My grandmother was born Leona Erma Van Dusen in upstate New York, at 10 minutes before the hour of midnight on December 31st 1880. She nonetheless celebrated her birth on Jan. 1 so she could claim to be a year younger.
She was 20 when she married my grandfather, Charles Scott Wright. They lived with their two sons in Somerville, New Jersey. Grandpa Charles, a stock broker, died of thrombosis at the age of 39 in 1918 when my father, DeForeest, was eight years old.
Grandpa left some property and Grandma soon found herself in business selling real estate. Moving to Southern California in 1935 during the Great Depression, she continued buying and selling properties at night while hiring herself out as a housekeeper during the day in order to make ends meet.
Grandma was quite spare, seeming taller than she was, white-haired, with pronounced Pennsylvania Dutch features. She was very dignified, never leaving her home without being well-dressed. She was not very affectionate; we always called her Grandma Wright, never Grandma Leona. Nevertheless, while not at all given to silliness, I recall the merry tinkling of her laughter quite well.
In California, Grandma picked up the quirk of moving every two or three years. By 1957, having lived in houses all her life, she’d taken up residence in an apartment in Inglewood.
Early that year Papa, Mom and I were in the family car, a white ’53 Pontiac, the chief’s stylized head mounted on the hood gravely scouting the terrain. We were on our way to pick up Grandma Wright, who was to spend a weekend at our home in Hollywood. Returning north on Wilton Place, Papa and Mom were in the front seat, Grandma and I in back.
At the corner of 8th St., just below Wilshire Boulevard, was a cheery little white frame Presbyterian church with a front porch. Although a short, squared tower perched on its tarpaper roof, it looked every bit like the made-over house it was. Comfortably settled on a sloped lawn, the marquee in front proclaimed the Reverend Danny Hart as its pastor.
Grandma Wright was a good Methodist — by her own admission. Still, she wore the title easily since she had no problem visiting other Protestant churches if she heard the minister had a dazzling smile and delivered a good, down-to-earth sermon with reasonable eloquence.
As I mentioned, Leona Wright prided herself on being a lady, always carefully attired in a dark dress, her gray hair simply coiffed. She always wore a pair of short white gloves and, on Sundays, a kind of flat white hat with white lace veiling.
Well, this day I nearly shocked Grandma out of her gloves.
Sister Mary Theodore, IHM, had begun to explain to her second grade students at Immaculate Heart Elementary School how only bishops and priests in the apostolic succession could validly consecrate bread and wine so it became the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Every Catholic church, therefore, had a tabernacle to house the Sacred Host. Alas, without the apostolic succession, she told us, no Protestant church contained Our Lord’s eucharistic presence.
Approaching the little Presbyterian church armed with my new theology, leaning over in a confidential manner I confided, “You know, Grandma, God’s not in that church.”
Behind her glasses Grandma Wright’s eyes widened in alarm.
“The very idea! she exclaimed. “Kenneth! David! DeForeest!” (my father, her second, was always last in the litany of her sons’ names when she became annoyed or flustered), “did you hear what your son just said?”
“Now, Mother,” Papa began soothingly, “Sean didn’t mean what you think. You know we Catholics believe in the Blessed Sacrament, and that Jesus is actually in the tabernacle on the altar in our churches.
“Yes, I know,” she said flatly, drawing her mouth into a thin line while settling her ruffled feathers. When Papa converted seventeen years earlier Grandma had had a few scruples about his defecting to Rome but told him to follow his heart. Still, she found it hard to conceive of anyone actually wanting to become a Catholic.
“He’s seven, Mother. He’s learning about the sacraments. He’s going to receive his First Holy Communion later this year.”
“But DeForeest, to say God is not in a church. It sounds just terrible. The very idea, to say such a thing!”
I remember this conversation quite clearly. I was fascinated because I didn’t understand why there was a problem. Papa was right. It was all about the Blessed Sacrament. Didn’t all our family know about the Hidden Jesus?
“But I know God is in our church, Grandma, I can tell.”
“What do you mean ‘you can tell’?” she asked, arching her brow.
“I don’t know, exactly” I reflected, “I can just feel him. Jesus, I mean, when I go in.”
I don’t think that statement exactly mollified Grandma. Once again, albeit with a subdued note of dignified resignation, she drew in her breath and said, “The very idea.”
I never knew until much later when Papa recounted the incident to friends that he and Mom had been quietly biting their lips in the front seat, not wanting Grandma to think they were laughing at her. The incident passed into family legend. “You should have heard the outrage in my mother’s voice,” Papa would laugh, “when Sean said God wasn’t in that church!”
Two years after this incident, Grandma Wright died suddenly, one day before her 79th — or two days before her 78th birthday — in 1959. She’d been aware for quite some time that she was would be buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, a situation which made her laugh in her musical, ladylike way. She’d always tell us grandkids that it was going to be a fine joke on the pope, planting a good Methodist from upstate New York among all those Hollywood Catholics.
Papa would chuckle and say that it might be good for her to hide out among all those Catholics till Judgment Day. At least until God got through with the rest of the Methodists. And Grandma laughed along with the rest of us.
A final note: April is the month devoted to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. When was the last time you entered a Catholic church just to “make a visit” to the Eucharistic Jesus? Are you aware of the presence of Jesus when you enter? With the plague of COVID-19 receding and churches reopening, why not take a few minutes every so often to drop in and talk to Jesus directly, confiding in him, thanking him, adoring him? Those who do so will again find themselves in company with the actual eucharistic presence of Christ. Their churches will feel better as well. For when God dwells within a church, his abiding presence can be tangible indeed.
As my grandmother might say, “The very idea!”
(Sean M. Wright, an Emmy-nominated television writer, is a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is also part of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, CA. He responds to comments sent him at Locksley69@aol.com.)