Inside the God Box

What if you could catch a glimpse of every hope—big or small—your mother ever had for you? Here, one daughter’s story of enduring love.


Photo by José Picayo

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.