A loved one told me a few weeks ago that it was a waste of time to pray. That my waking up early in the morning to do so was futile. I thought of my tattered prayer-book that I tuck under my pillow, within reach, in both the light of day and the dark.
Enraged. “I have been praying my whole life,” I answered
While true, there was a time I stopped. Ceased prayer, as if God could be extinguished. Then prayer made its way back to me.
The first time I remember praying I was five or six years old. Scared, I crawled under my bed, looked up the wooden slats, and whispered a Hail Mary, and then another, and one more after that. Bed sheets hung down low, it was hard to see the world from this place. I heard Mami’s voice in the distance. I turned on my side, and burrowed myself.
It was Mami who had forced me into hiding in the first place.
When I first heard the term rageoholic, I recognized my mother. Never a time that Mami was not prone to rants, which turned to the wild fires of rage. Mami’s voice forever sounded an alarm in my chest, but when she hated the world, well a convoy blaring engines pulsated through my body. Calm, steady, and reasonable, seldom occupied Mami’s state of mind. But, on that day in particular, Mami’s sand colored face was smooth and even, at first. Then, taunted and insulted, an argument ensued with Mami and our neighbor Angela’s home attendant.
Mami sat down to have cafe in Angela’s apartment. I circled around the women in the kitchen, a broom in hand. Mami bragged to her friends that I loved to clean. And, forever in search of her approval, I told myself I loved to clean, and grew to believe it.
“I pray all the time,” Mirian pressed her hands together in prayer. “But, I only pray to Jesus. I don’t believe in La Virgen.”
Mami’s eyes bulged.
My heart joined. La Virgencita, Mami had always insisted was more of a mother to her than her own. And, Joann and I were to hold La Virgen with the same adoration, and to do anything less was criminal.
“She’s a common woman. Why would I pray to her?” Mirian shook her head back and forth, as if the motion explained her blasphemy.
Glued to Mami’s reaction, unable to push the broom, I held my breath.
“You must understand one thing and one thing only,” Mami slammed her hands on the table. “Con la virgen no te metas.” Her voice thundered.
“Ok, everyone is entitled to their opinions,” Angela said. She sat between Mami and Mirian in her wheelchair. The pancreatic cancer had scooped her hallow, within months Angela would succumb to the disease.
Unable to be reasoned with. Mami shouted her love to the Blessed Mother with the fervor of a Menudo fan in the 80’s.
Mirian, unwilling to acquiesce, repeated her opinion over and over, each time a bit louder.
Rattled by Mami and Mirian’s voice. The heat that rose from the space between their chest and throat. I worried that I’d be engulfed by their flames. I bolted out of the apartment unnoticed. And hid. And prayed.
After the uproar about the Blessed Mary, Mami discovered Catholic vigils in honor of the Holy Mother in Bayside Queens Angela’s youngest daughter, Licey, swallowed by the grief of her mother’s death, accompanied Mami to the first vigil. Licey a self proclaimed former wild child had found God, as Angela was dying, was now devout. Deemed Catholic and legit by both Mami and Licey. Joann and I attended the next one alongside them. Licey’s husband Bob, drove us in his run down Chevy, on a Friday evening. Quiet the whole ride there, the only sound to escape Bob was the inhale and exhale as he smoked countless Marlboro Lights.
Once there Bob pulled close to the main entrance of the park. An Irish Catholic bartender, Bob didn’t join us. Bob preferred to nap in the car till it was time to drive back home. Mami and Licey unloaded the trunk: lawn chairs, a coffee thermos, and blankets. I looked towards Joann and wondered how long this vigil would be. But, neither of us dared to ask. Mami and Licey slapped crocheted doilies on the top of their heads, both dressed in long skirts, and each with a strap around their neck. Mami a pair of binoculars, and Licey a Polaroid. I looked up at the night sky, and felt the urge to laugh. This made no sense. I clamped my lips shut. The absence of light meant I could not read, and I could not pretend to be somewhere else.
Loud speakers were set up all along the park, and on stage a small brown-haired woman recited the rosary. Mami said her name was Veronica and that Mary had appeared to her. I opened my eyes wide, old enough to disbelieve, but to young to understand why. Throngs of people gathered around the stage, and the click of rosary beads filled the air. Joann and I trailed behind Mami and Licey with a fold up chair under our arms. I looked all around me. It was spring, so the evening air was brisk, and I noted that many had on sweaters and thin jackets. Mami had insisted we wear long sleeves, a sweater, and on top a jacket. I tried to wiggle out of the jacket, but too tight I got nowhere, as the layers beneath restricted me. Annoyed I looked at Mami, steps ahead. Mami marched like a solider intent on obeying orders, back straight, gait fast, and her hands at her sides, Mami was never at ease. Even at this religious vigil, Mami was extreme.
Mami parked herself under a tree, pulled out her silver rosary, and began to recite the rosary a loud in Spanish. Licey bilingual, prayed in English, her arms open like a priest at the altar. Joann and I set camp beside her. We entertained ourselves playing with the flyers about Veronica’s life story that were passed around. I folded them into paper fans or fortune tellers, and hoped time picked up speed. But, in between the incessant rosary chant, Licey and Mami took pictures. They both titled their heads back and snapped pictures at the night sky. Seconds later their wrists snapped, fast back and forth, and then waved the photos to expose the image. Their heads pressed together as they studied the pictures. Most of the time they said nothing, but sometimes they let out short gasps. They examined every inch of the photographs, and only then passed them to Joann and I.
I expected to see the silhouette of Mary, perhaps Jesus in the night sky. But, instead they were ribbons of light that curled and lined the dark. No pattern or shape that formed any type of letter, no great revelation. Once those ribbons formed what looked like three number sixes, Mami and Licey shrieked in horror, and showed those around them. I watched them excited to find answers, but not privy to their questions, I just looked away. I composed my own questions. Why couldn’t Mami be normal? Why didn’t Papi try to stop Mami from these schemes? Why would La Virgencita appear in a park in Queens of all places? And why did Mami need to believe so bad?
But others seemed to enjoy Baysider vigils simply because the ritual made them feel close to Mary, Jesus, and God in a way that traditional Catholic services did not.
If you were to ask Mami about those vigils now she would hold firm that the Virgencita was there in between the trees, in the beats between each Hail Mary recited, in the way everyone walked around and shared stories about Mary. How La Virgencita had interceded on their behalf, and now were believers. Saved. Perhaps even in those pictures that captured all the dark, but one sliver of light.
We went to those vigils for months. Once I even went dressed in my Communion dress. And each time Mami snapped pictures at the sky like a paparazzi, recited the rosary with the piety of a cloistered nun, and waited for an apparition with Linus like belief, but instead of a pumpkin, Mami waited for Mary. I hated those vigils. Beside that they were long and boring, and that I wished to be home watching that night’s ABC lineup of sitcoms, those vigils scared me. I worried my mother had lost her mind. Now, I know it wasn’t that at all. This was how Mami saved herself. How she kept herself from being swallowed by her life. A past that hung heavy on her back. A present that threatened to capsize her.
This summer my writing teacher for a week at the NYPL scholars and writers Cullman Center, Salvatore Scibona said, writing at its best is a holy experience. Yes. I nodded my head. He knew. And, that’s a lot like my writing these days. I go and write, and hope to be saved.