Sometimes, when I can’t go to sleep at night, I repeat the prayer that my mother taught me when I could barely talk, “Guardian Angel, sweet companion, don’t forsake me….” As I begin to drop off, the toddler that I once was rises up within me, and I feel again in my tongue and palate the effort to form those words, as my mother slowly enunciates each phrase.
Since my mother thought I might catch cold from the chilly floor tiles, I did not use to say this prayer on my knees, but flat on my back in bed, with the covers up to my chin and tightly tucked all around. A year or two later, my mother added a P.S. to the Guardian Angel prayer: “Dear Lord, please watch over everyone. Make sure Daddy has plenty of work, and make me a really good girl.” When she explained that I could hasten the arrival of a little brother or sister by praying hard for it, I added a P.P.S. and kept at it until I was sixteen, when that prayer was finally answered.
But prayers were only part of the bedtime rituals. The sickly child of a hyper-vigilant mother, I slept in my parents’ bedroom until I was in second grade. Their bedroom was at one end of a long hallway, and the living room where my mother awaited my father’s arrival from his nightly rehearsals or performances was miles away at the other end. At bedtime, I hated to let her go. I dreaded the fading sound of her heels on the tiles as she walked away from me, and I was afraid of waking up alone in the dark with one of my eternal ailments.
As she quietly made her way towards the door, I would ask for reassurance, “Where is my cold?”
“On the North Pole,” she would answer.
“Where is my earache?”
“Oh, very, very far. In India, I think,” she would say, her hand on the doorknob.
Then, just before she, like the sun, vanished until morning, I would ask, “And my fever, where is it?”
“It’s not even on this earth. It’s on the moon!” and she would close the door, leaving me with only my Guardian Angel for company until she and my father tiptoed in hours later.
I wonder, in retrospect, did my parents find my presence next to their bed an impediment to making love? They were too happy as a couple to have abstained all those years until I moved to my own bedroom, but on the other hand I never heard any sounds that struck me as unusual. They probably counted on my being a sound sleeper, like all children. I do remember hearing them whisper in the dark, and making whispering sounds myself (bsss…bsss…bsss) to alert them to my wakefulness.
I assume that it was my mother and not my father who insisted on my sleeping in their bedroom until I was of school-age. Yes, I had lots of childhood illnesses, but except for the measles, none was life-threatening. What made her so anxious that she had to keep me with her even during the night? Shortly before she died she said to me, “those happy years when you were little and Daddy and I were young, I always felt that God was up in heaven, holding a big stick and getting ready to bring it down on our heads.”
Those happy years were less than a decade after the Spanish Civil War, a period during which, living near the front lines and having to hide in ditches to escape bombardments, she had feared for her life every day. So it is no wonder that for her the sudden happiness of married love, relative security, and a child of her own felt like fragile gifts that could only survive because of her constant watchfulness.
I don’t know whether our prayers, and my sleeping body at hand’s reach in the dark reassured her. I hope they did. But all these years later the Guardian Angel prayer, when I recite it like a mantra, continues to comfort the anxious child that lives within me.