Notebook: Opal’s Madonna

Madonna and Child, German, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Madonna and Child, German, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art Hewitt Fund, 1911.

Another Friday morning. Mim showers in Opal’s salmon-pink bathroom. The smell of Cameo brand soap, wet in her hand, reminds her of kissing her mother-in-law’s fragrant cheek.

Already, though Opal has only been gone for a week, Mim craves her sturdy kindness, her laugh billowing out over the dining table like oceans of acceptance. When Opal opens her side door — nobody but the mail carrier uses her front door — she greets you with the heedless energy of a rough-coated dog who has waited all afternoon for your return. A short, wide woman, her hands wet or floured, a drift of her gray hair falling out of its bun, her sensible shoes polished black and sprinkled with flour. She waves you into her kitchen and bends down to open the oven, where baked cinnamon apples burst out of their skins.

How could a woman like this have died? How could she have faded away? Opal, a woman as lavish in her affection as anyone you’ve met. Shrewd, mind you: an eye for a sound bargain. Mim can see where her husband, Opal’s son, got his head for business.

Mim shuts off the water. She steps out of the shower onto Opal’s plush bath mat. She dries her sad self with a striped beach towel, blows her nose, and shimmies into a set of underwear. Black pants, black top; salmon-pink socks, in honor of Opal, the lover of all warm colors: orange, marigold, cerise.

Then, at the breakfast table: “Sweetheart,” Mim says to Arnold, “shouldn’t I bring the Madonna to the funeral home? I want your mother to feel comforted. Those parlors at McMurphy’s are so impersonal.”

Opal had brought the Madonna home from Austria after the war, along with other treasures she’d found in antique shops in Salzburg. Her husband, Arnold’s father, was stationed there with the U.S. Army of Occupation after the German Reich surrendered. In the chaos of war, so many families had sold their treasures. The Madonna and Child, a devotional figure twelve inches high, was probably German, the antique dealer said, perhaps 18th century, polychrome on walnut.

“I’ll find you a box to put her in, Mim,” Arnold says, shoving his chair back from the table. His mother’s cardboard box collection, like other repositories of useful items, is in the basement.

As Mim lifts the Madonna down from the bureau in Opal’s bedroom, she sees that the Virgin Mary could be any young mother. Her watchful gaze; the mild gesture of her baby’s hand reaching out toward the visitor.

Underneath the statue Mim sees a deep gouge in the base that shows charred wood inside. Has the Madonna come through fire, or been treated roughly for an invasion of wood-boring insects? The unpainted surface on the bottom has darkened, over the centuries, to the color of roasted chestnuts. On the Virgin’s neck, where paint has flaked off more recently, the raw wood glows a soft umber.

Who else, Mim wonders, has prayed before this figure of the Virgin and her son? Who else, praying or reminiscing, has wept for kinfolk lost to old age, war, or execution in the street?

“I am not myself a believer,” Mim says now to the Madonna, “but Opal believed. She loved you; she loved your son. Give her peace.”

Spoken out loud in the quiet room, the words bring Mim a sense of relief so vivid as to be almost tangible. It’s as though nothing else matters. Only this moment. Only one woman, breathing and remembering love.

— Mary Ann Barton



The Misses Santley by Henry Scott Tuke

Singing with You Is Our Prayer

singing with you,
singing with you is our prayer.”*

In the lamplight
on a Thursday evening,
we halt the ticking of the old clock
on the parlor wall,

breathe deep,

open the heart,

remember those we love —
remember those who need love —
remember how it was, so long ago,
that our ancestor-women
and our men, so long departed,
sang at the bedside.

Deep voices and treble,
we practice those chants and songs
most beloved for healing
or distraction
or reminiscing
or conjuring tranquility.

We come to your bedside
or your kitchen table.

Singing with you
is our prayer.

— Mary Ann Barton

* Lyrics by the Reverend Burns Stanfield

A Gift of Words

If Life Is Sacred, copyright Mary Ann Barton 2013.

If Life Is Sacred, copyright Mary Ann Barton 2013. Glaucus and Scylla (detail) by J. M. W. Turner, oil on panel, 1841, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

“If life is sacred, then each moment is holy, and daybreak rises from the bed of night. If rocks and streams are made of stardust, then every ocean is filled with light.” I wrote these words as song lyrics, and offer them today in thanks for your faithful readership of the Joyous Paradox blog, which turns two years old this month.

You can find out more about J. M. W. Turner’s famous painting, Glaucus and Scylla, at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, where it is currently on exhibit.

How to Write a Condolence Note

New England Woman (Mrs. Jedediah H. Richards), painting, Cecilia Beaux, 1895, Smithsonian Institution

Cecilia Beaux, New England Woman, 1895. Photo: Smithsonian Institution.

Yesterday after church I stood in line for coffee and then threaded my way through the crowd in the parlor to the note-writing table. Our pastoral care volunteers set up the table each Sunday, complete with cards, envelopes, and the names and addresses of people who have suffered losses and would like to receive notes. Two parishioners had lost family members this week, so I chose two handmade cards and sat down to write.

“Dear X, I am writing to you after the 11 o’clock service at First Parish, to send my condolences on the death of your family member. Today a breeze is coming in through the open door in the parlor, reminding me of the blessings of the natural world. May you and your family find comfort in the beauties of spring and the love of this community.”

It felt good to sit there in the church parlor, writing about the breeze coming in through the door. After awhile, someone else came along and joined me. It’s a large congregation, and I didn’t know the people I was writing to, but I’ve found that people are happy to get these notes even if they don’t know you.

Today I Googled “how to write a condolence letter” on my computer, a search that took 0.47 seconds and yielded about 170,00 results. Tops on the list is an article on Writing a Condolence Letter by Angela Morrow, RN.

Write the Letter in Your Own Voice

“Write the letter in your own voice, meaning the way you would normally speak to the person,” advises Morrow. “There is no reason to get too fancy and try to come up with a poem or verse.”

“Write in your own voice.” I think this is great advice. I believe that a handwritten message of sympathy is precious, no matter what the words say. But when my note includes some details of real life, I’m giving the recipient a chance to feel more connected at a time when connection matters deeply. That’s why I like to start sympathy letters by saying something about where I am as I write.

  • “I’m writing you from my kitchen table,” I’ll say. “It’s late at night, but I couldn’t go to bed without reaching out to you.”
  • “I’m thinking about you and wishing you were here in my living room so we could share a cup of coffee.”
  • “Yesterday I started writing to you in my head on the way home. Here are my thoughts.”

Tell a Story About the Person Who Is Gone

If you knew the person who has passed away, you might include a sentence or two about your memories of them in your note. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Mention their positive qualities: “Your mother welcomed me so warmly when I visited.”
  • Refer to their favorite activity: “I’ll never forget that your dad cooked the best ribs in the neighborhood.”
  • Remember how you last saw them: “When I stopped by last week, I was touched to see her wearing that sweater you gave her.”
  • Tell how you expect to remember them: “I know that when Thanksgiving comes around again, I’ll remember him sitting at the big table with all of us.”

On the other hand, if you didn’t know the person, you might mention something your correspondent has told you about them. “You’ve told me how you used to call him on Sunday afternoons.” Alternatively, you could share someone else’s story: “Gabriela has told me how Nana used to make soup for you even in her nineties.”

End on a Positive Note

Writing a condolence letter is an exercise in acceptance and hope. In writing to a person who has lost a loved one, we accept and acknowledge not only their loss but also our own vulnerability as human beings who too, one day, will reach the end of life. Yet through this act of acceptance we also nurture hope: the hope of connection, and the deeper intimacy of a shared sorrow. With this in mind, we can end a condolence letter on a positive note that conveys our ongoing good wishes. It’s appropriate to end with a spiritual message, though I am careful to reserve more specific religious language for people whom I know share my beliefs. I try to find words that suggest moments of comfort or relief, like the following:

  • “I am sending you light and love.”
  • “You are in my warmest thoughts and prayers.”
  • “May you find moments of comfort in your memories.”
  • “I will call you tomorrow, and in the meantime I am sending you hugs.”

May you be well, and may the letters you write bring comfort to your readers.

I welcome your comments, as well as your tips for writing condolence notes.