“Ave Maria, Gratia Plena, Dominus Tecum.”
Mothers don’t pray like the rest of us.
I learned that long ago. As a boy.
Have a brother at war and you’ll learn lots of secrets about your Mother. She seemed the same lady … but she wasn’t. Everybody went about growing up. The house kept its beat … and the days seemed almost routine.
But not the nights. They were different.
No usual stuff. No suppers. No laundry. No drop-offs. No searches for missing gloves or lost cleats. No dashes for poster-board … and no whispers to grow up on. No rah-rahs from the stands. Nope. None of that.
The nights were reserved.
Set aside for her soldier-son on the other side of the world.
Far from home. Far from her.
And her nights were almost silent. Or so she thought. Because she imagined the house deep in sleep. So her prayer-murmurs seemed safe from the ears of others.
But the dark deceived her. Those whispers were more like screams.
They were odd whispers. Breathy-soft … punctuated by “wiss” after “wiss“. That was the clue … the unmistakable give-away … that it was a prayer. The “wiss” told you so.
Not every word was clear to the ear. Didn’t have to be. Because everyone in that Catholic house knew the first line of that prayer … even in Latin.
“Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum …”
And straight away you knew she was gone. To the other side of the world. To whisper to her missing son. To hover him. To protect him. To even lay down her life for his … if she could.
You could hear her voice clear enough … because the silence was so silent. And you could spy the night light through the crack in the door jamb. But she wasn’t really there. She was gone. Somewhere else. Because when a son goes to war … his mother goes to war, too.
I heard that quiet racket every night through my grow-up years … when my Marine-brother left for the west coast. Then Hawaii. Each a step closer to that far-off place called Vietnam. A fourteen thousand mile odyssey from tree-lined Gramercy Place … to thatched villages with names we couldn’t even pronounce.
We were awed by the sheer distance … my Mother was tormented by her sheer helplessness. Nothing prepared her for this ordeal.
She had no idea how to choke her fear. How to smother her fright. So she prayed. Until the rosary beads dangled from her hand … and sleep gave her a short furlough.
“Benedicta tu in mulieribus,et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.”
At twelve or thirteen … with the help of some blunt brothers … you get over yourself. And a midnight slink down the upstairs hallway … surrounded by loud whispers … will get you all the way past yourself.
Because now you were eavesdropping. On something sacred. And you knew it. The whispers told you so. Told you it was private. Inviolate.
And it was damp and teary-wet. And so uncomfortable to listen to. But you had no choice.
And the Latin didn’t hide a thing. Not the dread. Not the fear. Not the fright. Just a few words … and you knew who she was talking to … and it wasn’t you.
“Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus,”
And there you stood. Alone. In the dark. In the hallway that had become a sacristy.
You didn’t dare barge in on that moment. Too sacred. Too solemn. Because her words seemed so volumed-up … because the silence was so loud.
And you knew the next prayer-line. The hard line. And the one word that lumped her throat.
The one word … in the one phrase … she didn’t wanna say … but had no choice. Not if she wanted her son back.
“Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.”
“Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
That’s the phrase that locked my legs during my sneak down the hall.
Then there was a pause. Until it all began again. Over and over and over. Part prayer. Part mantra. Part beg.
And for years … those were the night sounds in that stuccoed house on Gramercy Place. Packed with five other sons and a princess daughter who mostly needed attention … not prayers.
I know others heard that pain. How could they not? It was part of the dark. For years.
And to this day … many decades later … no one ever mentions that night noise.
None of us ever felt left out of those moments either … because we all knew those nights had nothing to do with us.
They were about a mother … and her missing son.
A madonna … willing him home. Alive. From a horror she tried not imagine.
So, once again.
“Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum …”
Listen–>> Letters Home From Vietnam: “Once I Was”
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