Things My Mother Failed To Tell Me - About Heaven

Desiree Kendrick

2019 General Nonfiction Runner-Up

© Copyright 2019 by Desiree Kendrick

Photo from the author.
Photo from the author.

My mother is a religious individual. We went to church wearing our Sunday-best clothes and dress shoes. She dressed for her audience with God Almighty. Little kid me cleaned up for the chance to twirl in my crinoline skirt and smile at the altar boys. Every night, after bath time and before bedtime, she’d yell over the TV hum.

“Don’t forget to say your prayers,” she said. “Praying will help people get to heaven.”

One of my earliest childhood memories is kneeling beside the double bed I shared with my younger sister. My flimsy nightgown did little to cushion my knees. Barbie and an assortment of stuffed animals lined up against the footboard, acting as silent witnesses. Outside my bedroom, the newscaster’s tenor voice relayed world events. My older siblings squabbled. I blocked out the noise, twisted the wool blankets’ tassels, and disappeared into my nightly ritual.

My mumbled prayers included asking our heavenly father to take care of my family. This was a list in itself. We were a family of nine. Then I added my best friend and her bestie dog, Tina. In addition, my mother added new names each month. Every time a distant relative, neighbor or someone from the congregation passed away, mum added their name to my nighttime prayers. For a five-year-old, this was a memory game of monster-sized proportions. I could’ve benefited from some Dr. Seuss rhyming strategies. Pray for Alvin Mathieson, who worked at the corner store, and Mrs. Wolfe, who once lived next door. Don’t forget Betty Ann, who wore a red dress, and Mr. William Hartwell Junior, whose yard was a big mess.

Over time, my list swirled through the corridors of my mind, first names dropped at the wayside, as the passenger list on their way to heaven accumulated. A five-minute exercise turned into twenty minutes. Had I wanted to stall bedtime, this was a sure-fire delay. I gave up. Someone else needed to pray for Mr. Kolonoswski, who I only knew as the white haired man who snored in church. What I did learn was that even after a person left this world, people kept their memory alive. Gone but not forgotten.

Keepsakes included silver lockets worn around necks, memorial pages in the town newspaper, and there was talk about renaming Main Street. I never knew either of my grandparents, yet their faded studio portrait hung in our home. My older siblings told tales about granny. A mythical figure, wearing a black and white polka dot dress, I imagined granny handing out treats. Folklore said that she liked to pull you onto her lap and tell stories, while you longed to run outside and play with the other kids. Granny gave sloppy kisses. As a youngster, I assumed Granny lived in heaven, having received her entrance ticket.

As recently as the 1500’s, the Catholic Church still sold what were called indulgences. These deeds, the concept originating hundreds of years ago, were offered by the Pope and pardoned a sinner, offering a direct route to heaven. It was revenue generator versus membership fees, which was a debate in itself. No one suggested our family purchased an indulgence for Granny. I simply assumed if I was including Granny in my prayers, so too had an earlier generation. Surely, the family had acquired a VIP ticket in full by now.

“The more people praying for your soul, the more likely you’ll receive your invitation to the big house,” my mother would tell us.

I assumed, just like everything else, that you needed to earn your way. We received our allowance because we did our chores, a simple equation for a kid.

For a five-year-old, heaven seemed like a planet in another galaxy. Even my brother’s telescope couldn’t spot heaven. Before you left Earth, the priest gave you a proper send off at a funeral. Flowers decorated the church. The wreath size indicated how important you were. I believed the bigger the blooms the more prayers were uttered at night. Candles flickered in red glass. Everyone wore black. Mother never liked me in black, which she considered too mature for a young girl. I was in awe of the fancy black station wagon with curtains. Why didn’t our car have curtains? Had Dad been a cheapskate when it came to the car accessories?

Organ music played at funerals. Men wore suits. Sunday hats and white gloves graced the church. Grown-ups spoke in hushed whispers. Even men got glassy eyed. Kids eavesdropped.

He lived a good life,” someone said, shaking hands with the grieving family. “I’m sure he’s in heaven.”

He’s probably the life of the party,” another parishioner chimed in, chuckling.

He was a good neighbor,” Mother added. “Last winter, he shoveled the walk for us more than once.”

Kind sentiments were exchanged. It was like the two-line movie reviews you see in the newspaper. All endorsements were positive. A youthful, possibly misleading photo was displayed inside the church.

Church ladies served food. The only time I ever ate egg salad sandwiches was with my feet dangling from a metal folding chair in the church hall. It was always a slow drive to the cemetery. The wind howled. A whiny hymnal rustled the leaves. Family names carved in stone withstood the elements and relationships etched in so few words seemed to say so much. Funerals were like silent movies, the action stilted, the emotions amplified. Yet Mother gave me no indication what heaven looked like.

My childish imagination ran wild. Inside the church, the Stations of the Cross were scary. Thorns and bleeding feet looked painful. No one smiled. If God sent his son to endure all those injuries, then heaven must be the reward. Surely, heaven was endless cotton candy that melted on your tongue. I envisioned dancing butterflies, covering your arms and legs when they landed, a living kaleidoscope of magic. Endless giggling. Heaven must include running through the sprinkler for hours at a time.

It took my elementary years to reshape my understanding of heaven. It was a place we had never seen and hopefully wouldn’t see until we were super old, like the lady who I excluded from my childhood list because her name was too hard to pronounce. The priest always raised his head to the sky. Classical music and billowy clouds must be heaven. Tina, my best friend’s dog, went to sleep and didn’t wake up. Was she enjoying a velvet dog bed, in the section reserved for family pets?

Oh course she’s is in heaven,” my mother reassured me. “Heaven is all-inclusive.”

Teenage curiosity dissected the after-life concept further. As a young adult, I wondered if faith, hope, and charity were the pillars used to construct heaven. Instructed to trust the priest and his rambling sermons, I drank the Kool-Aid, not the wine. A good life meant an even greater afterlife. Maybe funerals were the backstage pass to heaven. Like getting past security at a Rolling Stones concert, you knew greatness was nearby. Yet, what did our priest know? He’d never been to heaven, nor did he know who the Rolling Stones were. Was it like an exclusive party, where you want the invite but are determined to be fashionably late? Were funerals your last hurrah? Based on my limited knowledge, I was positive there was no fun at a funeral service, even if the squares were yummy.

I can’t remember ever having an in-depth conversation or debate with my mother about death. Mourning was a silent personal activity. Bereavement and prayer went hand in hand. As an adult, I’ve been to my share of funerals. Acquaintances, former colleagues I barely knew, and relatives of close friends lost over the years. I’d sat in churches and halls, dabbing my eyes. There’s a band of solidarity occupying those wooden pews, the wood grain scarred by the fingernail grooves of family loss. Understanding and compassion were shared in every handshake and silent nod. Sorrow echoed in the choir songs. Candles were lit and later extinguished by the altar boy’s snuffer.

Congregations gathered, the bodies rigid much like religious statues. Storytelling goes beyond the spiritual paintings. Funeral attendees find remembrances that make them smile and cast halos. Eulogies capture the individual’s spirit. The loss is magnified. Good outweighs any struggles, pain or suffering. I suspect, it isn’t the act of death that releases the waterfall of tears. It’s the memory of the life lived.

Today, I find it difficult to attend any funeral. Human frailty displayed in every sniffle, bowed head, and trembling lip. Regardless of the setting, my mind wanders to my father’s casket, laid to rest decades ago. Polished wood, trimmed with dazzling brass epitomized the steadfast gentleman that lead by example. His convictions were rock solid, dependable advice dispensed. Teacher and community builder, I was lucky enough to know him as Dad. The service rewinds to his sudden illness, the shock and confusion that lingered around his hospital bed. Antiseptic and hospital cafeteria smells clog my memory. I backtrack further, skipping through childhood. Shared laughter exchanged over board games, mealtimes and family road trips unleashes a river of tears. His vice-grip hugs left imprints on my skin. Good times are tacked to my brain like aging Polaroid snaps or fuzzy treasured keepsakes. Love hoarded.

I’m not the wide-eyed little girl anymore. I’ve raised two children and explored my own road map of life with them. We don’t visit churches very often. However, I’m hopeful they are curious and mature enough to forge their own way in the world. Bedtime prayers may not be the ritual my mother instilled in me. Hopes, dreams, and a thirst for knowledge are intertwined with making a difference in our complicated world. Spirituality becomes less structured and highly personal. When my youngest was barely a teenager, his camp counselor asked him to describe God.

“I think God is like Nanny McPhee,” he said. “Hanging out in the background, always there if needed, but you don’t want her to do everything for you.”

Comparing a higher deity to a movie character may seem sacrilegious to some, but as a mother, I applauded my son’s insight. He ultimately knew that he was responsible for his own actions. By the time he was on the brink of young adulthood, he was an enthusiastic student, raising funds for charitable organizations. I couldn’t fault him when he skipped class to shadow an exchange student who was struggling with mental health issues. He doesn’t know the Bible reference of being a Good Samaritan and yet he instinctively knew the value of friendship and kindness. At his age, he doesn’t give much thought to heaven.

My mother, she’s of another generation. In her nineties, her traditions and beliefs offer comfort and promise. There’s no altar in her home. You won’t find our baptismal gowns framed and hung on the walls, much like the Stations of the Cross. However, my mother believes in taking a proactive approach to ensuring a family pew in heaven. Did you know the Marian Helpers offer you a lifetime of prayers for your soul, as a thoughtful gesture upon receipt of your charitable donation? Yes, family names are included in the membership. I’m happy to say my children and I all made my mother’s list. It’s a long inventory, but one with limitations. As for the unlucky grandchild subsequently born or spouses by marriage, they’ll need to hitch a ride to heaven on someone else’s train. Here we are decades after the Pope’s garage sale, and human nature still wants to offer us an express lane to heaven.

I can’t fault Mother for her beliefs. She, like everyone else, is entitled to her faith. I take comfort in knowing she finds solace in her view of heaven. And, if she gains entry, I hope she saves a seat for us all. However, I find myself more focused on my own reflection.

Last month, I was standing in the checkout line at the pharmacy with an armful of cough candies. Two customers ahead of me stood an elderly lady. The salesclerk was attempting to explain the cost of the item she wanted. Seeing a collection of coins on the counter, a wave of sadness inhabited my body. In today’s economy, who uses change to buy anything anymore? Without pause, I bypassed the woman in front of me.

“I can take care of this,” I said, holding out my credit card.

The senior peered at me suspiciously. She stepped back. The young salesclerk frowned, looking at me then returning her gaze to the senior.

“My good deed of the day,” I murmured, patting the woman’s shoulder.

I was sure she’d accept my help. It was obvious that she didn’t have enough money for the nasal inhaler she needed.

Everyone looked confused. I shifted uncomfortably, my eyes tearing. I bit my lower lip and thrust my plastic card at the salesclerk. Receipt in hand, I returned to my spot in the line-up. I bit my lip harder, as if to stop myself from blubbering, my muffled sob bubbling inside me. That could be my mother, I thought. Twenty years from now, that could be me. It never occurred to me that my random act of kindness might be a small investment to pay towards my ticket to heaven. I was busy dealing with earthly challenges. Returning to my car, I stuck a cough drop in my mouth, driving home through blurry vision.

 My mother failed to tell me that how I live is a stained glass window, visible to those around me. What colour panes I choose today, the design I craft, and the story I showcase determines the radiance. Sure, I can specify my funeral preferences in my will but how I live seems more relevant to me than whether there are finger sandwiches at the service. I’m no longer worried about saying my nightly prayers. For me, what I do during the day feels more significant.

I could be wrong, but I envision heaven in the relationships I build. A ring around the rosy sisterhood, arms linked with my siblings. Strength and resilience frames our story. We’ve been there for each other in sickness and in health. Friendships blended to reveal inspiring landscapes. My best friend from childhood remains on speed dial. Her encouraging words have planted deep roots. Joy and love shimmer from every angle. My children have brought my stained glass story to life – priceless. Our picnics in the backyard, costume parades, and smoky camping trips are recollections painted with vivid colour. Laughter resonates much like a carousel ride, sweet and repeating. Watching my children swim with dolphins gave me a smile almost as wide as the frolicking mammal flipping in the air. The heat of Mexico’s sun kissed our shoulders. This family tableau had to be heaven.

Mother may have nagged me as a child to say my prayers. She might have instilled life lessons guiding me from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Her practice of nightly prayers offered some comfort once upon a time. As I age, my perspective has expanded. Mother should have said, that funerals are for the living, not the dead. You leave family and friends a cache of treasured memories. Making those experiences count puts down the cobblestones to eternal paradise. Mother should have told me it’s how you live that gives you a glimpse of heaven.

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