This Object of Grace

How blasphemous is it to vacuum up a set of rosary beads?

The fact that it was a tiny set probably doesn’t matter. St. Peter should turn me away for simple recklessness. My family has long-time Catholic roots, so I understand this is not a good thing. It all started because I had a rosary necklace with tiny purple beads sitting on my dresser—complete with a silver cross with a tiny gold figurine of Jesus and INRI engraved on the front. My son was playing with it one day—keep in mind, it’s glittery and interesting and would attract even the most focused and Protestant individual. Somehow the necklace ended up on the floor. As I was later pushing the Hoover nearby, I did see the necklace. But I overanticipated my agility and speed. As I leaned to pick it up, the vacuum got to it first. Schlupdunkdunkdunkclinck… you can guess the end of the story. I did recover most of the purple beads—but only 53 of them. The five beads at the start are intact—the two Our Fathers and the three Hail Mary’s—and two strings of the decade beads are still holding together. But the rest are now loose in a safe pile in my jewelry box, awaiting my next brilliant move.

I was distressed by this whole incident not only because of its religious symbolism but also because I thought the necklace belonged to my mother. Since she passed away four years ago, her belongings have tremendous sentimental value. But the story gets worse. As I frantically searched the rug for the beads, I examined the cross, too, to make sure it wasn’t damaged in the process. For the first time, I spotted some faint writing engraved on the back. In script, it reads Sister Dolores / Nov 1902 / To Hilarita Lyford. Oh no.

Hilarita Lyford was my great-great-great aunt. Her father was my great-great-great grandfather, John Reed, the first English-speaking white man to settle in Marin County, California. To give you a sense of the gravity of my ancestry, John Reed built the mill that Mill Valley is named after. Hilarita, one of his daughters, was born in 1839. She raised my great-grandmother Jessie Deffebach and her siblings when their parents died. Hilarita’s husband, Dr. Benjamin Lyford, went to medical school in New York City and was appointed by President Lincoln as first assistant surgeon with the 68th infantry in the US Army. After the Civil War, he came to San Francisco and practiced medicine. Dr. Lyford was actually the first doctor to successfully embalm a body for transportation overseas. But his embalming formula was lost when he died in 1906 (he was a little reckless too maybe). Their Victorian home in Tiburon is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now owned by the Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary. Hilarita died in 1908, six years after she was given this rosary necklace.

So now, her great-great-great niece busted it. This rosary necklace that is 108 years old. Ever feel clumsy, insignificant? A piece of my heart and my history is grounded in the Bay Area. Yet the rest of me is here in New England in 2010, impatient, too busy, running a bit amuck and doing everything too quickly. Perhaps the six missing beads represent the six generations of my family in California. I’m sure my ancestors are not as distressed as I am about this. Still, as a penance, I think I will work over this holiday with the loose purple beads in this precious necklace—to try to connect them as they were originally once hand-strung together.