The God Box: Sharing My Mother's Gift of Faith, Love and Letting Goby Mary Lou Quinlan
When Mary Lou Quinlan’s beloved mother, Mary Finlayson, dies, her family is bereft—until Mary Lou searches for her mother’s “God Box,” her private cache of notes to God on behalf of family, friends and strangers. To Mary Lou’s amazement, she finds not one but ten boxes stuffed with hundreds of tiny petitions that spanned the… See more details below
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When Mary Lou Quinlan’s beloved mother, Mary Finlayson, dies, her family is bereft—until Mary Lou searches for her mother’s “God Box,” her private cache of notes to God on behalf of family, friends and strangers. To Mary Lou’s amazement, she finds not one but ten boxes stuffed with hundreds of tiny petitions that spanned the last twenty years of her mother’s life.
Note by note, Mary Lou unearths a treasure of her mother’s wishes and worries and insight. Mary asked God for everything from the right flooring for her daughter’s home to a cure for her own blood cancer. Her requests, penned on scraps of paper, were presented without expectation—the ultimate expression of letting go.
Follow Mary Lou’s emotional journey as she uncovers her mother’s innermost thoughts—nostalgic, surprising and even a bit shocking. As she recalls life with the woman who was her best friend, Mary Lou also discovers her own more empathetic, engaged self—the woman her mother had believed in all along.
Poignantly written and beautifully designed, The God Box is a gift for every mother, every daughter, every person who, regardless of beliefs, trusts in the permanence of love and the power of family.
"The God Box is such a beautiful story of love, faith and family. It reads, from beginning to end, like an intimate and familiar prayer."
— Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
“Mary Lou Quinlan’s mother left a wonderful legacy when she wrote such heartfelt prayers and wishes for the people in her life. It is an incredibly moving and hopeful ritual that we should all consider adding into our daily lives.”
- Reba, musician, author, and actress
“In the little slips of paper that carry this sweet story forward, all of us can see the love in our own families, the yearnings in our own dreams, and the great possibilities of simple faith.”
“A beautiful and profoundly human book. The God Box tells the story of an unbreakable bond between a mother and daughter, and about the lifelong lessons our parents bless us with. It is a book I will keep in my heart for a long, long time.”
“Mary Lou Quinlan’s tender conversion from an inconsolable daughter to one who takes courage and wisdom from the messages left in her mother’s God Box will inspire you to create a God Box of your own.”
“The God Box is a book that you will want to keep by your own bed with your own new God Box. Mary Lou Quinlan has told the story of her mother in a way that entertains, moves and inspires. The thoughts about life and values will stick with you forever.”
“For anyone trying to move past life’s difficulties, Mary Lou Quinlan shares her mother’s handmade and heartfelt gift of how to persist, believe and move forward with joy.”
- Greenleaf Book Group, LLC
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the GOD BOXSharing my mother's gift of faith, love and letting go
By MARY LOU QUINLAN
Greenleaf Book Group PressCopyright © 2012 Mary Lou Quinlan
All right reserved.
My mother's name was Mary. I am her namesake and her soul mate.
I lost her on May 29, 2006, as the Memorial Day fireworks kissed the sky good night. It was just Mom and me. I believe she planned it that way. Tough she lay in a coma from a terrible stroke, I still felt I could read her mind.
I knew she couldn't bear to look one last time into the eyes of her beloved husband–my father, Ray–or hug my brother, Jack, good-bye. But me? She knew I could take it. I was her best friend.
When she breathed her last breath, her hand in mine, I swear I could feel her spirit lift into that firecracking sky. She took a part of me with her.
* * *
I was Daddy's girl but my mother's daughter. I never had any children of my own so I was never the mother. Instead, I spent my life trying to get an A, even an A+, in daughter. I know that not everyone loves their mother this way, but I did, and there's nothing I wouldn't give to hear Mom's full-throated laugh again or to feel her hug that squeezed right through the phone to me.
Perhaps it's inevitable that we become our mothers, but I was my mother from the start. We both loved sexy shoes and scary movies. We both worked in advertising, disliked braggarts and beat ourselves up if we hurt anyone's feelings. My hips are uneven, just like hers, but unfortunately, she gave her beautiful curly red hair to Jack instead of me. (From time to time, I've colored some red into my hair because it makes me feel closer to her.)
Mom and I had secret names for each other. I called her "Mare," short for Mary, just to be fresh, or "Marmie," the name of the kind mother in Little Women. She called me "Anna Banana." I never knew why.
We shared bad habits too. She taught me how to eavesdrop. If, when we were out for one of our girls-only lunches she'd spot upset faces on the couple in the booth behind me, she'd say under her breath, "Don't look!" We'd pretend to eat our salads while we rolled our eyes at an overheard break-up.
We both were magnets for people who wanted to divulge their deepest secrets. (And, thanks to our amazing intuitive powers, we assumed we knew what they were going to say next. We were wrong more often than not, but that didn't stop us from finishing other people's sentences, a quirk of mine that my patient husband, Joe, finds particularly exasperating.)
For years, Mom and I shared a code for our closeness: "Hands on." We ended every nightly phone call by pressing our palms to our receivers and saying "Hands on," which meant that we were always together, even when living far apart. She had retired to Florida with Dad twenty years before her death, and whenever I left her at the airport, I would drop my luggage on the curb and press my hand to her car window. She would place her palm on the inside glass, her fingers lined up against mine, and we'd both mouth the words "Hands on."
I whispered it to her that last sad night we had together.
* * *
I miss so much about Mom, especially the way she could make me feel that everything would be okay. She could solve any situation, from a scraped knee to a broken heart, with a prayer. She prayed for every need, hurt or hiccup that hit Dad, Jack and me, and our spouses and kids, as well as friends and neighbors. Mom was so naturally empathetic that even strangers poured out their troubles to her. She always promised to keep everyone in her prayers, no matter what their religion or beliefs.
She inhaled a worry. She exhaled a prayer. Truth be told, Mom was holier than the rest of our family, but she wasn't a holy roller, if you know what I mean. Deep inside, she just believed. During our family's early years in Philadelphia, Mom relied on a pretty standard Catholic repertoire of novenas and rosaries and Mass for whatever ailed Dad or Jack or me. Every once in a while she would call the Sisters of St. Joseph to ask them to put in a good word Upstairs if one of us was sick or a big exam was coming up.
But by the time Mom and Dad had settled in Florida in the mid-'80s, there was more to ask for. Jack and I had grown up and started families of our own. I married Joe Quinlan and moved to New York City. Jack and his wife, Sandy, had two little girls, Kelley and Meghan. We had busy, challenging careers and lives up north, and Mom was separated from us by so many miles. The passing years brought new health problems for both of my parents. And, once Mom had more free time in Florida, her empathetic nature attracted an ever-expanding list of people who adopted her as their personal counselor as soon as they met her. Their concerns became hers.
Mom needed a better way to cope with the growing list of worries weighing on her shoulders and her mind. That's when the God Box was born. She started writing down her petitions on random scraps of paper that she addressed to God and then placed into her God Box for resolution and relief.
Whenever we had a hope or a concern, Mom would cheerfully offer, "I'll put it in the God Box." Just hearing that made me feel like my issue of the moment was somehow worthy. If it was important to me, it was important to Mom. And if it was important to Mom, into the God Box it went.
It wasn't odd that Mom took to this very simple solution. She was a fixer and a doer with a practical bent. She was an early adopter of convenience foods, instant messaging, and automatic bill paying. The God Box was an easy way to make good on her promises to help.
* * *
On the night before her funeral, Dad, Jack and I felt like dishrags. Dad kept shuffling from room to room. He couldn't even look at Mom's recliner, so still next to his. Jack pretended to care about the work on his laptop. I threw myself into every detail of preparing the service because "doing" is what I do best.
My Mom, ever the planner, had left behind hints of what she wanted for her service. In her desk drawer, for instance, I found the programs from her friends' memorial services, and she had checked off the hymns she liked. On one pamphlet, she had marked "good choice!" next to "Spanish Eyes," but I nixed that in favor of "Ave Maria."
I had already written Mom's eulogy and had read it to her while she lay in a hospice room. It's not that I wanted to jinx her. I just wanted her to hear how much we loved her. When I gave it to Jack to review, his eyes filled with tears. "How am I going to read this out loud? I can't even read it to myself without crying."
If Mom had been there, she would have teased us into cheering up because she was such an effervescent, fun woman. She was always up for a good time, turning up the volume if Willie Nelson was on the radio, dressing up her khakis with a bangle belt just to go out for breakfast. Even at eighty-two, Mom was the life of our party. None of us felt as shiny without her in the room.
We were each picking at our takeout dinner on the back porch when Jack asked, "Where's Mom's God Box?" The three of us looked at each other, forks in midair. For all the times she had mentioned it, Mom had never told us where she kept her little cache of prayers.
The God Box was Mom's secret stash of notes to God. She'd grab any handy piece of paper-from a "While you were out" slip to a receipt or a Post-it note-and scribble, "Dear God, Please take care of ..." She would dash off a petition in her natural, heartfelt style, date it and sign it "Love, Mary." "en she would keep folding the paper until it was really small and place it safely in the box.
The God Box came with one caveat. If any of us ever reworried about the request, Mom would say, "If you think you can handle it better than God, it's coming out." Just the suggestion that we thought we were more powerful than God put us in our places and made us stop fretting and start believing. I don't think Mom ever made good on her threat, but her advice encouraged us to try to let go.
We loved how the God Box gave her such comfort and relief, and we were always happy to have our hopes and fears stored inside. However, no one believed in its power as deeply as Mom did.
* * *
On the night before Mom's funeral, I headed back to my parents' bedroom to search for the God Box. It was the first time I had gone in there since Mom died. I felt as if she might walk in at any second; I could even smell her fragrance. Everything was still in its place: There were the flowered bedspread and the matching curtains we had hung together. And there was the family gallery she had created, photos of each of us on the wall, the bureau and her nightstand.
I looked in her dresser where slips and nightgowns waited, unneeded. No box. Her closet was crowded with pastel skirts and floral dresses and palm tree purses, reminders of lunches together and parties gone by. I found the white leather jacket (a duplicate of mine) I had bought her for her eightieth birthday. But still no box.
I was about to give up when I glanced up to the highest shelf. Mom would have had to stand on her tiptoes to shove anything up there. I ran my hand along the edge and brushed against something rough. I pulled down a small round wicker box. I flipped open the lid and inside I could see pieces of paper covered with Mom's handwriting. "I found it!" I yelled. Then I paused. On a hunch, I reached up to the shelf again, stretching to feel further back. My hand hit another box. I grabbed a chair to stand on and found another box and another and another–wood, ceramic, glass, cardboard.
My arms filled with mismatched containers, I walked back to the dining room table and set seven God Boxes down gently in front of Dad and Jack. Dumbfounded, we each chose one and opened the lid. Every one of them was stuffed tight with tiny wedges of paper, folded over and over like origami.
We turned the boxes upside down and hundreds of notes tumbled out. We started unfolding and reading, shouting out the dates: "2003!" "1994!" "1989!" We were stunned. We were face-to-face with every molehill and mountain of our family's life dating back twenty years. Every wish and hope and worry, every decision small or big, everything Mom ever prayed for lay before us in a pile of scraps written in her hand.
Mom had left behind a diary of our family's life, her love letter to us in a thousand pieces.
* * *
Mom's notes weren't requests for world peace. She asked for help with the trials of everyday life, like this petition: "Dear God, Please make my right ankle stop hurting. Love, Mary." There were mentions of so many things we had forgotten, like office spats or real estate quandaries. We weren't the only ones in the box: we found messages about our extended family, about people we'd never met, about people who leaned on Mom for answers and hope.
The first paper was dated August 7, 1986. Though nearly all of the notes were scrawled hurriedly in Mom's hand, this one was typewritten, with perfect margins and indentations. She had typed it on the back of a sheet of office stationery–a souvenir from her last job as a secretary in an advertising agency. Maybe Mom wanted her first letter to God to look official. She summed up everything that was on her mind.
I love that message because it shows how Mom wrote to God like a pen pal would, so straightforward and friendly. Her mind ricocheted from one thought to another, as mine still does.
I'm not sure why Mom mentioned her eyes, unless that was around the time when the optometrist found a suspicious iris freckle. I remember that scared her. I have one too–something else we shared.
But Mom was right to question the wisdom of our buying a tiny farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As relative newlyweds and apartment dwellers, my husband, Joe, and I were clueless about old houses and could barely make the down payment. But we put in a bid, on the spot, because we were instantly charmed by the 140-year-old house despite its single bathroom and sketchy septic system.
The house turned out to be a godsend for our family. We invited my parents to live there with us every summer after they moved to Florida to get out of the heat, which gives you a sense of just how generous and mellow Joe is. Mom and Dad, never wanting to overstay their son-in-law's kind invitation, would insist on sleeping outside in their RV when we had overnight guests. I always felt embarrassed when our friends noticed the lights in the motor home parked in the driveway. "Oh, that's my parents. They don't want to interfere."
Most of the time, however, they stayed in the bedroom next to ours. When I returned to our Bucks County home after the funeral, I found three more God Boxes that Mom had stashed there, each full of notes about our summers together.
Ten God Boxes in all–a testament to Mom's commitment to her ritual.
* * *
Every summer during their visit, Mom and Dad would borrow our car, and one night they hit a deer on their way home from dinner. They were distressed that our car's fender had been smashed into the front tire, but Mom was even more upset when a stranger drove up to the accident scene and loaded the dead creature into his trunk. She felt worse when the insurance company refused to cover the back fender scraped by an aggressive tow truck driver. Mom turned to divine intervention, I discovered: "Dear God, Please take care of insurance for the Mazda. Let them know it was caused by towing. Love, Mary." (I guess God was supposed to call up State Farm and work it out.) The truth was Joe and I could handle the expense, yet Mom must have spent weeks feeling guilty. I wish she hadn't.
Another slip written during a summer sojourn read, "Please let the Pergo floor be the right choice." Dad was doing me a favor by converting a garage into an office. He and I had chosen the pale oak grain together, so she needn't have been concerned I wouldn't like it. But because the house was mine, she wanted it to be perfect for me. All I wanted was for it to be perfect for her.
That was the nature of our mutual admiration. Sometimes during our conversations I would suddenly say "More!" which meant, "I love you more!" Then Mom would say "More!" and then I would, and we'd go faster and faster, laughing and riding over each other–"more, more, more"–until one of us gave up. It was never me.
* * *
Finding the God Boxes was like reading Mom's heart. It was incredible to see the sheer scope of her faith, so certain, so unedited. Her unconditional belief in God came alive for me, as fresh as I remembered it from all the years of growing up as her daughter and best friend. Opening the little letters was like feeling her hug all over again.
I began reading and, box by box, year by year, walked backward through my life.
Whenever I leaf through my mother's petitions, I am taken back to childhood nights when she first taught me how to pray. When I was just four or five, she would urge me to get down on my little pajama-clad knees, fold my hands and rattle off the list of names she had helped me memorize.
"Dear God, Please watch over Mommy and Daddy, Jack and me ..." and then I would move on to my grandparents, alive and gone. A hearty "Amen!" and I would climb into bed. Mom would stay for a few minutes, her hand softly stroking my eyes shut until I fell asleep.
Surely she prayed for me as I dozed off under her palm. I felt so safe with her. Believing in God was easy with Mom at my side.
* * *
I grew up proud to be Mom's good girl. Jack was the boy version. We both excelled not only in subjects like arithmetic and spelling but also in our Catholic school's moral Olympics: obedience, cooperation, self-control, courage, perseverance, cleanliness and health habits.
Each Sunday at church, I lined up with all the other little girls, wearing my lacy chapel veil or, in a pinch, a Kleenex fastened to my curls with a bobby pin. With the nuns over my shoulder and Mom as my coach, my spiritual life got off to a promising start.
My prayer list continued to grow over time to include more relatives and friends until my freshman year of high school, when I added my final name–Bobby Kennedy. I graduated from high school and then college and gradually lost my religious rhythm. After marrying and moving to New York–"Sin City" to a Philly girl–my formal practice became somewhat à la carte. I was running from meetings to airports, building a career, a new marriage and new friendships. Getting to church every week seemed to slide off my to-do list.
But some habits die hard. I still make a surreptitious sign of the cross for the victim when an ambulance races by. I always pray a silent "Hail Mary" when my plane takes off, and I send good vibes to the universe when we close yoga class with "Namaste." But using the excuse of a busy life, I downshifted my conversations with God to asking for favors on the run, like, "Please let me ace this job interview today." I became expert at pitching heavenly bargains: "If this mammogram is good, I swear I'll go to Mass more often."
Clearly my erratic style paled in comparison to my mother's steady practice of unshakable faith.
Excerpted from the GOD BOX by MARY LOU QUINLAN Copyright © 2012 by Mary Lou Quinlan. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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