Six years before I landed in Bosnia, the Virgin Mary was no more than a dim memory, another fairy tale from my childhood as I sat in my rocker day after day, heartbroken over a man, but really over my life, which I thought of as pathetically impoverished. I was forty and alone and had just moved to a tiny village by the sea called Orient, where I knew nobody. I rocked and stared at the bay, which changed from midnight blue to battleship gray; then when I turned on the light I was horrified, and mesmerized, by my own reflection: my gray roots were an inch long (vanity hadn't fled with the onslaught of depression, just the energy to keep up any semblance of a beauty regimen); the creases that ran from the sides of my nose to the sides of my mouth made me look like a puppet; my eyes were hollow and sad. The man I was mourning, Kip, had insisted he still loved me, but he was a coward and he was lying. It wasn't only the physical that had repulsed him. It was the cold hard heart in the middle of me: too defended, too brittle, too pockmarked by life. There'd been no soft pillow of comfort for him to sink into. No motherliness in me.
In the end, I'd been the one to leave, the way I'd left so many men, pridefully. Yet when I dropped Kip at Bradley International Airport, there'd been no pride left. I'd sobbed and gasped for breath. Kip's face was shiny with tears, too; both of us crying for the sweet promise we had and the sweet promise we had broken. He walked around to my side of the car and kissed me through the window; our faces were slippery with tears. Then, as heslung his backpack onto his shoulder, I took one last look at the familiar tilt of his neck, the loveliness of his body as he walked away, and my heart cracked, not like an egg but like a dried-up riverbed.
And so I rocked and I hugged myself as though the hypnotic rhythm, the pressure on my chest, would soothe away the hole of longing, coddle the ache in my heart, make me feel like a baby in the cradle of her mother's arms. Then I shut off the light and drifted to bed without brushing my teeth, or washing my face, or looking in a mirror, or doing anything with my hands besides squeeze them between my knees.
I'd been depressed before and was afraid if I didn't end it some way, this dark night of the soul could stretch on for years. A walk off a dock with rocks in my pockets seemed a good idea; but instead, for the New Year, I plunged into therapyagain.
"You have to learn to love yourself," said my new therapist, Eileen.
I needed to pay money to hear this? "And how do I do that?"
"Sometimes people find another person who loves them unconditionally, and then, because they feel loved, they can love themselves."
I'd say I'd been looking for that about half of the days of my lifeokay, maybe a third; writing took up a lot of my time. I figured Kip was as close as I was going to get, and he'd kicked me in the heart. "Don't you have to love yourself before anyone's going to love you?" I asked rhetorically.
Eileen sidestepped the question. "Sometimes people find love through God."
"God?" GreatI'd signed on with an evangelist. "I hate God!" I almost yelled. "I grew up Catholic. Every time I stubbed my toe I had to figure out what I'd done wrong to deserve it. I spent five years in my first therapy trying to get rid of the guilt the Church put there. Oh, really." I shuddered. "I would just love to try to be perfect and beat myself up every night before bed, not only for the things I did but for the things I didn't doand what I thought in my head. No thank you."
"A holy person," she redefined. "Spirit, Buddha, whatever you want to call it. And you reach them through meditating. Meditation works."
I'd always meant to meditate. I'd done affirmations till I was blue in the face, and I did believe that if somehow you could be given the unconditional love you didn't get when you really needed it, as a child, then you could heal. For me a holy person might be the only way, a last-ditch effort.
And so I began to meditate. I started with five minutes and did guided meditations, encouraged by Eileen, who'd suggested I try to imagine a spirit or a holy person. Mary? I thought about her. But she was too removed and sterile, too far away up in the virginal Catholic clouds. I couldn't sense her, or touch her. An embroidered Virgin of Guadalupe throw had, however, made it back with me from Mexico, where I'd lived with Kip. It was colorful with accents of gold and covered my computer like a good-luck charm. For a time, I pictured a young Persian-looking woman on a flying carpet who flew me around and bathed me in rivers. Eventually I settled on a little Buddha. I am a stone-cold statue abandoned in the woods and tangled in vines, and this little Buddha finds me there, loads me onto his cart, and wheels me into the sunshine in the middle of a beautiful garden. Then he begins chipping away the stone. First I feel the heat of the sun on my skin, then the breeze, which is fragrant with flowers. Very slowly I open my eyes, and the first thing I see is an emerald-green garden and, at its edge, purple flowers shaped like little trumpets, cascading to the ground.
By the spring, I'd been doing this meditation for a few months and felt adventurous enough one Saturday morning to drag myself out of bed at seven, wash my face, drink a cup of coffee, then head out for yard sales with the local paper in hand. I had only the set of table and chairs I'd dragged around with me since my teenage marriage home, the rocker I'd been glued to, a desk, a bed, a bureau, and a small advance to write a novel I hadn't even begun. So, I was really going on a furniture-scavenging excursion. My first stop was a contents-of-house sale, which usually means the owner has died. The place was a homely little aluminum-sided, post-Korean War affair, which I almost drove right by; but I made the decision to be open and not pass judgments. It was only seven-thirty and the sign said No Early Birds, but the husky little boy guarding the back door let me in. There were a few others already milling around the kitchen, whose cupboard contents had been piled onto the Formica table. I picked up a few shot glasses, because I had none, then walked into the living room.
The furniture was fake colonial and identical to my parents'. I pressed my hand to my chest to protect my heart. Would my siblings and I sell my mother's department-store dishes, my father's woodworking tools, virtually none of which we'd want for ourselves? Would we stand guard as people snatched the crocheted afghan from their couch, then watch it disappear out the door?
My parents were almost seventy; both of them smoked; and they were not in good health. Yet, with his chronically aching back, that fall my father had driven all the way from Connecticut to Vermont in his pickup truck to help me move. In New London we'd taken the ferry across Long Island Sound and had eaten grilled-cheese sandwiches, then strolled outside on the deck. My father's thick silver hair rippled in the breeze as he jangled the change in his pocket and we leaned on the rail, gazing out over the sound. "I always liked the water," he said.
"Me, too. I always wanted to live by the sea one day, and now I will."
When my father and I pulled up to my spindly old rented Victorian in Orient, a village on the northeasternmost tip of Long Island, my son, Jason who'd come from New York City to help us, was sitting on the step waiting. Jason had graduated college and was living in our old apartment on Avenue A. He was always on time and absolutely dependable, a good boy who'd never given me a moment's trouble. His hair, platinum and straight when he was a child, had been brown and wavy since high school. He was now twenty-three years old, over six feet tall, and, as a few of my younger women friends had let me know, a babe. My father and he patted each other's shoulders as they shook hands; then Jason kissed me on the cheek, "Hey, Mama."
I cupped my hand to his face, then kissed him too. "Hey, Jase."
We unloaded my few pieces of furniture, my boxes of dishes and linens, and my thirty-two boxes of books. I made us ham-and-cheese sandwiches with mustard, which we ate at the table in my new kitchen, followed by slices of the apple-walnut cake my mother had sent. I looked at them gratefully, the two men in my life. There were no others. My father had brought his toolbox, just in case, and it was a good thing. The wood around the hinges on my cellar hatchway had rotted, so my father moved them a few inches farther apart. He removed a door I didn't want between the kitchen and the dining room, and then at dusk I kissed them both goodbye in my driveway. "You take care now," my father said.
"Bye, Ma," my son said, looking worried.
This was the first time in my life I'd lived without my son or a man. The next morning, I'd headed for the rocker.
At the yard sale, I did not want to imagine how desperately alone I'd feel when my parents passed away, and nearly ran from that colonial furniture and up the stairs to the second floor, where, in a small bedroom on a nightstand next to a single bed, the Virgin Mary took my breath away. She was in a framed postcard as Our Lady of Fatima, dressed in a white luminescent gown, floating peacefully in a powdery gray, star-twinkled sky. Glitter graced her veil, and a single white rose sat on each foot as three little kids in babushkas knelt on a grassy hill, looking adoringly up at her, and I was struck by a powerful urgethe same feeling I get when I'm handed a furry kitten or an adorable baby: I just wanted to eat her up. Another shopper walked in and I grabbed that picture so fast you'd have thought I was a starving street dog who'd just been thrown a T-bone steak.
I hung that little picture in my bedroom next to the light switch; and the next Marya crosscut of a tree on which Mary in a varnished print looks concerned for you as she points to her own stabbed heartI hung next to the mirror in the bathroom. A Rubenesque Mary looking knowingly at a chubby baby Jesus on her lap found a place above my bed.
I did feel love for Mary every time I looked at the paintings I'd begun to collect, but I was in love with my other yard-sale paintings, too. I had no idea that before long the Blessed Mother would multiply all over my house like Richard Dreyfuss's little mud mountains in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
But I get ahead of myself. As that little Mary postcard entered my house that first spring in Orient, Mary planted one little hook in my heart that let in one little ray of light, and Nancy Sawastynovicz, my new best friend, came in.
I'd seen a big blond woman with braids, digging across the road that spring; then, a few days after I found my first Mary, on my way home from buying coffee around the corner at the general store, the woman stabbed her spade in the earth, stood, and offered her hand. "I'm Nancy Sawastynovicz McCarthy," she said. "That's my son, Seth." She indicated a little boy on a tricycle down the road. "I had him late in life. I'm forty-one. I'm never having another." Her eyes sparked and I thought she might be looking for a joke, but I was still depressed and not in the mood.
I did, however, notice the coincidence. Nancy and I had both said, "I'm never having another," even though we'd had kids at the opposite ends of our lives. But I was still feeling separate and looking for differences, not similarities. I smiled and excused myself.
But blessings can be as persistent as curses, and Nancy refused to be discouraged. She knocked at my door later in the day, carrying a shovel and a shoebox. "I brought you some flowers from my mother's yard. You could plant them out back."
"They'll probably die."
"Nab. All they need's water and food."
She carried them through my kitchen and out the back door, so I followed her. "You got a spade?"
I shook my head.
"That's okay." She stabbed her shovel into the ground near the back fence. "I got an extra. You could have it."
"Why not?" She pulled two baby plants, joined at their roots, apart. "These are sweet williams. They'll do good here. Look, you got evening primrose coming up." She brushed some leaves away and I could see pale green shoots poking through the earth. I ran my hand over the little nubs. Had they been growing all through the winter in the dark and the cold? Nancy brushed away more leaves and began yanking out clumps of dead stalks. I'd had unremarkable vegetable gardens a few times, but I'd never grown flowers and wasn't sure I wanted to start. But I knelt beside Nancy and yanked too. Then, as she patted the sweet williams in the ground and watered them in, she said, "Did you read all those books I saw you carrying when you moved in?"
"I should have helped you."
"'Cause you needed it? I'm a DPdumb Polack. I stayed back in the third grade. I can't spell."
"Spelling's overrated." I remembered from our earlier conversation that Nancy was a year older than I. Because she'd stayed back we probably had graduated high school in the same year. "I graduated in '68, too."
"Queen of the Prom." She jabbed her thumb at her chest.
"The Girl Who Got Pregnant." I jabbed my thumb at mine.
She howled. "You want a margarita?"
Nancy stopped by every day just to check in. If my dishes were dirty, she did them. She swept the floor; she watered my plants. "Sit down," I'd say. "I don't want to," she'd say back.
We made dump runs together, waded into the bay to clam, and rowed a boat out to scallop. We pedaled on our bikes by the light of the moon, through bulrushes rustling by our ears, past newly plowed fields that smelled of damp earth, by choppy inlets we could hear lapping in the distance. When the moon was full, we pedaled harder, and Nancy repeated every few minutes, "I'm mooning, man." Back home we were too stirred up to sleep, so we sipped tea in my kitchen and told stories. Nancy had played piano and guitar when she was younger and told me how she used to perform at teen mass. "It was All Saints' Day; I play `When the Saints Come Marching In,' and they kick me out. It was All Saints' Day! The morons. I never went back, not even when my cousin Sissy got married; I stood outside the door."
The sky that winter could be overcast for weeks, allowing not even a glimpse of the moon; but Nancy and I could tell when the moon was waxing or waning by the tone of our moods. The sea, the moon, the earth are all feminine, and perhaps because you couldn't walk from your house to your car without smelling or feeling them, there was a tradition of powerful women in Orient. When whale oil still lit the lamps of the world, the men left for long, two-year stretches to hunt the seas for whales. The women worked the land; they grew the food, raised the children, chopped the wood to heat their houses. I had heard rumors that there was a coven of witches in Orient, which I tended not to believe, especially once I heard the same rumor about Nancy and me. I knew for certain, though, that there was an enclave of lesbians. Half of the land was still farmed in Orient, and from the time the asparagus appeared early in the spring till the pumpkins and squash came late in the fall, stands dotted the roads "manned" by women. In this woman-dominated world, the very air I breathed made me feel planted, grounded, rooted, sane.
While my house continued to fill with Marys (on a felt banner as the Virgin of Guadalupe, she stood at the top of the stairs; in a small bedroom I planned to turn into my shrine room, she was a regal queen wearing a jeweled crown, with all of humanity nestled in her cape), I went outside my third spring in Orient and started to dig. I dug a garden along the back fence and a plot twenty feet by six in the lawn. I pulled onion grass for so many hours that when I closed my eyes at night I saw the white bulbs traveling through the earth like sperm. The sun warmed the back of my neck as my fingers reached into the damp earth like they were roots themselves. I stayed out in the rain. I kneeled in the mud; I didn't answer the phone. I had new deadlines: a bed to dig, seedlings to transplant, mulching, watering, feeding to do.
One day late that third spring, when the chestnut blossoms on the trees had already faded, I came in at sunset after a full day's gardening and stood at the bathroom sink to wash my hands. I glanced at my face in the mirror and noticed for the first time that it was next to Mary's face on the varnished print. It looked like we were standing next to each other. Mary wore a mysterious half-smile as her hand gently pointed to the red heart on her sky-blue dress; flames shot out the top (passion); a sword went right through it (pain); tears dripped down (sorrow); but beautiful pink roses made a ring around it, too (joy, celebration, beauty, grace, redemption).
That heart told a story like a novel. It was just like life: complicated, changing, never the same. And Mary was showing this to me. I started to weep and didn't know why. But I think it was from gratefulness. My heart wasn't feeling so cracked anymore. It was feeling like one of Mary's hearts: a sword had pierced it, but roses encircled it, too.
That summer I grew a dozen herbs; Borghese, San Remo, and cherry tomatoes so sweet they gave me a sugar rush. I grew beans and peppers, lettuces, squash, garlic. My sunflowers grew taller than my clothesline pole; my basil plants were as high as my hip. The hollyhocks towered over my shed. And the Canterbury bells grew into the purple trumpet flowers from my meditations three winters ago. The purple trumpets grew so abundantly and for so long I thought that surely my envisioning them day after day had nourished the real flowers as much as the vision had nourished me.
One day Nancy brought her friend Anthony, who'd gone into the seminary, to my backyard, and he declared it a miracle. Anthony said I'd summoned the divas. I thought divas were opera singers, but he told me these devas, with an e not an i, were the helpers of fairies, and when they sense love being poured into the earth, they come and pour whatever nutrients the plants need into the soil.
I had no idea I'd summoned the devas, and I had no idea I'd summoned Mary, either. I'd made a shrine of my house, and knowing a good opportunity when she sees one, the Blessed Mother came in.
* * *
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by these words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High." ... Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God. And now your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
The Gospel According to Luke
Mary did not just fall down on her knees and submit to whatever the angel from God proposed to her. She wondered what exactly this angel was saying, so the angel rushed to assure her that she would not be the only one giving birth under miraculous circumstances. The angel had visited Elizabeth too; Elizabeth had been barren but was now pregnant. The young cousin and the old cousin would have babies six months apart; their children would both be prophets. Elizabeth's was John the Baptist. When Mary hears that she is not alone, that her cousin will accompany her on this strange journeyand no doubt give her strength and supportshe takes heart. She believes that this angel in front of her is no hallucination, and courageously finds the faith to accept her fate. And so Mary says graciously, "Let it be ...," then wastes no time in departing to chit Elizabeth.