I can still see her sitting across the table from me with cards fanned out in her left hand and a cigarette clenched between her teeth. My best memories of my mother are playing cards with her, game after game starting as soon as I was old enough to know the suits and hold the cards. She was predictable in those games. She'd draw a card and slide it into her hand but not push it all the way down. Then, she'd take the cigarette from her lips, flick the ash and speak. Sometimes, she'd say, "Up popped a fox!' in a slow singing, drawl, which meant the card was unexpected but good. Other times, she'd say, "Holy Mary Mother of God, bless us sinners in this time of need..." drawing out the last word dramatically. That meant that whatever she'd drawn had wrecked what she was building. My mother was raised as a Baptist and was not a religious woman. To this day, I don't know where she learned those words and why they came so easily to her. That's a question I would ask her if I could.
There was only one other prayer I ever heard her say. She learned it in church basements with strangers who became friends.
God grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.
I remember sitting outside those rooms on uncomfortable chairs and old couches, watching sitcoms on television sets with broken antennas or reading a book I'd brought with me. I couldn't hear the words clearly where I sat but I found comfort in the hum of the words intoned, in the swirl of cigarette smoke and the smell of stale coffee. I grew up in bars and grew up in different ways as I watched my mother try to get sober.
During the time of AA meetings and the Big Book, there was Holy Mary and smiles during card games but more moments when I'd peek into kitchen and see her holding onto the counter whispering and pleading with her eyes closed, "God grant me the serenity..."
It would take years and many health crises before she finally stopped drinking and I was never privy to her thoughts on the matter, just a witness to the struggle.
I am not a religious woman and I am not one to pray but, lately, the Serenity Prayer has come to mind more often as I grapple with all that is going on in the world. The words are about peace and change and wisdom and, sometimes, I close my eyes and hear them like a whisper.