Saint Giovanni of the Pillows

John Thomas Stewart appears on no other list of Saints but mine. I called him Grandpa.

He wasn’t famous like Saint John of the Gospel or Saint John of the Cross, but his life quietly bore witness. To sacred silence. And laughter.

By the time I came into his life he’d retired from driving his team of horses through the streets and alleys of east Boston to deliver fifty gallon drums of oil to the mostly Italian-speaking shop owners.

Grandpa Stewart was not Italian. But the shop owners wouldn’t have guessed. He learned to speak Italian while making his daily rounds. “Buongiorno, Giovanni!”

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And so his day went until he drove the horses and his wagon back to the company barn, fed them, groomed them, put them in their stalls for the night, and walked home to #11 Tremont Street.

In retirement he had moved from Tremont Street to live in my Uncle Harold’s palatial home in Chestnut Hill across the street from Boston College. It was to the house on Hobart Road that my fondest memories return.

During the years my father was in the South Pacific, my mother and I lived with Grandpa and Grandma Stewart in the house of Hobart Road in Chestnut Hill. Uncle Harold, too, was in the war, somewhere on a ship. We never knew where.

We didn’t know much of anything in those years between 1943 and the end of the war. Everything was uncertain. But at least two things I could count on put my grandfather on the list of Saints worth remembering.

PILLOWS IS ONE.

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We played a game with pillows. On the floor with the Persian rug that filled the living room on Hobart Road, I’d cover Grandpa’s entire body with all the pillows we could gather from everywhere. Once I’d completely covered him — “no peeking, Grandpa — he’d lie there for various amounts of time until the time seemed just right. Then — “Boo!” — he’d say suddenly throwing off the the pillows. “Boo!” To a two year-old, his resurrection from the dead was always a surprise. We’d laugh and laugh and laugh. Then I would take my turn under the pillows to scare Grandpa: “Boo!” He’d act surprised every time. It never got old.

“Boo!” never sounded so good. Grandfathers are like that.

Otherwise, he didn’t say much. “Boo!” was one of the few words I remember Grandpa speaking. Most of the time, he didn’t say boo. He was quieter than quiet, like a rock to a family at the edge of quick sand — one news story from the radio away or a knock on the door that might tell us Harold or my father had been killed in the war.

CHURCH IS THE OTHER.

During the summers we lived in Uncle Harold’s cottage on Harridan Avenue in Rockport, Massachusetts, just a block up from Old Garden Beach and a mile from Dock Square, Bearskin Neck, and the First Congregational Church in the heart of Rockport.

My mother and Grandma failed in their first attempt to take me to church when the otherwise quiet two year-old suddenly interrupted the long sacred silence that followed the minister’s “Let us pray” with words of my own — “Mom!! Big grunt!!!” — sending the church into giggles that seemed to irk the minister by bringing everyone back to earth, so to speak. My older cousin Gina snatched my up and ushered me out. That was the end of church for awhile. They were not about to cause a scene again.

Grandpa was a different story.

I remember walking with him to church in Rockport. He didn’t say boo; he just walked. But it was the way he walked, and why he was walking on a Sunday morning, that puts him in my catalogue of saints. He walked with dignity and purpose.

Grandpa’s posture was erect. Perfectly straight. Dressed in a starched white shirt, tie, dark suit, and wearing a fedora, the man with a sixth grade education who’d run away from domestic abuse when he was 12 years old seemed like what I imagined President Roosevelt must look like. Dignity was everywhere: his posture, his gate, his attire — on the way to the place and time that gave substance, shape, and meaning to his life: Sunday morning worship, “The Lord’s Day,” as he called it.

Sunday morning was sacred time.

Fifty years after the walk to church with Grandpa in Rockport, I visit a small, white, wood-frame church on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, the land from which Grandpa’s father had emigrated to Prince Edward Island where Grandpa was born.

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I arrive ten minutes before the beginning of worship. The usher in the tiny 6’x8’vestibule welcomes me with a wordless smile, gives me a copy of The Book of Psalms and Paraphrases, opens the door to the large sanctuary that looks out on the natural beauty of Loch Snizort, and quietly ushers me to a pew among the silent members of the congregation. The man to my left smiles and nods. In a minute or two he offers his copy of The Book of Psalms and Paraphrases, opened to the first hymn posted on the small hymn board.

No one speaks in these minutes before worship. There is no prelude. No music plays. Even the children are quiet and seem at home in it. The silence is not empty. It is as full as any place I’d ever been or ever would be again: the fullness of faith, hope, and love waiting to break into song together as one voice in four-part harmony:

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!
Praise Him all creatures here below!
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host!
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

I stand erect, like Grandpa, to sing God’s praise and sense a faint echo of a joyful chuckle time cannot erase — “Boo!” — rising from under the pillows of the Communion of Saints.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, at the cabin, November 1, 2017, All Saints Day.

 

 

6 thoughts on “Saint Giovanni of the Pillows

  1. Gordon, is it possible that the little grandson with those beautiful eyes, Elijah, is leading you to revisit those happy and yet lonely days. ( Father and Uncle in harms way).

    Like

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