Magic to it All
Jennifer Mills Kerr
Mother Mary whispers to me at night. A full moon isn’t necessary. She simply shows up, as regular as American Idol on Tuesdays. Sometimes I can’t make out what she says. But when I can she tells me I’m safe, I’m loved, I’m beautiful. Nice things, although I wish she’d let me sleep. She talks of letting go of the past a lot.
I haven’t told my mother about Mary’s visits. I’m afraid she’ll be jealous and ask a million questions. Mom wants to believe there’s magic to it all—thunderbolts of realization and enzyme baths, fortune tellers’ messages and rose quartz crystals. But Mother Mary is very straightforward. She doesn’t carry a staff or glitter like a fountain of water. She doesn’t talk like the voices in the Bible: Thou shalt this, thou shalt that, and people begetting one another. She speaks like a normal person.
This makes sense to me. After all, it’s very strict in the Bible. When I go to my best friend Barbara’s house, her father speaks in a Bible’s voice; everything he says is a commandment, as if delivered from on top of his own personal mountain. Do your homework. Wash the dishes. Be quiet. Even if he asks a question, “Did you girls go to softball practice today?” it sounds like an order, and we’d better say yes or else.
I don’t have a father. He died eight years ago in a car accident. I was two, so I can’t remember much about him. I try.
“The goddess took him,” my mother says tonight. “I would never have discovered her if he hadn’t died. The loss transformed me. Like you know that poem I read to you, Cara?”
From the kitchen sink she peers over her glasses at me. She’s a librarian, and unfortunately, sometimes looks like one. Not the conventional librarian, with a thin face and hair pulled back into a stingy little bun. My mother’s hair is frizzy-wild, brown and gray; her eyes, pale green. But she’s quiet like a librarian; moves around our house like a cat. And she reads. A lot. Stacks of books line the bureaus in her bedroom; she reads them aloud to me. The poem last night described two paths in a forest.
“I took the path that was spiritual,” my mother says now. “I could have been the sad widow, the victim, feeling sorry for myself.” She raises her eyes out the window, darkened by December. “Instead, I discovered the goddess. I wish I didn’t have to lose your father to do it.” She shakes her head, returns to rinsing the Swiss chard she bought at Whole Foods that I’ll be forced to eat.
Here’s my opening to tell her about Mother Mary. Maybe there’s no reason for me to be afraid of her questions, and afraid my answers would disappoint her. Maybe she’d be thrilled by the news. After all, she wakes to the goddess, prays to the goddess, breathes with the goddess, chants to the goddess, dances with the goddess, dreams of the goddess. She tells it all. She drums, meditates, prays, burns incense—sometimes all at once. She goes to the Woman Spirit Festival twice a year, a retreat where women hang out in the woods topless and dance about a fire invoking the Feminine Spirit. We have figurines of big-breasted women by the bathroom sink, along the windowsills, by our beds, at the center of the kitchen table. My mother wouldn’t be shocked by my midnight meetings with the spirit world. For her, anything is possible. But I can’t tell her. My visits from Mother Mary are too simple, too straightforward. I don’t stand on a mountaintop or fast for three days; I don‘t meditate or chant or light purple candles. In fact, I don’t have to do anything. Could my mother possibly understand? And if she found out how easy it is, what would happen to all of her rituals, her study groups, her spiritual accessories? My chest feels like it’s under four hundred rocks. I don’t like keeping secrets.
We’re seated at the table now, and I play with the plant on my plate, wondering why it’s so easy for her and so hard for me.
“Eat your chard,” she says. “It has wonderful vitamins.”
Vitamins. The topic of the month. My mother takes B-complex four times a day, omega-3 capsules, and acai berry supplements. But I know the vitamins won’t last. Last month it was astrology. The month before that, crystals. Before that, flower essences. Meditation, tai chi, Tarot cards—you name it, my mother has tried it. But she still cries herself to sleep at night.
The other day I watched a television show and, rather than batiked shirts and dangling earrings, the mother wore a pale yellow sweater and a wedding ring. Her hair was cropped short. She wasn’t the type who would dance or pray or meditate. She was very polite, very cheerful; she’d make a great replacement for that craggy-faced woman who drives the bus to school. But she was boring. My mom may be weird, but she’s never dull. The dad on the television show ate sandwiches at the kitchen table wearing a baseball cap and telling jokes. It seemed like he’d make good company.
“Mom?” I say. “Tell me that story again about when Dad was born.”
She blinks. For some reason it surprises her whenever I ask about my father. Probably because I don’t remember him. If I did, I’d feel sad about losing him and would understand all this goddess stuff. Maybe then Mom and I could go shopping for crystals together. Maybe I’d want to meditate with her in the morning and go to the Woman Spirit Festival.
My mother never talks of Mother Mary. I don’t know why. Barbara’s dad talks about her all the time. He told me the other day, “My wife rests with Mother Mary in Heaven.”
He clutched Barbara’s arm as he said this, and her body was almost knocked off balance. Still, she didn’t try to get away.
“Is that true?“ I asked her.
She nodded, eyes bright with tears. “Your dad’s there too, Cara.” Then I knew Barbara was really my best friend.
My mother begins telling the story I requested about my father. “It was a cold December night, and Grandma Gloria felt he was coming. She told her husband, ‘Drive me to the hospital. Bartholomew’s ready.’ Her husband shook his head. ‘You must be joking. It’s too early.’ ‘Bartholomew is ready,’ she said again. ‘Take me to the hospital. Hurry up.’ He did, griping because he wanted to watch Monday Night Football.”
“What was Dad’s favorite football team?” I ask.
“The Los Angeles Rams,” my mother says. “They don’t exist anymore, but that was the team he liked.”
I try to wrap my mind around this piece of information, squeeze the taste out of it like day old gum. Nothing comes.
“Did he make sandwiches at the kitchen table?” I ask.
“Good goddess, Cara. What a question.” She laughs. I don’t, and the smile flicks off her face. “I honestly don’t remember.” She opens her hands and shrugs. “Can I go on with the story?”
“Yes, go on.”
“Okay. So Grandma Gloria gets to the hospital with her begrudging husband and tells them she’s ready to give birth. They tell her that her water hasn’t broken. She tells them the baby is coming. They tell her to go home. She shouts. They shout. She shouts louder. There’s practically a riot in the lobby, and her water breaks. She had Bartholomew by midnight.”
“Grandma Gloria’s so pushy,” I say. “But I like the shouting part.”
“You would, little Sprite.”
After my father died, my mother said that the beach was her only solace, and we went to all the beaches along the coast of Northern California every day for two years. She said I was transformed into a sea fairy and began calling me Sprite. It doesn’t mean much to me because all I think of is the soda. We no longer go to the ocean; it must have been another one of my mother’s temporary hobbies.
She clatters the dishes together and carries them to the sink. Tonight she washes; I dry. I prefer drying, wiping the water away, making each dish appear untouched again, as if it had never been used.
That night, Mary tells me that angels surround me every moment of every day. That’s how she says it, “every moment of every day.” A bright light flashes behind my eyes, and I imagine golden angels surrounding me in the bathroom, the school cafeteria, the gym locker room, and it makes me nervous. Mary’s soft voice sings of protection and love, and I think, “Even in the bathroom? Is that normal?”
Then I remember how Ellen Harrington punched Barbara in the locker room the other day. I can use protection wherever I can get it.
“Strength lives within you,” she whispers. “The higher realms offer protection and unconditional love. But your power comes from your own heart.”
From my own heart, I think, and fall asleep.
The next day, Mrs. Fellows rehearses the manger story from the front of the room., pointing to a wood-carved depiction like a flight attendant. I practically stretch out of my seat, trying to see. But all the figurines are so small, so far away. Just before lunch, I rush to the wood-carved manger, and look at Mother Mary up close. She wears a blue robe. Her face is downcast, eyes partly closed, as she gazes at cradled Jesus in her arms. Everything about her is soft—even though she’s made of wood, and I know that it was her voice that I heard.
A week later my mother brings a book about angels home. She’s off the vitamins. Now it’s angels. She’s also bought an angel for the top of our Christmas tree. The angel has blonde hair and wears a white dress with a gold ribbon trailing from the sleeves. Large wings extend behind her. Without them, she’d appear like a normal woman.
“The angels are our protection, surrounding us with love,” my mother says, pulling me close to her.
I shiver. This is exactly what Mother Mary told me last week. Before I open my mouth she says, “Isn’t that good to know?”
Her eyes sparkle more than usual, and I can’t tell if it’s from the tree’s lights or her tears. “I know they surround us right now,” she adds and squeezes my shoulder. “There’s even an angel of marriage. His name is Daniel. Tonight I’m going to light a candle to him and send love to your father.”
She’s speaking very quickly, and I realize it isn’t the tree’s lights that make her eyes shine. My father, gone all these years, still makes her cry. Will she be lighting candles for him ten years from now?
“I can’t find it.” Her voice is loud, hard. With frantic hands, she rustles through the plastic bag from her favorite store, The Crystal People. The sound tears the air’s stillness. “Shoot.”
“What is it, Mom?” Maybe she bought me a present.
She digs inside the bag again even though it’s empty. “The marriage candle,” she says. “It was pink. I bought it today.”
Not a present for me. A present for him. Sometimes, I just want to forget about Dad, but that doesn’t make sense. I’ve already forgotten him.
“Mother Mary was stolen from the manger today at school,” I say. “Someone stole her.”
My mother stomps into the kitchen, leaving my words hanging in the air.
“I know it was Barbara who did it,” I call. “She won’t admit it to me, but she did.”
A cabinet whaps shut. Her footsteps thump against the floor, vibrating beneath the soles of my feet. It’s not like Mom, being so loud. She feels like a stranger.
“That marriage candle was special,” she says behind the wall. “I could feel it.” The buzz of a zipper, and coins jingle as she rummages through her purse.
“Thank God,” she says. “Here it is. I must have tucked it inside my bag so it would be safe.”
In silence, she lights the candle and sets it on a nearby table. She closes her eyes, and her lips move in prayer.
That day, I’d told Barbara, “You have to put Mother Mary back.” We stood outside during recess in the drizzling rain.
“I didn’t take her.” The wind whipped her soft brown hair against her face.
“Don’t lie, Barbara. I know you did.”
“No, I didn’t.”
I kicked the wall. Softly at first. Tap, tap, tap. “Who else would take her but you? I mean, your mom isn’t—”
“Shut up,” she said. Her lips, pink from the cold, quivered.
“Don’t cry,” I said. “You can put Mary back because she belongs to—“
“I’m giving her to my father!” she screamed and ran into the empty soccer field.
It takes several minutes for my mother to open her eyes. When she does, I ask, “Do the angels surround everyone?”
“Absolutely,” she says. She glides into the kitchen and unloads a grocery bag in near silence. Back to her old self again. She wears a purple skirt scattered with sequins that look like stars. We usually have a star topping the Christmas tree, but it’s all right to have an angel.
“So angels surround Barbara’s dad?” I ask.
“Mr. Hopkins is just an unhappy man,” my mother says. She folds the grocery bag, slides it next to the others in the cabinet under the sink. “He can be grouchy. But he means no harm.”
“Barbara and I used to hope that since her mom was gone, and my dad was gone, you and Mr. Hopkins would get married.”
She pulls the stepping stool in front of the sink. My turn to wash the vitamin-filled vegetable nightmare. “That’s sweet,” my mother says. “But it’s not going to happen. You know that don’t you?”
“I wouldn’t want to marry him either,” I say. “Don’t you like Mr. Wheaton?”
“Who’s Mr. Wheaton?”
“My gym teacher,” I say.
My mother turns on the water, points at the pile of green leaves and says, “Rinse.”
“He’s cute,” I say over the rushing water. “He’s not married. I asked.”
“I’m not interested in Mr. Wheaton, Cara. Do you know that he’s ten years younger than me?”
I shrug. Grown-ups are grown-ups; I don’t think about how old they are. When I saw the dad on television the other night, his age was the furthest thing from my mind.
“It would be nice to have a dad,” I say.
I can feel her flinch from across the kitchen. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. We don’t talk about any man but my father as being my dad. I’ve broken the rule. I keep my fingers moving over the spinach leaves.
“Yes,” she says. The word comes out choked, and when I turn around, she’s gone. I tiptoe down the hallway, see her slumped on her bed, holding their wedding picture. I’ve seen that photograph so many times it’s like looking at the living room couch. I don’t see my mother’s face; I don’t see my father’s face. I just see two people smiling, two people who were married once. Sometimes when I look at the picture, it’s like this couple is still married, but I don’t know them, and they don’t live anywhere near here.
Tears stream down my mother’s face. I’ve seen this before. She has taken me to the graveyard every year on my father’s birthday, and her tears fall and I look at the gravestones, wondering about all the other people who are attached to them out in the world. The trees in the distance are soft, and I try to cry too, but I can’t. I tell my dad I’m sorry, my mother can cry for me.
I stand in the doorway of her room, unsure if I should enter.
“Do you want me to get your angel book?” I ask.
She smiles, sniffles, shakes her head. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I get so emotional around the holidays.”
She reaches out to me. I rush toward her, nestle into the warmth of her body. When Mother Mary whispers of feeling loved and safe, I know this is what she means—being wrapped in my mother’s arms, listening to her heartbeat, feeling so peaceful I’m close to sleeping. I can’t imagine Barbara ever feeling this way with her dad. That was why she stole Mother Mary. She needed something else.
My mother sets down the photograph and opens her other hand. In her palm shines a rose quartz shaped like a heart. It’s supposed to bring more love into her life, but as she shows it to me, she shakes her head, squeaking as she cries. How long has she been holding onto it?
I lay my hand over hers, feeling the stone’s warmth against my palm, and our fingers enfold. Once again I see Mother Mary, in her blue robe, gazing upon her own child. My mother cries a lot, and she may be slightly nuts, but she would never steal Mother Mary from the manger like Barbara did. She would go out and find another manger, just for us, to have at home. She shares everything. I squeeze her hand.
“I see Mother Mary at night,” I whisper. “She talks to me.”
My mother asks, “What does she say?”
“All nice things. That I’m loved, and I’m beautiful.”
“That’s true, Cara.” She faces me, pale green eyes brightened by tears. She smiles at me, and I’m so relieved, I let my head fall against her arm. We stay like that for a long time.