It's hard to say how this little black book came into my hands. It's falling apart and I keep it in a bag these days so the pages won't get lost if they fall out. It's only about 5 1/2 inches tall and it has 689 cream-colored pages of prayers, inspiration, and reflections to accompany the parts of the Mass. It is almost entirely in English with only a handful of psalms in Latin and it includes a selection of secular writings interspersed with the prayers and Bible passages. It's called simply "My Prayer Book" and it was a gift from my grandmother and my great aunt to my great grandmother on December 25, 1915.
In 1915, my grandmother and her sister were teenagers. They lived on the South Side of Chicago surrounded by family, in a thriving Irish community that was at the forefront of Chicago politics. These two girls had three sisters and one brother who survived their childhood but by 1915, they were already missing another four children in their family who did not. They lived with diseases that are now extinct and life-threatening infections that are now easily cured. These amazing siblings were such a powerful influence to my growing up that I named all of my own children after them.
Even though I never knew my great grandmother, I think I know how she prayed. Her prayer book is well worn, the pages are torn in a few places, and the spine is split where she must have used the prayers over and over again. Unlike a lot of prayer books I knew as a child, this particular book is focused on being cheerful, offering small kindnesses to your neighbors, and persevering by concentrating on one day at a time. "Smiling faces make a peaceful, happy home," "A humble man makes merry over his own misadventures," and "Kindness adds sweetness to everything." There are pages and pages of admonitions to look after the well-being of your neighbors and your children and to remember that a good sense of humor is a tremendous asset. After all, "humor is the just appreciation of the incongruous things of life."
But it's the prayers for the dead that must have occupied my great grandmother's time with this book. The pages fall open to two separate sections of prayers to be offered on behalf of those who have died. In the first section, there are a number of days listed after the prayers, indulgences that will benefit the soul of the departed in that exact amount. If you read the prayer on the top of page 289, for example, the soul to which you direct the prayer will spend 100 days fewer in Purgatory for each utterance of the prayer. Indulgences are not as popular now as they were years ago, but I remember saying the same small prayer over and over again in an effort to rack up points against my own inevitable banishment there.
My great grandmother must have skimmed over the sections asking the reader to remain cheerful. My great grandmother must not have been all that interested in keeping a sense of humor. She prayed so that her family would reach Heaven sooner and after she died, my great grandfather, who survived another twenty years without her, left her funeral card in the back of this book, her prayer book. My mother wrote me a note years ago saying that my great grandfather had Scotch-taped a clipping to the card. It's a touching little poem, the kind you see in obituaries in small town newspapers. I think he was worried he wouldn't be able to find her again when he died.
So the very real possibility is that this sweet little book fell into my great grandfather's hands after she died and these prayers for the dead might be his prayers for the repose of her soul. I can't begin to understand that level of devotion, that you would spend all of your prayers on someone else that their eternal suffering might be made less.
I hope he found her. I hope she knows how much he must have loved her. And I hope they both know the comfort that their great granddaughter finds every time I open this book. There is some real magic in these pages. There is some real love holding it together.