunger deeper, stronger than chocolate-chip-cookie hunger. Could this be the Father’s touch?
Slipping away in solitude, winding the jewelry box, touching the rosary—becomes a ritual that I repeat—my secret serenity, soothing me, swallowing me in mysteries—content to feel, to know even as I don’t understand.
I’m 22, in my parents’ kitchen. Nunny just passed away a few days ago. My mother sits at the kitchen table, my father stands near the sink.
“At least we know Nunny’s not in pain anymore. She’s in heaven.” I place my hand on my mom’s shoulder.
“Well, maybe,” Dad says. “We don’t know for sure if she really confessed Jesus as Lord.” He puts a bowl in the sink.
“Don’t tell me that. That’s not what I need to hear right now.” Mom buries her face in her hands.
I flash Dad an angry look, rub my mother’s back.
Later, at Nunny’s house, surrounded by my parents, sister, aunt, uncle, and cousins, my aunt brings out a plastic bag full of rosaries, a rainbow of colored beads tangled together like the Mardi Gras necklaces at the dollar store. My aunt and uncle, cousins each take one, despite their quasi-Buddhist, definitely-not-Catholic spirituality. They each take one and hold it gingerly or tuck it into a pocket or purse. My parents and sister refuse.
“Bethany, would you like one?” my aunt asks, holding the bag up to me.
“No.” I look at my parents for their approving nods. “No, I don’t want one. Thank you anyway.” I swallow the lump in my throat.
No one offers me anything else, and I don’t ask. My mother gives the remaining rosaries to her cousin Mary, who three decades earlier nearly joined the convent.
Today, I’m 30, sitting crossed-legged, laptop on my thighs, while my baby jingles the toys on her playmat. For months, I’ve been thinking about the memory of the heart-shaped jewelry box and the rosary. Sometimes I visit the moment in my dreams, the beads fading away, like sparks of glory melting in the palm of my hand.
I wonder how many times I found solace in that room, in those beads—when my dad quit his job, when my peers were cruel, my first pimple, first break up, first period. Whatever was going on in my life, my grandparents, their home and the familiar objects were a constant, a refuge. Until they weren’t.
Eight years after Nunny’s death, I still long for those physical reminders of a woman who made me feel safe, well loved, and well fed, and of that spiritual moment—the yearning, warming, growing, consuming of a small ember flushed with oxygen—that I didn’t understand, that I still don’t.
A few days ago, I asked my mother about the jewelry box. “Yes, Nunny had a jewelry box like that. But I don’t know where it ended up,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“Just a memory,” I sighed.
If only I was writing this with the jewelry box’s notes floating around me, the rosary in my hand. But we often don’t get a second chance to speak up, to be unafraid of the expectations of others, to find meaning hidden among the beads.
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Bethany Jarmul is a writer, essayist, and editor. Her work has appeared in The Citron Review, Brevity blog, Gastropoda, Literary Mama, and Sky Island Journal, among others. She earned first place in Women on Writing’s Q2 2022 essay contest. She lives near Pittsburgh with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.