Our kitchen on the Jerseyside of Placentia was large, but nothing unique. One might call it “outport standard.” It was not a thing of beauty as kitchens are today, but it was functional.
A sizeable cast-iron stove had centre stage and opposite it the kitchen table was in constant use, flanked by a four-child bench on the inside, a captain’s chair for Dad and Grandpa on each end, a rocker for Mom and another for Grandma on the side. Those who couldn’t fit on the bench had stools at various points on the compass and room was always found for visitor or stranger. A sink, wood box, cupboard and couch completed the décor.
Mealtime was tight. There was Grandpa Whelan, Grandma Hunt, Mom, Dad, Tom, Bert, John, Fred, me, a ginger cat named Pansy and a large, hungry waterdog named Zhukov (named for a Soviet marshal who we heard about with great hilarity one night on the BBC war news).
Warm, rambling, spit-clean — it was a substantial room — and the only place in the house with heat. We cooked, ate, cleaned up, did homework, knitted and squabbled — and prayed. Lord, we prayed! I must point out here that Newfies eat fast, walk fast, talk fast — and we pray fast. Elsewhere, I have found, people pray slowly, even at a snail’s pace! When I came to live in Saskatchewan, I was irritated at the slow pace of local piety. Thirty minutes for a rosary? No way chez Whelan. After supper every night of our lives (escape no option), Mom would check the state of the table and the hour on the clock: “Now’s a good time for the rosary.”
A concerted groan . . . and, on cue, John had to go to the outhouse. Tom to tie up the dory, Bert found urgent business elsewhere, I had to practice music, Fred hid. Ways and means were discussed until Dad’s hand smacked the table and the dishes clattered: “When y’r mother sez pray, ye bloody well pray and no back talk about it. Down on the prayer bones, the lot o’ye.”
And on the prayer bones we went!
The parents, though strict on the regular recitation of the rosary, were surprisingly lax on the manner of the saying. Some families had to kneel bolt upright facing the middle of the room on hard floors and no complaints. Things were more informal at our place. Each grabbed a cushion, two if possible, one for knees and one for elbows. We were allowed to pray leaning on the chairs. I’ve often thought it’s a good thing the Lord has a sense of humour, for when he arrived to join the “two or three gathered in his name,” he must have been tickled to find himself in the midst of five elevated back sides, 10 gangly legs and fragrant feet, whose youthful owners weren’t backward in taking a sly dart at an unwary sib. One occasionally heard devout announcements like, “The second Glorious Mystery: Keep y’r big hocks to yerself!”
For those unfamiliar, the rosary is a meditation. The prayers are in groups of 10, called decades, and can be said as a mantra to involve the tongue while the mind reflects on events in the life of our Lord, such as the birth of Christ, or the resurrection. Depending on the day of the week, we would meditate on the Joyful, Sorrowful, or Glorious mysteries. Now, outport youth of our day were somewhat undeveloped in matters contemplative and none of us would have known a mantra from a mackerel. To us pious youth, the rosary was nothing short of penance, undertaken under duress, continued with resignation and finished off with speed and relief. Let me describe ours.
As a preamble, we had the Apostles’ Creed — a lengthy confession of the faith. With practice and good lung capacity we could dispose of this with two deep breath, three tops! Then followed an Our Father, three Hail Marys and a Glory Be, to pray for an increase in the virtues of faith, hope and charity. Or, as we put it, to prime the pump. Then we’d hit our stride for the main event.
Each prayer of the rosary is in two parts — praise and petition. The first part is said by a leader and answered by the others. In the Lord’s Prayer, for instance, the “praiser” would start off easy, build up steam and rise to a climax at the end: “ourFatherartnhven hallowbethyname,
The “petitioners” would respond:
frgvusartrespsesas wefrgvthos trespsgnstus,
ldsnottemptshn delvrsfrmevl. Amen.”
Ten seconds you could tuck away an Our Father and the 10 Hail Marys were child’s play.
HolyMarymudrfGod prfssnrs nowtourfrdet. Amen.”
The Doxology (Glory Be) was short, briskly dispatched and wound up a decade. There were five decades, which added up to a substantial prayer in any person’s language, but with the wind in the right quarter and the pious deportment aforesaid, we Whelans could clew it up, start to finish, in seven minutes — unless Mom decided to pray for everyone — sick, sore, sorry, living and dead, in the two harbours — a risk run every time you got on your knees.
Over the years we developed a system for competent and efficient saying of the rosary. Like runners, we tried to lop a fraction here, a second there. We had our little strategies perfected. When Tom, for example, sprinted for the end of a Hail Mary, the rest of us would cut him off — here a word, there a phrase — as we started the response. This manoeuvre required prudence and precision, for if it became obvious and Mother caught on, we’d be reprimanded as “Godless heathens making a mock of your prayers,” and warned, “Saucy slieveens! The Holy Mother of God will make short work of you vagabonds hereafter.”
This cut little ice as we had a notion that the Holy Mother of God had a warm spot for vagabonds. Our earthly mother — a woman of great piety and little nonsense — was normally engrossed in meditation and oblivious to whether we said five Hail Marys or 50; so on stormy nights (when we didn’t want to go out), instead of a mad dash for the Hail, Holy Queen, there’d be tacit agreement to see how long we could dawdle and delay. When Fred lost his place and said more than 10 Hail Marys, nobody hindered him. On he’d go. Nudge! Wink! His record was 22. Grandma Hunt was the first to capitulate, rapping the table: “Tch Tch. Glory for God’s sake b’y.”
B’y would “glory” with shame and a bowed head, aided by a sly foot or two and off we’d rush to the next mystery of salvation. There were moments of pure farce, like once in the second sorrowful mystery, recalling the agony of Jesus in the garden, Grandma interrupted with pious alarm, “Good God Annie! This arse is burnin’ out of the kettle.”
It took a bit of doing to return to Gethsemane.
In our teen years, if the universe unfolded as it should, there’d be a dance, ball game, or date on the agenda, not one of which was reason to miss the rosary. In these situations we felt a good turn to speed to be essential, and that’s where Grandpa came in. He had arthritic hands from years in fishing boats and the beads would slip through his poor fingers two or three at a time. Instead of 10 Hail Marys we’d often get away with as few as four. Mom wouldn’t correct his count on the principle that as the patriarch and 88 years of age, she would “offer it up.”
Did we give any thought to Jesus, Mary, devotion or reverence in all of this? Certainly we did. We were reluctant recruits for sure, but often we prayed not only with speed, but with fevour and ardour. We were especially devout with intentions re good weather for a dance or in the throes of first love. Did we appreciate the regularity of it? Not us; in those years we weren’t fond of schedules, period. On the other hand, we were quite sure the good Lord knew we truly believed in the truths of the Creed even though we could make short work of its recitation. Nobody doubted that the Holy Virgin was holding us in her love even as we rushed through her rosary.
Ours was a joyful home wherein nobody thought that praying had to be a gloomy occupation. The parents maintained (on sound theological grounds) that God is our father and, as such, isn’t put off by a bit of skylarking. I can hear my dad now: “Ah, honey! ‘Tis good to talk to your God and to think of him, and ye don’t have to be on y’r knees to do it . . . but if you are, shure it’s no harm to be comfortable.”
That took care of the cushion department and, as far as velocity went, Grandpa put it this way: “Y’r talking to y’r blessed Father in heaven, me darlin,’ so get down to brass tacks and talk. No need to drone on half of the day. Shure, the blessed and holy Lord knows what y’r goin’ to say before ye even thinks it — so what’s the sense of prayin’ quarter speed and half-rigged? Give ‘er full sail in a good westerly b’ys . . .”
The b’ys required little telling. When the clan Whelan took the wind of prayer in its sails, there was little need to worry about the riggin.’
Grandma Hunt summed up a simple and profound philosophy of prayer: “’Tis the set of the heart God sees, honey — not the set of y’r funny bone or if ye giggles the odd time at y’r prayers. Enjoy your Lord and enjoy his world — and don’t take y’r self too serious.”
I look back at my childhood in Newfoundland, and the family rosary, with some nostalgia, great thanksgiving, and not a little guilt — not for the shortcomings of my youthful prayers, but a real remorse that I failed to teach my own children the joy of praying — at any speed.
Ellen Whelan Nesdoly is a Newfoundland-born freelance writer who now lives in Shellbrook, Sask.