It doesn’t feel like spring to most of us this year, but the calendar, stubborn and rigid as it is, insists that it is upon us, that we are nearly to May.
And if you were ever a little girl in Catholic school, May was also a month in which you might have hoped that your long dark hair and attempts at serene countenance might suddenly be viewed as unmistakably like Our Lady’s. You might have worked to memorize all of the words to the Marian hymns—On this day, O beautiful mother! On this day, we give you our love!—singing with a conviction you hoped would cause the nuns to take note of both your beautiful voice and your ability to sing without the paper, your hands conveniently free to carry, say, a crown of flowers.
For such a girl, there was no greater honor than to be picked for the May Crowning. To carry the circle of flowers to the statue of Mary, leading the procession across the bright green grass at the water’s edge, while the whole school sang, their song papers rattling in the spring breeze: Bring flowers of the fairest! Bring flowers of the rarest! To stride slowly and reverently to the statue on the pedestal, and to place the crown of flowers gently on her head. O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today! Queen of the Angels! Queen of the May! To find yourself so close to Our Lady herself.
I am going to tell you a secret, one that has been a longing in my heart since I was that girl, one which strides, slowly and reverently, behind only my promise to tell the truth. And both the secret and the truth is this: My search for a devotion, a closeness to Mother Mary has played out much like the May Crownings of my youth. I have tried very hard, and have learned all the words, but it does not seem to have worked. I was not chosen. Year after year, I found myself so much farther away from Our Lady than I had hoped, envying the ones who were so close.
I felt bad about this for a long time.
Over the years, I tried to make it better; I wore a large oval medal on a long chain which often swung against my appropriately pregnant belly, and for a while, a silver rosary bracelet which I recently found tarnished beyond recognition. I made promises and resolutions about the rosary, but still I became distracted, ending up off-script. For years, I did Bible Study with my girlfriends from church, many of whom enjoyed devotions to Mary that were impossibly and enviably both iron-clad and soft at the same time, residing in them as completely and effortlessly as their breath. But the part about the Bible Study that felt most holy to me was the part when we laughed and cried together about the struggles and the failures of motherhood and family life, of our children and of ourselves. I ended up mostly developing only a deeper devotion to my girlfriends.
This is not surprising when you consider how poorly I relate to people on pedestals. I have so little in common with perfect people and Mary is a ringer: born without sin, which is the Immaculate Conception. Prior to being appointed Queen of Heaven, the reporter might say, she was perhaps best known for her role as Perfect Mother to the Most Perfect Son.
She don’t know my life.
Except that while the people in the story were perfect, nobody said that things were always so. Mary had a Son that, when you think about it, took a little while to find His way. We know it took longer than Mary thought it should be taking at the time, on account of the whole Please-do-this-water-to-wine thing at this wedding because I am asking you to, that’s why, a request to an adult son that I like to think was made through serenely and perfectly gritted teeth.
Her Son didn’t start out doing what He was born to do, which was, you know, to save the world, so you’ve really got to wonder how good He was at carpentry. I like to think that working in the family business was a nice opportunity, and made sense for a while, but for a kid destined to be a gifted teacher and public speaker, maybe didn’t go so well. That perhaps the lack of skill set overlap between woodworking and preaching led Mary and Joseph’s boy to be placed not in the village’s Advanced Honors carpentry classes as they had hoped, but in the more Basic classes; that maybe they were really disappointed, and even a little embarrassed, wishing they’d not talked up the God-given talents of their boy quite so much around town.
And that maybe sometimes, when there wasn’t much good news to report, Mary would avoid the ladies in town a little bit, putting the word out that she would not be at the well today, she was just so busy pondering things in her heart. And in those times, that she would only go out if her girlfriend was going, too, in case they ran into the one snotty neighbor. You know the one. She never shuts up about her “perfect” son and his beautiful betrothed and his huge paycheck from the prestigious carpentry internship born of the Advanced Honors classes in which he had excelled. But as long as the friends were together, Mary’s girlfriend—who had most definitely not been born without sin—could be counted on to roll her eyes when she turned around. And then Perfect Mary could just smile serenely. Because her friend had her back.
I am sure that in Mary’s best moments, she knew with certainty—as all moms know in their best moments—that the gifts and successes of the boy she adored would be revealed. But it helps me to believe that sometimes, late at night, even a Perfect Mother might wonder: Was He going to turn out ok? Did she do all she should have? Was it possible that she had gotten it all wrong?
I will add that I also like to think that the day came when Mary’s not-Perfect girlfriend walked right up to the snotty neighbor at the well and asked in front of everybody if she had heard how great Mary’s boy was doing, being the Messiah and all. And that she went on—not in the nicest way, and while making obnoxious air quotes with her fingers—to say something like “So who’s got the ‘perfect’ son now??”
Perhaps you are starting to see the problem with me.
I have a little Mary statue in my yard; she is simple and small, and stands not on a pedestal, but on the damp ground. She does not look like the Queen of anything; she is just a woman, looking down, her left hand open at her side, as if she is hoping someone will take it, her right hand held close to her breast, to steady herself, to catch her breath; she just needs to think for a minute. Maybe she is praying serenely or maybe she is just trying to figure out what to do next, waiting for a friend to come and grab her hand and remind her to just breathe, to bring her tea, to urge her to perhaps eat a little something. To help her to figure out what to do next, to defend her in town, to have her back. To remind her that her kid will be ok.
This I can understand. In my own way, I have found a Mother Mary to whom I am devoted. When we are together, there is no script, no crown. No hymns. We are just moms together. She is my friend.