In my hand I hold a matchbox. The old school kind — wooden matches with cherry red tips inside. But that’s not all that’s in this matchbox, nor is setting a fire its function. For this matchbox, I just learned, is what sociologists and grief counselors call “a pocket shrine.”
Inside my matchbox, lies a handsome lapel pin: white letters in a gold ring reading “American Red Cross Volunteer.” And in the center a blood-red cross that seems bejeweled and luminous; Myra’s “Nurse’s Aide” pin from the late ‘50s.
Under the heading titled “Pocket Shrines: Little Devotional Items, Long History,” in the December 2020 edition of National Geographic Magazine, writer Patricia Edmonds, explains, “For centuries, huge shrines have been built out of devotion to a great love (think. Taj Mahal) or a religion — and in the same spirit, people around the globe have created miniature versions. These pocket shrines were often carried by the troops, many of the ones from both World Wars are still around. Most consist of a tiny vessel — leather or cloth case, wood or metal capsule, even a bullet casing — sheltered a statuette or image. Today, pocket shrines may be fashioned in matchboxes… Counselor Karla Helbert, who uses the shrines in grief and healing therapy, says they’re helpful ‘to maintain a needed connection with your loved one, or to create a sacred space for remembering.’”
So it’s like carrying a loved one physically wherever you go. Like a tiny doll coffin; Mom in a box. Open for viewing, there she is. Nick’s mother, who suffered so after his death, but who refused to let that tragedy define her. She would enroll in classes, take training and become certified as a Red Cross Volunteer Nurses’ Aide (now called Nurse Assistants) at the same UNC Memorial hospital where Nick was admitted and evaluated at the psych ward as a mental patient, a disturbed teen, and where Myra in death would donate her physical remains “to science.”
I’ve been carrying this little matchbox around with me around for decades, not fully recognizing its significance. Nick’s mom was one tough cookie; and this is my mobile devotional to her spirit. Sliding open the matchbox, I am always struck by how the Red Cross symbol appears to wink up at me, as if it contains an internal light and energy source of its own. Now I can see Myra in her blue and white-striped Nurses’ Aide apron uniform, her Red Badge of Courage pinned above her heart, her wan smile urging me on.