24 Dec A Christmas with Mary
A Short Story by Beverly De Soto
Walking home from school was when it started. I had been walking the mile and a half home since I was seven years old, so by the time I was twelve, it was second nature to me.
I trudged along, oblivious to the traffic speeding past me. My gaze was usually riveted downwards, past my knife-pleated tartan plaid uniform skirt, to my dark green knee socks which disappeared into my despised brown Oxfords. Through piles of dusty leaves on uneven pavements, across busy intersections, up steep roads innocent of anything remotely resembling a sidewalk, I hitched my heavy knapsack over my shoulder for the millionth time, and soldiered on.
The tedium was alleviated by walking part of the way with Amy, my best friend in the seventh grade. We’d confide in each other about which boy we liked, and who we thought liked who in our class of twenty-five Catholic kids in a middlebrow suburb of New York.
It was 1970, and though the news was full of campus revolutionaries and restive ghettos, we were oblivious to the social revolution raging around us. For us, social life was sleepover parties, gossip and endless fantasies about whether and when the boy we liked would ever acknowledge our existence.
Amy was shorter than me, with large, gray-green eyes and thick golden brown hair. She was the second child of five; the Bachots lived in a gloomy house which smelled of cats, halfway on my daily trek home. Amy’s father was balding and amiable. He was always watching his family, his dark eyes filled with anxiety.
Small, dark and shy, Mrs. Bachot seemed to live in her nightgown. Sometimes she’d greet us in her reed-thin voice; other times she would remain invisible for a whole rainy afternoon as we sprawled in their finished basement consuming Oreos, enthralled by The Archie’s ‘bubble gum’ rock music.
Amy’s older brother was glamorous — a famous ‘head’ already in the high school; he had a garage band that played Neil Young, and long stringy hair. Sometimes, I would encounter him banging his hasty way out the front door, heedless of his mother’s reproachful calls. Amy hero-worshipped him, and deeply resented the almost-constant babysitting of her younger siblings thrust upon her. Mrs. Bachot often needed to lie down in her room.
Amy and I never spoke about these things. My own mother was a mystery to me; I never knew which version of her I would encounter when I finally knocked on our front door. I wasn’t allowed to have a key. If she happened to be out in inclement weather, I had to start canvassing the neighbors for a warm place to wait. If the weather was good, I’d camp out on the front steps, ducking behind the bushes so the neighbors couldn’t see me.
If my mother was home, I would brace myself. As the heavy front door opened, her expression would reveal what my life would be like for the rest of the day. Once in a blue moon, she would greet me with a friendly smile, and then my worries would slide off my shoulders along with the heavy knapsack. Most of the time, however, I received a shrug and an indifferent glance. About once every few weeks, her blue eyes would shoot me a cold gleam, and my heart would sink like a stone.
And so it was that on the last leg of my way home, after leaving Amy at her house, my thoughts would take wing. Accustomed to the supernatural after eight years of Catholic schooling, I had no doubt at all that both heaven and hell existed.
I didn’t know anyone personally who was in either place. The closest I came was my father’s mother, who had died a decade before I was born. In point of fact, I was in Catholic school because of Grandma Concetta. My father had insisted because that’s what our family did: we sent the girls to Catholic school because they would be the ones to pass on the Faith. His mother had given him the Faith; he made sure to pass this most precious of treasures on to me. My mother, after a brief protest because of the cost, had reluctantly agreed.
It was on my walks back from school that I started to talking to Our Lady.
I knew she’d appeared at Lourdes, and at Fatima – faraway places I could barely picture. But in both places, she had appeared to girls like me. They were girls engaged in the lonely work that some children must do – gathering firewood like Bernadette, herding goats like Lucia, or walking the long way home alone, like me.
Of course, I knew that these girls were much holier than I was. Bernadette and Lucia probably didn’t have revolving door crushes like I did, which changed every week. In any event, they didn’t hitch up their too-long uniform skirts in the school bathroom, use Vaseline to darken their eyelashes or dance around their friend’s cellar singing, “Sugar, Sugar”.
Our Lady was my real mother, I knew. Looking up, I would compare her pearly floor-length gown with the fluffy clouds above and her mantle to the blue sky. If I prayed hard enough, would she appear to me, gliding on one of those clouds, skimming down to me on a golden sunray?
Or perhaps I would hear her other-worldly-yet-musical voice, suddenly calling to me out of a dark corner in the familiar wooded park that I passed every day? I would steal sideways glances into the dim green gloom as I hurried by, half-thinking there was Someone in there, daydreaming that she would appear and take me with her on a magical journey.
My ugly Catholic school uniform would be suddenly transformed into a beautiful sky-blue evening gown. My dark, unruly mop of hair would turn honey blonde, piled elegantly on my head like Miss America. My crush-of-the-moment would catch sight of me, transformed, and suddenly would become everything I dreamt of in a boyfriend – attentive, funny, calm, masterful and kind. I would be able to fly, to become invisible and to walk through walls, too. All of these powers would enable me to right wrongs, and to fight for the Good, the Beautiful and the True.
This half-Cinderella fantasy, half-prayerful meditation would carry me all the way to the front door of my house, especially on those days when I dreaded home the most. On this particular Friday afternoon, I had reason to fear going home. My parents had had a flaming row the night before, and I was unable to sleep until late. In consequence, I had overslept, fled the house that morning at a run, and arrived late to school, again.
It was Advent, and our school days were full of breathless excitement as the countdown to Christmas commenced. The days were cold and rainy, typical for New York in early December. Deep into my fantasy as I dallied on my way home that afternoon, I had been so enraptured that I had barely noticed the big light-blue Chevy with the creamy white interior parked in our driveway – my aunt’s car.
My father’s youngest sister, Mary, was my godmother. Never married, at 35 she worked for IBM as a secretary. Small, neat and a perfect size 5, she haunted the department stores sales, searching out bargains for herself and her three nieces. My cousins and I adored her.
“We’re going Christmas shopping – and for Chinese food!” Mary announced gaily when she opened our front door. Somewhere in the background, my mother lurked gloomily.
“Zia-Zia Mary!” I exclaimed, hugging her. She smelled of Chanel No. 5.
“Honey, change your clothes and pack your things,” she smiled at me.
“I can sleep over your house?” I cried, delighted with this turn of events. I looked uncertainly at my mother, who nodded in a perfunctory way. I hung my head, feeling guilty, but slipped away to pack nonetheless.
That night Zia-Zia Mary and I sat, looking at each other across a snowy linen tablecloth. ‘Little Drummer Boy’ played softly in the background on the Chinese restaurant’s music system. We were sipping scalding hot tea after finishing our meal of chow mein and spare ribs.
We had spent the afternoon whirling around the shops. She had bought me my first pair of Levi’s –de rigeur for any aspiring cool teenager in 1970.
“Soon, you’ll be a crazy teenager,” she teased, and we laughed, remembering the antics of my girl cousins just a few years before.
Chinese food was new to me. I felt very exotic as I studied my aunt’s delicate fingers demonstrating how to grip the unfamiliar chopsticks. As we ate, she had smiled and nodded mildly as I chattered on about my friend Amy and confided the details of my current crush, but she didn’t seem too concerned. This was a tremendous relief, accustomed as I was to my mother’s frowning on any scant interest I might show in teenage things.
“Do you pray, honey?” Mary’s question came out of the blue.
I eyed her warily.
“Y-yes of course,” I replied automatically. “At school we pray all the time,” I finished, rolling my eyes in an attempt at humor. “The nuns make sure of that.”
Mary smiled again, patiently.
“No, I mean do you pray when you’re alone?”
I thought hard. Did I pray a whole Rosary? Only when I couldn’t get to sleep. Did I pray a quick Hail Mary or an Our Father? Sometimes, yes, by my bed at night. I didn’t let my mother see, however, for fear of her reaction. On the topic of God and the Church, my mother was firm. She didn’t need to be in a church to talk to her God, she told me severely. She had a direct line to Him, if and when she needed it.
“S-sometimes,” I answered lamely.
Mary shrugged, and smiled.
“It’s good to pray,” she said. “We all need prayer.”
I nodded, uncertain about where this was going.
“You know, you’ll be going to high school before you know it,” she said.
I nodded again, briefly flashing on my recurrent fantasy of my future high school life as a dazzling cheerleader.
“And all sorts of things can happen then,” she added, a note of uncertainty creeping into her voice.
All of a sudden it dawned on me. Zia-Zia Mary was going to give me ‘The Talk’! Probably my mother had despaired of the attempt, and therefore had agreed to this outing so that Mary could tell me about the ‘birds and the bees.’
“Zia,” I stopped her, smiling broadly. “You don’t have to do this.”
Mary’s brow knitted, and she reached for a cigarette.
“Do what?” she asked innocently, lighting her cigarette with a Bic lighter.
“I already know everything,” I lied glibly.
“Yeah?” she said, trying to repress a smile. “And how do you know everything?”
“I read,” I assured her confidently. My whole family knew what a voracious reader I was. “I got a book out of the library.”
Mary looked unconvinced. She folded her arms, blew out a stream of smoke, and waited.
“And I know,” I continued smoothly. “I know that boys are only out for one thing.”
At that, she laughed outright.
This made me laugh, too, though I wasn’t sure why.
“Not necessarily. But anyway, what’s your plan?” she asked, smiling broadly.
“For high school?” I asked nervously. “Well, I’ll be taking all honors courses. So of course I’ll only be dating smart boys.”
“Smart boys,” she echoed, deadpan.
“Yep. I cannot stand stupid boys,” I confided breezily.
Mary nodded soberly, and took a drag on her cigarette.
“Honey, you’re a smart girl,” she said gently. “And you’re growing up to be a pretty girl. By the time you’re in high school, you’ll have plenty of boys interested in you. I’m not worried about that.”
“The problem is that times are changing,” she said with a sigh. “Boys don’t respect girls like they did when I was your age.”
It was my turn to smile indulgently. How could my middle-aged aunt know about what boys were like these days?
But she read my mind.
“We have college interns from Princeton at IBM,” she said, shortly. “They talk.”
I smiled tolerantly at her.
“Honey,” she said, frowning slightly. “I asked you about prayer. I also asked you about your plan. Hear me out.”
She took a deep breath and looked me squarely in the eyes.
“Your parents fight a lot, right?”
I nodded dumbly, taken aback.
“You want a boyfriend, right?”
I shrugged and nodded again, this time sheepishly.
“You think that prayer is what you say to God, right?”
I shrugged. What was she getting at?
“Listen to me,” she said intensely. “There’s a lot of lost kids out there, believe me, who think like you do. Smart kids, too.”
She sighed again, and stubbed her cigarette out. Then she signaled to the waiter to bring the check. Finally, she turned around to face me.
“Did you ever wonder why I’m not married?” She said it so simply that it shocked me.
“U-um… you n-never found the right guy?” I ventured, embarrassed. She had had her chances, according to my mother’s version of events. But Mary was ‘too choosy.’ I had wondered at that. Did this mean that I had to ‘settle’ in order to get married? Indeed, had my mother ‘settled’? What about Amy’s parents? Were they miserable because they had ‘settled’?
Mary shrugged and sighed again.
“Actually, I was like you. I had a plan, and when I talked to God, I told Him what I wanted out of life.” The corners of her mouth tightened. “And of course, your grandmother died when I was younger than you are now, so I didn’t have a mother to guide me.”
She stopped talking, and looked at me. I nodded slowly, beginning to understand.
“Y-you didn’t have a mother to guide you. Kind of like me,” I whispered, thinking of Amy, too.
“Yes,” she said calmly. Her warm brown eyes caught mine. “I had a plan, though. I thought I found the one when I was 17. We met in high school. I was popular. He was popular, too. Everybody liked him.”
I nodded, and waited.
“He went into the military after high school. I was going to wait for him,” she said, with emotion. “Well, let’s just say that things didn’t work out.”
“W-what happened?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking.
“He found someone else,” she said shortly. “He married a nurse he met in the service.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Then I was a bridesmaid at a lot of weddings,” she went on in a quiet voice, looking down at her lap. “I started dating, and I prayed. Every week, at Mass, I kept it up — telling God what kind of man I wanted.”
She paused a moment to collect herself. I hardly dared to breathe.
“Oh, I wanted a guy with an office job, you know,” she went on, finally. “A guy who didn’t get dirty when he went to work. And we would have two kids, and a nice house.”
I nodded. Zia-Zia Mary lived in the old Italian neighborhood in an apartment shared with her married sister and brother-in-law and my grandfather, upstairs from her married brother and his wife and kids.
“But God never delivered,” she said quietly. “None of those plans worked out.”
There was an awkward silence. To my immense relief, the waiter appeared with the check. When he left, my aunt turned around to face me. Her expression had softened.
“Honey, you can do everything right, and still have no luck,” she said kindly. “That’s why I’m telling you to pray. Don’t tell God what you think you want. Instead, ask Him to help you see what it is that He has in mind for you. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I nodded uncertainly. Then, for some reason, I thought of my daily walk home.
“D-do you know the story of Lourdes?” I asked her, suddenly.
“The Blessed Mother appeared to a girl in France,” she replied, looking curious. “Bernadette. I saw the movie. Why?”
“Y-you don’t think she would ever appear nowadays, do you?” I asked tentatively.
“Could happen,” she ventured, slowly. “We never know, right? Why do you ask?”
Embarrassed, I noticed the tiny golden brooch on her winter white sweater.
“That’s nice,” I ventured, in a desperate attempt to change the subject.
“Oh you like this?” she said, glancing down carelessly. And before I could stop her, she’d removed the sparkling piece and placed it on my napkin.
“What’s this?” I asked uncertainly.
“A little present,” she said softly, sliding me a sideways grin.
“Wow!” I said, as I gazed at the small circlet of gold with a pink gem. I looked up at her, speechless, and a little worried. If it was valuable, my mother would probably make me give it back.
Mary read my thoughts.
“It’s not real,” she grinned. “Don’t worry. It’s no big deal.”
I fingered the pin and smiled back at her, relieved. But she wasn’t easy to side-track.
“So why did you ask me about Lourdes?”
“W-well, when I walk home from school, I think about Our Lady.” And before I could stop myself, it all came out in a rush. How I dawdled on my way home after leaving Amy at her house, daydreaming about Our Lady.
“So, do you pray the Rosary?”
“Sometimes,” I told her honestly. “But not often. Mostly I just think about her. Do you think I’m crazy?”
My aunt regarded me benevolently, in silence.
“No,” she said finally. “Not crazy. But I do think that maybe, she’s actually thinking about you.”
“Huh? You mean when I walk home?”
“Yes. Maybe she’s a little worried about you. And she makes herself known to you on your walk home from school because that’s when you are open to it.”
That’s when I told her about the woods, and my feeling that there was a Presence in there.
“Well,” she said soberly after I had finished. “First of all, I want you to promise me that you will never go into those woods. You have no idea what’s actually in there. Promise?”
A little shocked, I promised.
“B-but how can I get her to, to…”
“…to speak to you?” Mary finished my sentence. She was gazing at me intently.
Sheepishly, I nodded. Despite my daydreams, I knew the idea was preposterous.
“Have you ever heard of St Louis De Montfort?”
“Um, no,” I replied, confused.
“Well, he was a French priest who lived in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. He had a special devotion to Our Lady, and wrote several books about her,” she explained. “Maybe when you’re older you can read them.”
I couldn’t imagine anything more boring, but I nodded patiently anyway, and waited.
“There’s a little prayer he wrote, and I’ve adapted,” she said. “And I wish I had prayed this when I was your age.” Then she took a deep breath, and recited, ‘I renounce my will. I turn my will over to thee, Mary, my true mother, to lay at the feet of thy Son. Not my will, but His Will be done.’”
I didn’t quite know what to say. Mary read the confusion on my face.
“You have a strong will,” she said gently. “Just like me – and your cousins, if you want to know the truth.” She grinned wryly.
“So what’s wrong with that?” I retorted, a bit heatedly.
“Nothing, except you can be so busy trying to make your own will happen that you don’t listen to what God wants for you,” she said. “Lots of times, as I learned, God doesn’t go along with our plans.”
I sighed impatiently, but she ignored me.
“I had lots of big plans, honey,” she said sadly. “And most of them came to nothing. It was only when I found this prayer and worked hard to say it, over and over again, that things changed for me.”
“Yeah?” I said, a bit intrigued despite myself.
“You see, when we give the Blessed Mother our will, when we turn it all over to her, we feel a weight slide off our shoulders,” she said, intently. “At least I do. And then when we ask her to help us see what God wants us to do – and this is key – things get easier. That is how you can get her to speak to you.”
“Y-you mean s-she will appear to me?” I asked warily.
At this, Mary laughed her merry, tinkling laugh, wrinkling her nose.
“Probably not, honey,” she said gently. “She only appears to people when she has a message for the whole world.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling foolish.
“But if you go to her, and lay your will at her feet and tell her –‘Please, I think I know what I want, but I know that God’s will is what needs to be done. Show me His will, and make it crystal clear, so I don’t mistake it’ — she will hear you.”
Intrigued, I cautiously turned this idea over in my mind.
“So if God is in control, and nothing happens that He doesn’t permit,” I said carefully, thinking out loud. “Does this mean that we can either get on board with His Will, or get run over by it?”
“Well, you could say that,” she replied, smiling broadly. “But how about this? St Francis once said, ‘Lord make me an instrument of Your peace.’ What do you think he meant by that?”
“Um, that he wanted to be a peacenik?” I said, thinking of the anti-war protests in the news.
At that, she laughed, and shook her head.
“Well, some people nowadays interpret Francis that way,” she said, her eyes dancing with amusement. “But notice that he says, ‘Make me an instrument’. He is telling God that he wants to be made an instrument of God’s Will.”
“R-right,” I said, uncomprehending.
“So, you know that God respects our free will, right?”
“So here’s our choices, then. You can try to bend life to your will; I can tell you that hasn’t gotten me very far. You can try to lay low, and be passively swept along. Lots of people do that. Or you can actively ask, like Francis, to be made an instrument of His Will.”
“Yeah?” I said again, in an abstracted way.
“But I have to warn you,” she stressed. “If you ask to be made an Instrument of His Will, fasten your seat belt because you’re in for a wild ride.”
I thought about my walking-home fantasies, where for months on end I had been day-dreaming about being chosen to do great things.
“Really?” I asked, feeling excited and scared at the same time. “But how do I know when I see it? I mean, that something is God’s will?”
My aunt looked at me with great affection in her eyes.
“I can’t explain it,” she said slowly. “All I can say is that you will know, because things will unfold before you. When God wants something to happen, the doors fly open. If He doesn’t, no matter how hard you bang on that door, it won’t open. Your job is to keep praying, keep asking for guidance, and keep trusting.”
This wasn’t what I wanted to hear. What about seeing Mary?
“But if I’m supposed to be so trusting, why do you say I should stay out of the woods? What if she is in there, waiting for me?”
“Our Lady can do anything she wants,” she explained carefully. “But she is good, and she would never lure you into a potentially dangerous situation. That’s one important way that you can tell if it’s truly her directing you to do things. If you feel like what you’re about to do is something dangerous — or something you might someday be ashamed of – that’s not her guiding your steps.”
I nodded thoughtfully.
“That’s the other guy,” Mary said significantly, rolling her eyes exaggeratedly and pointing downwards.
We both laughed, and stood up to leave. The Chinese waiters, eager to close up, smiled and handed us our shopping bags. Outside, we stood buttoning our coats against the cold. Under the blinking Christmas lights, I turned to look at her.
“Zia-Zia Mary, are you happy?” I asked softly, unable to keep from asking.
“Me?” Surprised by the question, she turned her dark head towards me, chuckled softly and squeezed my arm. When she spoke, her smile was broad.
“I’m as happy as we can be — in this life, honey,” she said tenderly. Her breath made clouds in the chill night air. “That’s about all we can expect. We love, and we pray. And we let God handle the rest.”
With that, she pinned the tiny golden brooch with the winking pink gem to my green woolen winter coat. Then we started, treading carefully on the slick sidewalk, towards her car.
A few flakes floated like a benediction, sparkling in the light of the street lamps.
It had begun to snow.
Dedicated with love and gratitude to my aunt, Domenica Mary De Soto (1935-1983).Ripose en pace, Zia-Zia Mary.+