Up Front and Personal

My Father’s Personal Sacramental

By Barbara McGillicuddy Bolton

In my 20 or so years of being on the St. Saviour RCIA team, I have repeatedly viewed Father Michael J. Himes’s videos in his “The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to Catholicism.” The one titled “Grace,” in which he talks about sacramentals has special resonance for me. I grew up in mid-Twentieth Century thinking of sacramentals as objects such as rosaries and crosses blessed by a priest. That remains the definition in the 1994 “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” Father Himes, however, says that anything in creation can be sacramental. “All of us have personal sacraments: people, things, places or events which speak to us deeply and richly of the love of God which we know surrounds us always but of which we are not always aware … and sometimes those personal sacraments may be even more effective as signs of grace for us than the great public sacraments.”

For the last three decades of his adult life, my father carried on his person a thing that was sacramental for him.

One spring morning in 1952, when I was eight years old, I returned home from Sunday School to find that my father had been taken away. He was committed for the next year and a half to the Augusta (Maine) State Mental Hospital. During that time my mother, with selfless help from our extended family, arranged to sell the greenhouse my father had owned and operated in central Maine and move herself, my three brothers, and me to our hometown in the northern part of the state. During the time of his commitment I saw my father at Christmas, when he was allowed home for a week, and one other time, early on, when my mother and I visited him at the hospital. Following is an account of that day and its aftermath from my recently published memoir “When They Took Dad Away.”

Mumma and I mount the steps of a stone edifice big as a fortress and enter a wide cool entrance hall. A door opens, footsteps sound, and … “Daddy!”  He looks like himself — a handsome, fit man of forty-three with a high forehead and the bright blue eyes and pink and white skin of the Irish. A natural blonde patch contrasts with his thick, wavy chestnut-brown pompadour; when my mother first laid eyes on him at a dance in their early twenties, she thought he must have used bleach to create the effect. 

We go for a walk. The grounds of the Maine State Mental Hospital are as extensive as a park — or a cemetery without tombstones. We meander on paths through rolling lawns and trimmed hedges. Daddy points out flowering plants and budding trees as though Mumma and I were clients interested in hiring him to do some landscaping. He is subdued but not strangely so. He and Mumma talk comfortably, quietly, the way they did the night we capped the plants in our field.

Our ramble around the grounds brings us eventually back to the building where Daddy now lives. I am dying to go past the entrance hall. I want to see where he sleeps, where he eats. I want to know how he spends his days now that he is away from the greenhouse and from us. Try as I might, I cannot visualize what lies beyond the cool marble hall where we stand saying goodbye.

Afterwards, perhaps on the ride home, I state the opinion that Daddy seems perfectly okay. As an adult, I will find that my assessment got back to him and that he prized it, going so far as to look at his wallet-sized school picture of me whenever he sought reassurance that he would be well again. He will keep that picture, transferring it from wallet to wallet, for the rest of his life. Once, when Dad was at the First Communion Mass for one of my brother’s children, the priest talked to the little new communicants about the blessed crosses, medals or scapulars they were wearing to commemorate the day. A sacramental, he explained, is any object that reminds us of God’s love for us. Dad took out his wallet and showed the photo of me to my brother’s wife. When, absorbed in the task of raising my own young children, I first heard this story, I felt angry, angry that we kids had to be like grownups, my father the child. 

Madness struck me as a luxury indulged in at the expense of others. Now, I think of the terror he must have felt over losing his sanity to sickness, his memories to electric shock treatment and I am glad of any saving role my picture played. 

After his death, Mum gave me the supple leather wallet that had conformed to his back pocket and in it the photo of a smiling, freckle-faced child who sees her Daddy as perfectly okay.  

My father recovered his sanity, and although he endured several more cycles of instability, lithium righted him in the end and he lived to old age with many happy days.

Adapted from the memoir “When They Took Dad Away,” available at Park Slope Community Book Store, Barnes & Noble, and northcountrypress.com.

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