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The power of (grand) motherly love


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Katie Gillio - published on 08/06/21

These grandmothers, who were surely devoted mothers first, reflected the love that Our Lady has for us.

In July, my family was able to attend the funeral of a priest friend’s grandmother.  After listening to her loved ones share memories of their time with their Nana, my normally stoic 11-year-old was impressed. “Wow, everyone should have a Nana like that!” he remarked.  

One thing was very clear about this grandmother: she loved her family in the way that Italian grandmothers are known for, sensing what they needed before they even knew themselves. She prepared homemade chicken soup when anyone was sick. She cleaned everything with focused determination, including the garbage cans. She washed clothes, removing every stain and spot so her grandson had the cleanest baseball pants on his team. And of course, she loved with her whole heart, listening when anyone needed her. 

This Nana delighted in her children and grandchildren and did all she could to show that love. She also raised them all in the Catholic faith, imprinting upon them the importance of staying in the Church and and loving our Blessed Mother, showing them God’s love in word and deed. 

These beautiful memories made me remember my own grandmother and how important she was in my life, though I did not recognize how important until after her death.

My grandmother also cooked, cleaned, washed clothes — and loved. Like the Nana of my priest friend, my grandmother was a devout Catholic who formed me in the faith the best she could. Even though my visits were both short and infrequent, she never stopped sharing her faith. Grandma taught me to make the Sign of the Cross when passing a Catholic church and made sure that I always went to Mass when I was with her. 

One night when I was about 8 and staying overnight, she reminded me to say my prayers, especially the “Hail Mary.” I told her I had never heard of the Hail Mary. Horrified at my ignorance, she proceeded to teach it to me on the spot. I was not allowed to go to sleep until I had it mastered.  

My grandmother loved me greatly, and yet she was not afraid to address my shortcomings. 

When I was a know-it-all college student who proclaimed with my newfound religious education that Jesus did not actually feed the 5,000, but instead taught people to share, she quickly and succinctly disabused me of this erroneous notion.  

My grandma had three children. Sadly, all three of her children rejected the Catholicism of their childhood. Two of them embraced a homosexual lifestyle; my father was one of them. Despite the heartbreaking choices of her children, Grandma was a beautiful example of “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” She certainly had rules and standards about where people slept when they came to visit, but she welcomed the significant other to the extent that her conscience allowed. While my dad’s boyfriends changed frequently, Grandma always had a cordial greeting. The boyfriends were welcomed on holidays and Grandma was always friendly. It was known that she didn’t approve of my father’s choices, but she never stopped loving my dad or reaching out to try to have a relationship with him. It is only as an adult that I can appreciate what a delicate line that must have been for her.  

When my father approached his death from AIDS, my grandmother was by his side, helping my aunt care for him in his final weeks and days. While I don’t know whether she was able to convince my father to see a priest before he died, I know that she did all she could to encourage his repentance and return to the Church.  

As I thought about these two devoted grandmothers, who were surely devoted mothers first, I realized how much they reflected the love that Our Lady has for us. The Scriptures relate that as soon as Mary heard her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant, she hastened to help her, even though she was newly pregnant herself. Mary surely helped with all that was needed, whether cooking, cleaning, or washing. She talked and listened. Most importantly, she brought the Lord Jesus to her family.  

Our Lady also cheers us on, especially in our final moments. She desires our salvation even more than we do for ourselves. Mary wants us in Heaven with her, but she cannot force us.  Like my grandmother did for my father, Mary does all she can to bring us to her Son, but ultimately it is up to us to choose God. Most people die as they have lived, and these grandmothers were no exception, having lived lives of tremendous faith.  

I was at best a lukewarm Catholic when my grandmother died. I didn’t know much about the faith, but I did know that she would want a Catholic funeral Mass and I was the lone remaining Catholic on that side of the family. The unfortunate choice of “On Eagles’ Wings” not withstanding, I did ensure she had a Catholic funeral. And from the very day of her death, my reversion to Catholicism began in earnest. While I do not presume to canonize her, I suspect that the timing of my reversion was not coincidental. At the very least, I am confident that my grandmother placed our family in the hands of Mary, who continues to guide my family, leading us ever closer to her Son.  I am profoundly grateful to my grandmother for communicating the importance of a devotion to Our Lady all those years ago, and that Mary continues to intercede for us now.

Our Lady showed her love and care for my friend’s grandmother in the last week of her life as well. When Nana was approaching her death, she needed to leave the hospital and enter hospice care. She had mere days to live. Only one place had room for her, but the reviews of the facility were horrible — no one wanted her to go there. Further, the newly filed Medicaid paperwork was caught in seemingly endless bureaucracy, and likely would not be finalized for three weeks or more. There was nowhere for Nana to go for the care she needed, and the situation seemed impossible. My priest friend received a call from his father to “do something” at 12:05 p.m. He immediately went to Our Lady and placed his Nana’s care into her hands. By 12:15 p.m. on that same day, just 10 minutes later, the Medicaid paperwork was approved. Better yet, the family was told that a bed had opened in the very best facility in the area. Just as Nana always looked out for her family, commending them to the care of Our Lady, so too did Our Lady look out for Nana, making straight the path for a beautiful death, complete with the Brown Scapular, final anointing, and Apostolic Pardon.  

Looking back on the stories and memories of these two grandmothers made clear to me the important role these two women played in both the physical and spiritual care of their families. They reflected the love of Our Lady toward us, her children. Through their actions, we are better able to understand and appreciate the maternal love of Our Lady. My son is right: everyone needs someone who loves them as my friend’s Nana loved her family. Thankfully, Mary does. Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis.  

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