In May 2006, I lost my mother, Mary Finlayson. I miss so much about her—those moments when we laughed or cried at the same things; our pet names for each other (“I love you, Anna Banana,” we’d say); and how we would end our nightly calls by pressing our palms to our phones and whispering, “Hands on,” our mantra for always staying close. What I long for most is the way Mom could make me believe that everything would be OK.
She was my one-stop problem-solver with her own secret weapon: the God Box, her simple way of coping with the stresses of life. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a series of trinket boxes filled with her typed or handwritten requests on behalf of me; my younger brother, Jack; and the love of her life, our father, Ray. Mom would scrounge up any old piece of paper—the back of a receipt, a torn paper towel, or a while-you-were-out slip sufficed—date it, and write, “Dear God,” followed by her concern of the moment, which ran the gamut from big (“Please let our house sell today”) to small (“Please let Mary Lou’s Pergo floor be the right choice”). She would sign many of the scraps “Thank you, God. Sincerely, Mary,” gently fold them into tiny origami, and tuck them into the box. Then, she believed, God would take over.
Mom started her first God Box in the mid-1980s, when she and Dad retired from Philadelphia to Fort Myers, Florida. Jack and I were in our 20s, building our grown-up lives, his in New Jersey with his wife, Sandy, and mine in New York City with my husband, Joe. With us far away, she bonded with new friends in Florida. That came as no surprise to us: People had always gravitated to my pretty, blue-eyed, red-haired mother, a fabulous hostess (if mediocre cook) and can-do administrative assistant, who radiated joy and kindness. I can’t recall how many times she would say something like “You have such lovely hair” or “You are so good with those kids of yours” to a complete stranger—often someone who looked as if she could use a compliment. Mom was so openly sympathetic that just about everyone, from waitresses to handymen, instantly confided in her. And she, in turn, took their problems to heart, mulling them over for days. Noticing that tendency, a friend suggested to Mom that she put a list of cares into a box. Just like that, the God Box was born.
From then on, when someone shared a concern with Mom, she would say optimistically, “I’ll put it in the God Box.” The simple act of writing down the wish and relinquishing control to a higher power was her way to help others, and relieve her own mind. Mom was always offering to put wishes from Jack or me into the box, as long as we observed her one condition: total surrender. If we started fretting again, the message would be removed. I can’t say that we stopped worrying on command, but she did make us realize that we needed to let go and give it over. Even I—a lifelong type A personality who fancied she could think her way out of any problem—had to agree.
In the beginning, I regarded the God Box as just another spiritual tool in Mom’s arsenal, alongside the novenas and the Rosaries. Our family is Catholic, but Mom was generally “holier” than the rest of us, and her unshakable faith was her anchor. But as the years went on and our lives grew more complicated, the box became our family’s go-to aid for life’s bigger bumps and bruises. Jack and his wife went on to have two daughters, Kelley and Meghan, and moved from state to state as he took a series of exciting, risky new jobs. My New York advertising career skyrocketed while I tried, unsuccessfully, to get pregnant. In 1996 Dad suffered a stroke that affected his speech. All the while, Mom put each dream, decision, and desperate prayer in the box.
Every family member had a unique relationship with the God Box. Dad was glad Mom had a way to quell her worrying. To me and Jack, the God Box was akin to a child’s beloved blanket; it conferred security, or the illusion of it. We felt our hopes were in Mom’s hands, and there all would be well.
What we didn’t know was how many times Mom wrote in the box—until we lost her. As Jack, Dad, and I were preparing for her funeral, we talked about the God Box. So I headed back to her bedroom to look for it. Reaching to the top shelf of her closet, I yelled, “I found it!” But as I grabbed the box, my hand brushed another and then another. Ultimately we found a total of 10. We were shocked to see so many, filled to the brim with petitions spanning two decades.
Spilling the scraps, we were face-to-face with every mountain and molehill we had ever confided to Mom. In the God Boxes, she had left a 20-year love letter to us in hundreds of pieces. Many messages were freighted with emotion: “Please help Dad get his speech back 100%” or “Please help my neighbor Rachel. She’s sick and stays inside and won’t talk to me.” Others were mundane yet surprisingly poignant (“Please choose correct ship and cabin for Mother’s Day cruise present”), revealing how much thought she put into everyday matters. I laughed when I saw that she had interceded to get difficult coworkers out of my life, citing each one by name; I’d forgotten most of them. If a favor was granted, Mom would insert thank-you notes, like “Good mammogram, thank you.”
The God Box held her prayers for many people outside our family, whether they had asked to be included or not. A few years back, Jen, my longtime business partner and friend, was unhappy to be single and buying her 11th bridesmaid dress. Though she is Jewish, she lit up when Mom told her that she had written, “Dear Jesus, Please let Jen meet the right guy.” Jen later admitted, “I didn’t necessarily believe it would work, but I figured the more people pulling for me, the better.” Soon thereafter, she and her boyfriend, Greg, got married. After Mom’s death, I told Jen that I had found a slip in the box that read, “Please cure Sue,” referring to Jen’s mother, a breast cancer survivor. Jen was stunned. “They never even met,” she said.
The pleas that hit me hardest were those in which Mom asked for an end to her suffering from the incurable blood disease that plagued the last 25 years of her life. “Memorial Day, 1994: Please hear me. My mouth is very sore. Please cure it and cure my platelet problem. I thank you, and I love you.” “July 6, 2000: My dearest Ray cannot bear to see me like this. These past days make me feel weak, tired, and just miserable. You have answered so many of my requests for my family. Help the Dr. find an answer.” And “March 2003: Please, God, give me the answer to restoring red blood cells.”
Despite the unrelenting progress of her disease, her faith never flagged. As I read her words, I realized that she had hidden the worst of her ailments from all of us. Writing in the box must have been the one place she could fully express herself.
Without Mom, I didn’t keep up the tradition. Maybe I believed in the God Box only because I believed in her. Instead, I relied on what I had inherited from her, an ability to persist through life’s messes. As a natural fixer (I run my own women’s marketing business), I figured that if I just focused my energies hard enough, I could handle anything.
Our lives moved along in a mostly predictable fashion. Dad stayed in their Florida home. Jack became the CEO of a Dallas-based technology company. Joe and I celebrated our 30th anniversary in 2008. The God Boxes gathered dust.
Then, one night this past March at 2 a.m., my nearly 92-year-old father fell. A brain scan exposed severe late-stage cancer. Jack and I sat by his side around the clock, calling on every resource we could devise or afford. Despite our best efforts, he weakened day by day. The inevitable outcome was tearing me up inside. For the first time since losing Mom, there was something I couldn’t fix. Yet I couldn’t accept the idea of letting him go, either.
Alone with Dad on April 17, exhausted and desperate, I grabbed a piece of lined yellow paper and scrawled, “Dear God (and Mom), Dad has been so strong for so long. I know you don’t want him to be in pain. I never thought I could ask this…but please bring Daddy to heaven, into your arms. Thank you, Always your girl, Mary Lou.” I folded it small and put it in one of Mom’s old God Boxes. I felt her calming hand on me. My heart finally lifted. And Dad died peacefully three days later.
That was my first entry into my own God Box, which I’ve kept ever since, though not as faithfully as Mom had. But I love to open her boxes from time to time, fingering the tiny scraps written in her urgent, loving hand. I’m so grateful that she left me this gift. Every day, I try to maintain my faith, to believe as fully as she did. As she taught me, it doesn’t hurt to ask.