Mother Mary as in a Dream, Raton, NM, photos © 2008 by
ybonesy. All rights reserved.
Last Wednesday afternoon I found myself in one of the best spots I could imagine, with my parents and oldest sister, and in the company of my beloved grandparents and best-ever uncle. We were in the cemetery in Raton, New Mexico, where Grandma, Grandpa, and Uncle Pat are buried.
I get my love of cemeteries from Mom. I didn’t know how much she loved them until this visit. I usually go to cemeteries with my dad; each Memorial Day we make the trek to Costilla, the place where his parents are buried. But on this particular trip Mom asked if we could stop in Raton to see her parents and brother. “I love cemeteries,” she told me as we left our relatives’ headstones and began exploring the grounds.
We walked all over the cemetery. The dry grass crackled under our feet. Most of the headstones were small and unassuming.
“Oh, there’s Joe Gourley,” Mom said. Joe was the son of a rich man in Raton, who Mom still calls “Mr. Gourley.” Joe Gourley, the son, went to war. When he came back he shot himself. Mom did the math in her head to make sure this was the right Joe Gourley, the one she knew who killed himself. “Yep, that would be about right.”
The June day my grandmother was buried here, we attended a funeral mass. According to my imperfect memory, it was a High Mass with incense and big drops of Holy water splashed in our faces. The priest, dressed in white robes and a white cap, bellowed a sermon of doom. I don’t know why this particular service seemed so gloomy to me — it was held in 1985, when I was 24 and gloomy myself — but I remember it plucked the chords of the guilt side of our Catholic faith. I felt resentful and confused. Was he talking about my grandmother or were his messages intended for us?
My relationship with Catholicism is complex, influenced, I think, by Mom’s own complex relationship with the Church. She rebelled against Dad’s absolute piety, and she strained against the rigidity — the intolerance — with which some Catholic priests ruled their parishes in those days.
If pressed, she might be apt to say something like, “I don’t believe in God.” Yet she was a believer. She was just unwilling to concede the fact.
At the rosary held for Grandma the night before her burial, Mom sat in the front right-hand side of the church. A benevolent Virgin Mary dressed in blue and white robes stood silently in the nicho of a wall facing Mom and her youngest sister, Connie. My grandmother’s death was a blow for my mother. Mom called my grandmother “Mama” up until the day she died — she still does. They were close, talking for hours each week. Mom cried and cried through the Our Fathers and Hail Marys. At one point, she peered through her veil of tears and saw that the Virgin Mary was crying, too.
“Tears came down her cheeks, we saw them!” Mom pleaded afterwards. Both she and Connie saw the tears. Later on, before the funeral mass the next day, we went to see if the Virgin Mary statue had raised porcelain tears on her cheeks. There were none. Still, I believed.
Beverly Donofrio in her book Looking for Mary says that when the spirit of the Virgin Mary is nearby, so too is the smell of roses. I remember Mom used to like everything — lotion, perfume, candles — that smelled of roses. Old lady smell, I always thought, even though for years of birthdays and Mother’s Days, I gave her rose-fragranced-anything-I-could-find.
I can’t recall now the last time I thought to give Mom anything having to do with roses. It’s only today that I remember how much she loved that unmistakable fragrance.
One of the photos I took on Wednesday caught my eye as I pored through the shots from that day in the cemetery. It is a small statue of Mary. She sits on the ground, a short distance from the marble headstone of the person she graces. All around the Mary statue are needles and small branches from a nearby pine. I have picked her only because of who she is, not because I know the person buried there. I have to almost lie on the grave myself to get down low enough to photograph the statue.
In the photo of her I notice a shaft of light, thin and almost imperceptible, coming down over her right eye. She is completely white, but there on that right eye is a speck of dirt exactly where her iris would be.
It is not earth-shattering. It is not the stuff that draws throngs of believers. It’s dirt and a small ray of light. It could be nothing. It’s easy to miss.
I call Mom and tell her about the photo. “Oh, really?” she says. She sounds intrigued. A lot has happened in the 23 years since her mother died. Over the years and through various family crises, my mother has turned to her imperfect faith and made it something all of us can hold on to. She prays a rosary every day. Her rebellious self has changed. You can still see remnants of it but she no longer rebels just for the sake of rebelling.
“What do you think,” she asks, “is it a little miracle?” I tell her I’m not sure but that I’ll bring by my computer so that she can see for herself. “I believe in miracles, you know,” she tells me.