People find different ways to deal with their struggles. Mary Finlayson wrote down her worries, concerns, hopes and prayers and placed them in a “God box.” And as the saying goes, like mother, like daughter. Finlayson’s daughter, Mary Lou Quinlan, also learned to deal with her struggles through writing. In coming to terms with the loss of her mother, Quinlan wrote her new book The God Box: Sharing My Mother’s Gift of Faith, Love and Letting Go.
The term “God box” was a common one in Mary Lou’s life – she always knew that her mother kept one. After retiring to Florida in 1986, Finlayson typed out her first prayer of this kind to God: “Dear Lord, Protect my good health – my eyes – my family – my dear husband. Protect Jack in decisions in his job. Protect Marylou and Joe in their jobs, and especially a decision on buying this house in New Hope. Thank you for all our blessings. You are with us always. Love, Mary.” She folded the small piece of paper and placed it in a little box, which she dubbed her “God box.” Finlayson’s well-worn phrase became “I’ll put it in the God box” whenever Quinlan or her brother, Jack, had expressed concern over something. In the book, Mary Lou recalls how just hearing that phrase made her feel as though her mother, who lived miles away in Florida, was hugging her.
Those spiritual hugs of sort continued even after her mother’s death from a stroke in 2006. On the night before her mother’s funeral, Mary Lou, Jack and her father, Ray, were all sitting in the family room, when Jack suddenly asked, “Where’s Mom’s God box?”
That night they found not just one God box, but seven.
“We turned the boxes upside down and hundreds of notes tumbled out,” said Quinlan. “We were stunned. We were face-to-face with every molehill and mountain of our family’s life dating back twenty years…Mom had left behind a diary of our family’s life, her love letter to us in a thousand pieces.”
Mary Lou then took these notes and turned them into a book. Though she is the author of two previous books on marketing, What She’s Not Telling You and Time Off for Good Behavior, writing The God Box was a different, more personal challenge. But like every successful journey, it was both difficult and rewarding.
“It was hard, because I had to get it right, for Mom,” Quinlan said. “She was an incredibly compassionate woman, always concerned with everyone else. This time, it was her turn. And it was harder because I had to dig down to some of the saddest memories of losing her, losing Dad. I admit I cried a lot during the process. It was also more rewarding than writing my business-oriented books because I found a way to honor this marvelous mother and her tradition of keeping a God Box. I am already hearing stories from readers who are so moved by the book and now starting their own God Boxes.”
Quinlan spent two decades in the advertising and marketing business. In 1999, she started her own business called Just Ask a Woman, through which she helps companies market to women in a personal and strategic manner. This also allowed her the opportunity to branch out into public speaking, television work and writing.
There is no doubt that Quinlan’s success has a strong foundation in how she was raised and supported by her mother. Mary Finlayson instilled in her daughter the meaning of an Irish work ethic and strong faith – “I am fourth-generation Irish,” said Quinlan .
The God boxes were Mary Finlayson’s way of taking life’s concerns and troubles and placing them in God’s hands. It was a physical manifestation of her great belief. As Mary Lou recounts, her mother rarely missed a Sunday Mass. When first settling down, she and Ray chose a working-class Catholic neighborhood of Philadelphia. She sent Mary Lou and Jack to Catholic school. She had a great deal of respect for nuns.
“Her letters reveal an incredibly personal and honest relationship with God, like a friend,” said Quinlan. “They were like pen pals, one-way pen pals. Mom also used to call the Sisters of St. Joseph in Philadelphia to talk through what was on her mind and ask for their prayers. In Florida, in retirement, she befriended a small monastery of cloistered sisters in Ft. Myers, the Poor Clares.”
Mary Finlayson had a background as a secretary (her claim to fame was working at the Philadelphia Navy Yard for Richard Nixon.) This led to almost all of her God box notes being written in a clipped, secretarial style. Many of them read along the lines of: “Please help Dad get his speech back 100 percent” or “Please help my neighbor Rachel.”
A common theme in all of Mary’s written prayers is how often she thought about other people over herself. Her family was her greatest concern, but she also dedicated prayers to acquaintances or people she briefly knew.
In the book, Quinlan describes her as “the empathetic ‘everymother’ whose support came with no strings.”
Accordingly, proceeds from the book’s sales are going towards the American Cancer Society. In addition, Quinlan is working on a play in conjunction with the book.
“I’m working very hard on this and loving every minute, and have watched audiences go through the emotional rollercoaster along with me and Mom. What a thrill! Mom would love it!”