Mailbag: Of Whiskey and the Rosary
By John Larned
My 92-year-old dad had been in rapidly declining health since the start of the new year. He had lived a long and vibrant life. He had witnessed and experienced most of the century just passed. Up until his ninetieth birthday he had always seemed invincible to me. He was still playing golf in that year! Right through last Christmas he was driving his car and enjoying the company of his “girl” friend. But now he was fading quickly.
Dad had a tremendous intellect and loved to talk about the times gone by. The early days of the automobile, the radio, the airplane were his comfort zone in conversation. He could bring you back to the day Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, the explosion of the Hindenberg or his adventures in the war in just a flash. Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Mae West and Calvin Coolidge were all very real characters to him.
But in the last few weeks the failing had progressed rapidly and his moments of alertness were rarer and rarer. I longed for one more good talk. Not only did I want to talk about Model T Fords or battles in the South Pacific; I wanted to talk about affairs of the heart and spirit: what he felt, what he believed and what was real in his world.
I had driven a long way to see him and only had a few days. So far after almost 48 hours together there had been no real conversation. I feared that this moment would pass without that “good talk” that I so much wanted. Then suddenly as he awoke from an extended nap and he called out; “John, get me a glass of whiskey.” I shook my head and said emphatically; “Dad no whiskey, I’m happy to get you a glass of wine or sherry but no whiskey. You know how the doctor and I feel about that.” For sometime I had been the strongest advocate for his temperance among my siblings. Dad didn’t have a problem but he did like a strong drink from time to time and at this point I felt it could do him no good. He replied; “John, I really want whiskey, wine just doesn’t taste good to me anymore and it doesn’t go well in my stomach.” I thought about it a bit, saying to myself, “Now here’s a guy with just a couple of weeks left to live. How much harm could a glass of whiskey do?” So against my better judgment I went and fetched a tumbler of whiskey. I set it down on the table beside his chair where it proceeded to go untouched.
Then he said, “In a few minutes I’m going to say the rosary.” It was as if to warn me that I could leave and do something else if I wanted to. I replied, “Dad, I’d love to say the rosary with you! If you don’t mind”. This was a staple of my childhood. My mother was very devout and at the first sign of any crisis or at any time we traveled she would bring out the beads. There was never a car trip of any length when we didn’t say it. She, with her school teacher manner would lead and my dad in his strong voice would answer with all of us kids following along. I can’t say that I always liked it. Especially as a teenager I considered this lengthy prayer to be a pain and depending on the circumstances it could be embarrassing to me.
So with all of this in the background Dad and I began the rosary. Now I was a bit uneasy as I had long ago forgotten the full ritual. I could not remember the mysteries nor what day of the week they were said on. As for the prayers I was totally lost outside of the Hail Marys and the Our Fathers. Had my mother been around, there would have been no problem. She never missed a beat. She knew every step cold.
In any event I intrepidly led the way, kind of ad-libbing on the prayers and procedures that I didn’t remember. One lucky break, it was Friday. No problem there. At least I knew that that was Sorrowful Mystery day. So at the first decade I said, “Let us reflect on the Sorrowful Mysteries!” As we progressed my voice was breaking and my eyes were teary. I immediately flashed back to something like 1963. I could still hear my mom and dad saying the rosary, when his voice was strong and she was the living authority on all things spiritual. Now his voice was weak and he was a much different man. He was no longer the strong, fix anything, solve anything dad, but a shadow of his former self, a very old man at the end of his life. My mom had passed on some years before.
But the rosary progressed and with each bead the memories grew. At the start of the second decade I changed course and exclaimed; “This is no time for sorrowful mysteries, let’s reflect on the Joyful and Glorious mysteries!” I think the occasion was worthy of these more positive aspects of our faith. Since I had 10 possibilities I was able to make some safe guesses and brought up the Birth of Jesus and the Baptism of Jesus plus the Resurrection and the Ascension.
I don’t know if it was emotional for my dad but it certainly was for me and the feelings intensified with each passing moment. About the time we were starting on the fourth decade something else happened. I began to feel my mother’s presence in the room. There was no question, she was right there saying the rosary along with us. It was more than a memory, I could really feel her there with us. The sensation was very strong. Then more of the spirits of the past came into our circle: his parents, my mom’s parents, his deceased brother and sister. The gathering grew to include more aunts and uncles, then his close friends and the other relatives he had outlived. My voice would waver then at intervals grow strong as I felt support of all these beautiful spirits around us. It was an amazing gathering. The moment transcended any normal experience. It was all so very real!
Finally the prayer was done. He sipped a little on the whiskey, then we proceeded to talk for an hour and a half. He got some of his appetite back and had a bite to eat which he had not done in some days. He gathered his strength and we talked and talked. All the bases were covered. It was like old times. Nothing that needed to be said was left unsaid. He even chided me on my shaky rendition of the Rosary, a sure sign that he was on his game. My wish for one last good conversation with my father had come true. We were complete and I was at peace. Dad died a week later. I don’t believe that the whiskey did him any harm!
The beads themselves have their own story. They were wooden and delicate with a very ornate wooden cross. Obviously they were old. I asked, “Dad, how long have you had these rosary beads?” His reply, “My grandmother gave them to me for my first communion 85 years ago!” Then another thought came to mind; I was aware of a close call he had had in a long ago battle in the war in the South Pacific. A shipmate who was with him at the time had told me about it some years earlier. He had related that there was an incident with a kamikaze attack when the two of them had truly feared for their lives. Both he and my father were shaking with fear and as he looked over at my dad, rosary beads were in his hand and he gasped, “Gee, that was close!” I asked, “Dad are these the same beads you had when you were with Arthur Larson in Lingayen Gulf?”. He agreed that they were and that he had carried them with him throughout the war. He had felt that they were his protection, his link with God and family back home.
Finally the beads have one more magical story. Both my brother and I very much wanted them as special heirloom from my dad. Bob is a strong traditional Catholic for whom the rosary is an important devotion. I am deeply spiritual and the beads are for me a metaphysical connection to my dad. It seemed like a difficult choice and initially I saw no solution. We both wanted them badly. Then Bob remarked; “Let’s share them! For the rest of our lives they can pass back and forth between us, especially in times of trouble and stress.”
So there it is, a little heirloom with great spiritual power tying together two living brothers, their father and a vast number of wonderful souls from times long gone by.
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