When I was a very little girl I remember praying fervently for a pair of red wings. After several days of watching and waiting I took my shaken faith and spread it out before my mother.
“Why?” I demanded. “Why don’t I get red wings?”
My mother had, skillfully balanced with her sensitive Irish wit, an enormous respect for a serious problem. Together we examined mine. “Faith, my darling,” she told me, “is believing that God is very wise. Wiser than you. Somehow you must be praying wrong.”
As I grew older I was filled with gratitude that I need not walk through life wearing red wings. But, I was equally grateful for her gentle lesson.
Mother worked very hard and her tiny body wasn’t nearly as big as her heart. Yet I never heard her complain. In our walk-up flat on New York’s east side she would jubilantly finish a batch of ironing for her select Park Avenue clientele and call to us to admire its crisp freshness.
Sometimes it was a close shave when it came to scraping together the money for my singing, dancing and dramatic lessons but she never told me of it. Instead, she let me know constantly that faith was the foundation for lasting joy, the chief cornerstone for building a whole life.
She dreamed dreams about my wonderful future as an actress and at eight, nine and ten, I began getting radio and stage bits. When I tried for something better and failed, she would smile her wonderful warm smile, put a pert new feather in my hat, and together we’d go to St. Boniface’s to pray.
“Just have faith, my darling,” she’d say cheerfully as we walked home in the fading light. “Something better will come.” And it did. It came so fast it was like riding a giant roller coaster clear to the top. We two looked out over the whole world.
At thirteen I was on Broadway as Paul Lukas’ daughter in Watch on the Rhine. At fourteen I had dinner at the White House. At fifteen I came to Hollywood and was given the coveted role of Joan Crawford’s daughter in Mildred Pierce.
Overnight life was glamorous, exciting, completely wonderful.
Yes, we went up so fast that when we hit the first giant dip it shook my faith. But it didn’t shake my mother’s on that tragic day in a hospital room, where doctors told me I might never walk again.
We had finished Mildred Pierce and Mother took a group of us to Snow Valley, a spot in the San Bernardino Mountains. While my friends and I were tobogganing, it happened.
One minute we were sailing down the hard-packed icy hillside like snow birds, then there was a crash and I fell on my back with a sickening thud.
I didn’t cry out. The feeling was too big for that. Involuntarily, from long habit, my spirit reached out for faith and halting prayers rose to my lips. At the hospital the doctors were grave; my back was broken.
My glowing world tumbled all about me! It seemed like the end of everything.
At first I couldn’t look at my mother. When at last I raised my head, I was startled. Those warm hazel eves under her crown of auburn hair were actually smiling.
“Have faith, my darling,” she said. “You’ll walk.”
Together my mother and I planned cheerful, busy days. In a cast, with my head and feet toward the floor, my back raised high, I concentrated on high school work, determined to graduate with my studio class.
But still there were those long periods of just lying there. The busy exciting world I had known faded away and my life slowed down to little things. But even here I found myself blessed, for a new sense of prayer began to unfold to me.
Now there were not the busy times of telling Him what I needed but, rather, times of listening communion, of gathering strength, when my human strength and courage seemed to ebb away.
In seven months they told me I could walk. Not walk really, but take those first important few steps on the long road back to complete freedom. As I had gotten to know Him in my time of trial, I knew Him now in thanksgiving.
I took those steps, and then more. I graduated with my class from a wheel chair.
There were seven mouths in and out of that wheel chair, but every one was another step forward. There was my first swim. The preview of Mildred Pierce. My first game of golf. And then I made my first picture since the accident.
Now, at last, life was again the same. Only, not quite the same. I found within me an immense gratitude for simple things. An acute appreciation of all I might have lost, all the things I had accepted unconsciously before. And one more difference, I had grown up.
At first I had clung to my mother’s faith, leaned on her, step by step as she showed me the way. Now, I had found my own rock. Nor did I find it too soon.
Before I finished that first picture after my accident I was standing alone. My mother, beloved companion, was gone. A little unsteadily I clung to my rock.
But I missed her. There was an aching emptiness. Until it came to me, almost in a revelation, that she had not left me. She had prepared me for her going as she had prepared me for everything else I’d met in life.
Reaching out again for my faith came the assurance that she would be by my side in every good, beautiful and true experience, wherever l might go; a part of every decision, every success and every happiness–for they all stemmed from her inspired teaching.
They would become the flowers of the mustard seed of faith she had placed in my heart.
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