THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Persistence of May
In the season of rebirth, finding both the Virgin Mary and my grandmother, Mary Grace, among the Mother’s Day blossoms.
By Lauren DePino
Published May 8, 2020 Updated May 10, 2020
When I was in first grade at my Catholic elementary school, my teacher told me there was a mother who would never leave me, and I could find her in the flowers. Of course she meant Mary, the purported mother of God. But I thought she meant my Sicilian grandmother, Mary Grace. Because when May came, there Gran was — in her garden in suburban Philadelphia, tending the freshly planted marigolds and zinnias. If good mothers live on in some inflorescent afterlife, Gran was on her way.
Gran fancied herself a snowball devotee. I don’t mean the frozen kind children throw, but the white, round flower heads that bloomed on her snowball viburnum in May. When I was 13, before my school’s celebration for Mary, which happened around Mother’s Day, Gran pruned some of the ivory blossoms and fastened them to my black hair with bobby pins. As she worked, she took great care not to disturb the petals.
At twilight, I walked three blocks from school to church with my teachers and classmates. This was one of my favorite aspects of Marian devotion in May, a public tradition that began in Ferrara, Italy, in 1784.
I sang “Gentle Woman” while the May queen, gowned in lily white, placed a crown of roses on Mary’s head. From the altar, my eyes shifted from the illuminated mythic figure in the back of the church to Gran in a middle pew. I did a double take. Both were sloe-eyed beauties; both gave off a strong calmness. After mass, Gran joked that I was really singing to her, the queen of our boisterous Italian family.
The massive stained-glass image of Our Lady glowed back at me. I’d seen Mary there, numinous and glass-blue, while I sang hymns at school masses, at weddings for friends, and, years later, dirges for their grandparents or parents. Vibrant prisms shone through her, her level of light contingent on the position and intensity of the sun.
At Gran’s burial mass, I would not sing to Our Lady; I would not face her. It was the only time I grew angry. She loomed there, unchanged, while my Mary was gone. Gran had died during the month of May, leaving my family without our matriarch for Mother’s Day. The clusters on her snowball bush would have been pure white. I knew their cycle by then: apple green in pre-spring, petals piled like winter snow on the ground in summer, and burgundy-leaved and blossomless in fall.
I saw my grandmother in depictions of Mary everywhere — on candles at the dollar store, on the wall of a bodega, in tattoo form on a man’s forearm at a restaurant. At the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, I stared at Miguel Cabrera’s Virgen de Guadalupe, a Mary who shares Gran’s sable hair and eyes.
Gran’s style of mothering was overarching, just as I imagine the Madonna’s love. My parents, both teachers, departed for work in the dark of morning and sometimes returned after dusk. All the while, Gran stood in for them. She drove me to the bus stop in winter and rescued me from the school nurse when I was sick. She filled in for all three of her children when they needed her, a bonus mother to us 10 grandchildren. She nurtured her husband when he was dying of cancer. She let in the stray marmalade cat who scratched at her door when it snowed. What remains most memorable, though, for all who loved her, are the Italian Sunday dinners she hosted, a tradition passed down from her mother, Carmella.
Ten years after she died, I continue to look for the overlap between Mary, the mother of God, and Mary, my grandmother. To the devout, this might seem a sacrilege. But as a lapsed and conflicted Catholic who nonetheless loved my upbringing, when May nears, and Mother’s Day along with it, I long for Gran. I yearn for signs of her physical life, to smell the pungent sauce simmering in the giant vat, a relic from the restaurant she ran; to catch her swearing in Italian when she dropped a plate, and red splattered everywhere. To feel the petals of her African violets, velvet on my fingers.
When I witness my mother, still deep in her grief, I envision an infinite line of missing — from my mother, to her mother, and to my grandmother’s mother, too.
Just as we ache for our mother figures when they’re gone, believers in Mary have attested to visions of her on every continent. They’ve sensed Mary in an August snowfall in Rome; in the scent of a rose where there was none; in the imprint of her face, delineated with creases on an iceberg. In a sense, these visionaries are all of us, eager to reconnect with a motherly someone.
Maybe Mary is a character in a parable. But believers, atheists, agnostics — whichever you are — one or none of the above, hear me out. I love her no matter what. I love her the way I love Gran. For me, her presence is as inextricable as my childhood, as undeniable as my existence.
If Mary is the mother none of us have to live without, even after she dies, I open my eyes to the potential for miracles. While I’ve never seen Gran reappear, apart from in my dreams, she has surfaced in video form. Recently, while cleaning out my hard drive, I found her. I thought I’d watched the footage in its entirety, but I was wrong.
In one frame, Gran holds up a photo of her parents, Carmella and Colergero, in front of her family home in Baltimore, and immediately breaks into tears. She waves for her sister, Caprice, to turn off the camera. The picture dissolves; the line of missing is ever-present.
When the picture flashes back on, Gran, composed this time, reintroduces her parents. Then she points out the flowers:
“This photo was taken outside our house where we had an enormous snowball bush. You can see parts of it going in mother’s face there. You know, I have one just like it growing in my yard. And it just blooms profusely.”
“Isn’t that something,” I hear my great-aunt say.
In their twin majesty, Mary, the luminous goddess, and Maria Gracia, my beloved grandmother, are with me. Sometimes the edges blur between the two, so I love both as one, as comfort from the infinite line of missing.
While I can’t say with certainty that I’ve experienced a Marian miracle, I like to leave room for possibility, just in case.
For now, I think of the flowers, something I can count on, something I can touch.
Every May marks another year my family and I must live without Gran. But also every May, the sun streams; buds unfold.
I look for Gran every season of new beginnings, hoping for a visitation of the supernatural kind. So far, the sun hasn’t plunged from the sky and snow hasn’t dusted the summer ground. I have yet to find her high cheekbones in the fog on my windows. Instead I discover her in one of the most miraculous occurrences of all: nature’s faithful return to its flowering state.