In a family story handed down from generation to generation, a grieving young mother finds comfort in a heavenly presence.
by Bebe Faas Rice — Posted on Oct 27, 2016
All my 84 years, I’ve believed in angels. From the time I could be read to, my mother shared the Bible stories of when they appeared. And then there was another story, a special family story, that my mother told me many times. It wasn’t nearly as old as those Bible stories, but we knew it was every bit as true. Because it was a story about my own grandmother, back in 1898.
Chicago, at the end of the nineteenth century, was not an easy place for a young couple without much money. My grandpa had a job at an iron foundry. Long hours, hard work, poor pay. At home my grandmother cared for their three young children: two sons, Henry and Stanley, and little Angela.
Grandpa dreamed of moving his family to Canada, where a man who was willing to homestead the flat, grassy prairie would get 160 acres to call his own. “Every eighteen-year-old male child can increase the size of the homestead,” he read to Grandma from the paper one morning. “Henry and Stanley aren’t old enough now, but one day…”
They began saving money and dreaming of the move north. Then little Angela took sick. Only a toddler, Angela was the apple of everyone’s eye, with her golden curls and rosy red cheeks. Now those cheeks were flushed with fever, and her curls spread out on a pillow as she fought for her life.
What illness did Angela have? Nobody knew. At that time children often came down with fevers and chills. Doctors didn’t have a name for their ailments. Nor did they have a cure. These were the days before antibiotics. All a mother could do was sit by her child’s bed and pray. Rock her, soothe her, make her comfortable.
Home remedies were the only hope anyone could offer. Teas made of chamomile or ginger or blackberry. Mustard baths and brandy rubs. Grandma must have tried them all, knowing and fearing that they might not be enough. Parents back then couldn’t expect a child to get better. Too many didn’t.
One night Grandma sat in a rocking chair with Angela in her lap. The little girl was wrapped in blankets, her golden head resting against Grandma’s shoulder as they rocked back and forth.
Hours passed like that, Grandma’s prayers keeping a comforting rhythm with the old rocking chair. It was long past midnight. Still she held Angela close. The room was quiet. Just the two of them resting in the flickering light of a candle.
In the early hours of the morning, Grandma glanced down toward the right arm of the rocking chair. She blinked her eyes. Was she dreaming? No, the weight of Angela’s little body asleep in her arms, the creak of the rocking chair on the wooden floor— all these details were as real as ever. What she was seeing was true.
Beside the rocking chair was a girl, a child no bigger than Angela herself. There was a peace about her that Grandma had never experienced. Where had this lovely creature come from? Grandma wondered. It was as if she had been summoned by Grandma’s rocking prayers. The room seemed filled with them.
The child leaned against the rocker, half-kneeling, half-standing. She didn’t speak or look back at Grandma. She just stood there. Waiting, Grandma thought. The child was waiting. That’s when Grandma realized this wasn’t a child at all. She was an angel. Grandma didn’t speak. The three of them simply waited there together in the quiet of the room: Grandma, Angela and the angel.
Angela died a few hours later. The loss of a child, Grandma would later say, is “the one grief that can never be fully understood.” Sadly, Angela was not the last child she would lose. Of her 10 children, Grandma would lose three more. “How did she survive that?” I asked my mother once I was old enough to imagine Grandma’s pain.
“Angela’s angel never left her side,” my mother explained. “Your grandmother knew that Angela and her siblings were welcomed into a kingdom of light and love, of goodness and beauty, where children were all happy and healthy. It’s what every mother wants above all else.”
Grandma and Grandpa did their best to provide all their children with such happiness, eventually fulfilling their dream of settling in Canada.
It’s been more than a hundred years since Grandma saw her angel. She’s long since joined Angela in heaven. As has my mother, Marie, who was Grandma’s seventh child. One day I’ll see them all too. And when my time comes I’ll look out for an angel who looks like a little girl. I’ll know she’s come to lead me to the kingdom. Come to take me home.
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