My grandmother was Catholic, my mother was raised Catholic, and so she tried to raise us as Catholics too. I consider myself a “Collapsed Catholic” and will usually check “none” on any form asking my religion. I never was able to assimilate, and have my issues with organized religion in general and the Catholic church specifically.
Along with certain beliefs and expectations came a bit of related paraphernalia, mostly by way of my grandmother. It was not unusual to find a holy medal pinned to your mattress or attached to the window visor in your car to keep you safe, or to be gifted a set of rosary beads in a small box. At one point in our growing up, my mother had procured some very beautiful olive wood relics originating in Italy, which included two detailed crucifixes. She hung these crosses over the beds of my sister and I.
Instead of feeling protected, I felt extremely uncomfortable sleeping beneath the image of a suffering, bleeding and crucified Jesus, even though it was beautifully rendered in olive wood and stain. I did not want my crucifix, and I expressed my distaste for it, even at a young age. Eventually my mother took it out of my room. I am not sure what became of Charlotte’s, but one ended up in my Mom’s bedroom, and one of them eventually found its way into my aunt’s home, where it remains today.
Most likely from the same source, she presented my sister and I with olive wood statues of the Virgin Mary. They were finely carved and lightly stained with color. My sister Charlotte’s statue was of a slender Mary in blue and white robes who stood upon the world with her hand benevolently stretched outwards and a benign smile. The Virgin Mary given to me held flowers in one hand, but the other hand was touching her heart, which was outside of her chest and glowing (or burning, or bleeding) and surrounded by roses. Just like the Jesus suffering over my bed, this Mary seemed also to be in some pain, perhaps more internal. Maybe I identified with that on some visceral level.
My mother’s purpose in giving us these statues was not entirely clear to me, but I acknowledge that it was out of love and perhaps meant also for protection, or focus. It meant something to her. So the Mary sat on a shelf in my room amidst the row of Breyer model horses I used to collect.
When I grew up and moved away, Mary always ended up packed in a box, following me. Maybe it was just because my mother gave her to me that I allowed her presence, but for years she would reside tucked beside a book on a book shelf, or standing among the bottles of perfume, hair clips, candles and picture frames on my dresser. When I let go of some of the items from my past – my beloved model horses, the Peruvian statue given to me by my fifth grade teacher, my original 1969 poster of the Woodstock festival on White Lake, my high school diploma, ribbons won at horse shows – when I eliminated these things from my life in a moment of change, the Virgin Mary always survived the cut and remained……even though I was not religious. I didn’t think about it much, but she was just always there.
All grown up with a family, the Mary statue eventually found its way onto a shelf of knickknacks in my kitchen, right above the sink. There were five of us living in the house at the time. We did not have a dish washer, and it seems I was always doing the dishes, making a meal, cleaning up in that kitchen. I lived in that room. We lived in that room. That is where the dog slept, where the fish tank was, where we kept the lizards; that was the room that had the bird feeder outside of it and a view of the garden. That was where we would cram in extra chairs and extend the table and have Thanksgiving For Strays and birthday parties and cups of tea. The kids and I closed the doors and huddled around that stove while I kept on baking to keep warm when we had no heat. Mary stood on that shelf just above eye-level, looking down at me, watching over us, and one day it just came to me that she was Our Lady of the Perpetual Kitchen. I felt that was a fitting name and that she presided over the home in the most obvious place, a place of honor at the helm of the action.
And so she was that for many years, until one day my mother came to visit and noticed the location of the statue. She felt that Mary deserved a more fitting place than hovering over the dishes in the sink, and when I told her that she was Our Lady of the Perpetual Kitchen, she indicated that it was a bit disrespectful and asked if she could take the Mary home with her. It seemed to mean more to her than to me, so I gave her back to my Mom.
Our Lady spent the next number of years on my mother’s polished maple dresser in her clean, quiet bedroom, next to her jewelry box and with her back to a large mirror. The original Jesus on the cross was also in her room – I am not sure if it was mine or Charlotte’s. These items seemed to give my mother comfort. And that is where they remained until the day she died.
When we were cleaning out my mother’s home, I took Our Lady back home with me. I left the Jesus crucifix, which was taken by Aunt M, who hung it up in her house and has no knowledge of its true history. Last time I saw her she announced to us that she wonders who she will leave her beautiful crucifix from Italy to when she dies. I hope it is not me.
Back in my home, Mary spent the next few years tucked into a corner of the pine hutch in the dining room with the “good” dishes and “special” things. But now she resides in the guest room.
I call it “The Deity Room” because there is a lovely painted cloth on the wall of Krishna dancing with the Gopis. On top of a Mexican chest are a number of statues of Sarasvati and Ganesha. There is a carved wooden statue of The Virgin of Guadalupe in that room, which I had bought for my mother when she got sick. I felt Our Lady of the Perpetual Kitchen would fit right in there, and she does.
Today when I was dusting the chest and all the Deities, I picked up Our Lady and took a good look at her again; her downward cast eyes, her Roman nose, her glowing heart coming out of her chest. I decided to look up The Immaculate Heart. This is what it said:
“The Immaculate Heart of Mary is a devotional name used to refer to the interior life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, her joys and sorrows, her virtues and hidden perfections, and, above all, her virginal love for God the Father, her maternal love for her son Jesus, and her compassionate love for all persons”.
It took me fifty years to get it. I wish I could talk to my mother right now.