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When I was packing up to move out of my now ex-fiance's condo, I went through all of my stuff and got rid of everything I didn't love. I could probably still eliminate half of what I did keep, but I figured that since I had to get a storage unit anyway, I might as well keep the things I was undecided about. I'm making a break for it, leaving LA, starting over. I'm clearing out the old and making space for all of the new wonderful good that is coming into my life. (Not the first time I've done this, incidentally, but this one is the keeper.)  

In the kind of square white box that department stores put jewelry in, under a layer of cotton so old and worn that the top felt like sandpaper, I found a little gold cross dangling from a faux pearl bracelet in pristine condition. My grandmother had given it to me for my first holy communion when I was six or seven years old. I don't think I ever wore it, unless I had that day when she gave it to me; I didn't generally like bracelets; the charms brushed and itched my arm, irritating me. I suppose also that I didn't have much use for pearls, or crosses, at that age, when all I really wanted to do was play outside with my brother.

I think around the same time she also gave me a necklace, a silver chain with a Virgin Mary pendant. The chain is now tarnished a hopeless greenish black, and the pendant looks almost rusted over. The front of the piece was Mary's face encapsulated in a shiny round orb, her peaceful visage outlined in various shades of sea blue. The back was white surrounded by a clear protective case that used to hold a drop of holy water. It's dried up now. I imagine that must limit the amulet's efficacy, but I still keep it.  

Then there are the rosary beads. I actually have given away some of those; for a while my grandmother was giving me a new set every year. The glow-in-the-dark ones (once an eerie shade of fluorescent white, now hopelessly gray with age and grime) I keep in the backpack I use when I'm traveling or hiking. They were always in the backpack I carried around when I lived in Russia (a regular purse just wasn't big enough for any prize produce I might be fortunate to find in my ramblings around Moscow), and I am convinced that the beads held protective prayers from my grandmother that kept me safe. I keep a few extra rosary beads thrown around wherever I'm living – on a door handle, off the headboard of the bed, maybe draped over a framed picture on the wall.  

I keep the rosary beads more as talismans of good luck than as religious symbols. I do know how to use them in prayer, and have, but the last time I can remember doing so was when I was in college. If I was still in bed at noon on a Saturday or Sunday morning, my cheery roommate would come bouncing in to wake me.  

Who did you hook up with?  

My heavily hungover head did not appreciate the interruption. What?! No one. Leave me alone.  I pulled the covers up over my head and turned away. My slowed reflexes weren't up to her quick search skills, and the ubiquitous rosary beads would turn up under my pillow. She held up the damning evidence.  

No one? It's twelve o'clock on Saturday and you're in bed saying your rosary.  

I couldn't keep anything from her. Oh, the guilt! She dragged me to the college chapel every week for mass and insisted on our sitting in the front pew. I was pretty sure the priest was staring at me directly during his entire sermon, and after I had to do face-to-face confession with him, I was positive. When I went in to confession for the first time there and learned that I would not be behind that dark, safe confessional screen but out in the open, sitting in front of the priest on a folding aluminum chair, I tried to back out. I told the priest I would go at my parents' church the next time I was home, but he wouldn't let me off that easily. After all, he'd been trained in the same guilt that I had. But how does one confess that for which she is not sorry, and which she is pretty likely to do again? So much confusion, pent up emotion; I just felt so hopelessly bad – to my absolute chagrin and complete embarrassment, I cried. I'd like to say that the priest was warm and sympathetic, that he reassured me and assuaged some of my doubts, but all he did was look at me like I was crazy. I pulled myself together and finished up with the old standbys I don't go to church every Sunday and I told lies to my parents . I think at that point I was  going to church every Sunday, and my parents weren't exactly asking what I did on the weekends, so I didn't have to lie, but I guess I must have been less than completely honest at some point ... maybe I was lying in confession, good heavens - how sinful is it to make up sins I didn't do? I had to get out of there. I endured the priest's penetrating gaze bearing down on me in the first row a few more weeks, and then I stopped going to mass altogether.  

Even when I was little, I didn't agree with what I learned in church. If only people who believed in Jesus would go to heaven, did that mean that the Jewish kids in my class and their parents would go to hell? That didn't seem right to me. I wasn't even sure my one Protestant aunt would go to heaven, since she couldn't receive communion, but she seemed like a perfectly nice person. Back then my world consisted of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, and that all seemed to have conflict enough. (My curious little mind would have had a field day with Islam.) What about babies who died before they were baptized? Were they condemned to hell as well? They hadn't even had a choice in the matter. The scene in the 70s miniseries Jesus of Nazareth in which King Herod orders all of the babies born the same time as Christ to be killed traumatized me for weeks. How could God have let all those babies die? My father assured me that they were innocent and would go to heaven immediately, but I knew they hadn't been baptized yet . I was too afraid to mention this to my father, too scared to force him to face the fear and horror I felt.  

At some point I just decided that I did not accept all that the church taught. I didn't buy that someone as loving and forgiving as Jesus had a harsh, judgmental father. In essence, this meant that I didn't agree with what my grandmother thought was true either, as the two were inextricably linked in my mind. To me, my grandmother was the church. I didn't believe that other religions were bad or wrong or that Catholicism had any lock on heaven. I don't think my grandmother ever recovered from my attending junior prom with a Jewish boy, (at any rate, she never stopped harping about it), and if she were still alive, who knows how she would have reacted to my Jewish fiancé! (I like to think that since I'm over 40, she would have been happy I was getting married at all.) I never believed that gay people were bad or that being gay was a sin. My grandmother proclaimed quite vociferously that while she would always love each of her grandchildren to death, if one of them turned out to be gay, he or she would not allowed in the front door. (The impish part of me finds it amusing that my lesbian cousin brought her girlfriend around for the first time at my grandmother's funeral.) She was staunchly against abortion, and asserted quite decidedly that the increase in natural disasters around the world was a direct result of legalized abortion in the U.S. I even tried to argue with her on that one. Really? Because a woman in Pennsylvania has an abortion, there is widespread flooding in Bangladesh? (And while I don't agree with her that God doles out natural disasters as punishment, I do think now that she was correct about the interconnectedness of all life on the planet.)  

Despite her limited views and obvious prejudice, my grandmother was a wonderful woman. Her faith could, and had, moved mountains - obstacles not for the faint-hearted. The power she could invoke with prayer was legendary, and I literally gave up praying because I figured there was no use competing with that kind of energy. I'd just ask her to pray for me. I know her love and prayers kept me safe in my travels and still do even now, after her death, in all aspects of my life. While her absolute faith in the church and its teachings was misguided - absolute adherence to any religion bears questioning, in my opinion - she innately, intuitively understood that all things in life were connected, that each of us had the capacity within to achieve whatever was desired, that God was a support system that could always be counted on. She didn't have much more than a first grade education and she never could remember how she had learned to read. I think God or the angels taught her. She had a warm, generous heart and loved to swallow up her grandchildren in mama bear hugs that demonstrated her lust for life. I don't know how such love and generosity could coexist with prejudice, but in my grandmother, they did.  

Was her prejudice really blind acceptance of what the church promoted? Surely she didn't think that Jesus would have turned away a gay relative from his house? Was it fear of the unknown, of what was different, of that which could shake up the status quo? What was so great about the status quo anyway? I guess there is a natural fear of change in most people, a need to stay in control, to keep things comfortable and familiar, but I think even more deeply, she might have been afraid of losing her faith. I've experienced a belief ripped out from the roots, so that what I thought was anchoring me to the ground turned out never to have existed at all. It was a terrifying feeling, that sense of no stable foundation. If a major tenet of my belief system wasn't real, what about the others? Was my whole life structured around false rules and unnecessary restrictions? Building up a steady base of truth took - is taking - time, an extremely uncomfortable transition marked by flailing, floundering, doubting, and a good dose of self-loathing (even still, on occasion). I can't really fault my grandmother for not questioning the very faith that gave her life meaning.  

So I keep my grandmother's holy artifacts, not for their religious significance, but for their spirituality, for the love essence that they still hold. I have a statue of St. Theresa, about a foot high, from the mini altar my grandmother had fashioned out of candles, rosary beads, and various statues in her dining room. I like to think that the two women are blessing me, protecting me. I suppose in my mind they are one and the same. I have a medal safety-pinned to the innermost corner of my pillow, deep in the pillow case. I don't think I've ever really looked at it before. Its silver surface is blackened, hard to see now, but I think it says Our Lady of the Olives. The front has a typical saintly view, full body, halo aura over the head, hands outstretched in benediction. The back has a head to mid-torso view of a haloed saint, holding what looks to me like a fishbowl with a fish in it. Go figure. The medal is to prevent me from being struck by lightning in my sleep. (We've all been taught - right? - that lightning can strike through open windows.) And, silly as I feel writing that, I absolutely believe that the medal and my grandmother's love have defended me from lightning strikes my whole life, particularly those electrically charged years in Florida (the lightning strike capital of the U.S.)

Am I superstitious? Am I refusing to question all of the religious beliefs handed down to me? Is there someone I could give these religious relics to who would appreciate their sacred significance more than I do? No. These items are imbibed with holiness through my grandmother, through her faith and her love, ever enduring. She would want me to hold on to them. As I touch each memento, I am drinking in her love, her strength, gathering energy from the hug she would give me if she were still here. She'd tell me that no matter how crazy or difficult things seem, life is perfect, that everything in my life is how God wants it to be, how it is supposed to be. That I can believe.

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