St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, grandmother of Jesus, is the patroness of mothers. And junk collectors, according to a piece of street art I bought in the French Quarter years ago. The artist had painted her creepy greenish visage, which looks more like the ghost of Jacob Marley than the traditional saint of Catholic apocrypha and statuary, on a board salvaged from a home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. That last part may or may not be true, which is part of the fun of buying art in Jackson Square. The feeling you’re being played feet from the Cathedral adds to the charm, makes me think of relic hawkers at medieval shrines, selling cat bones to those who will treat them as personal treasures. The St. Anne that hangs in our kitchen scares my children but I love her. She’s a wizened old crone looking for deals at the Goodwill.
I’ve grown so used to my personal St. Anne that I didn’t recognize her in the candlelit shrine in St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Indianapolis–this rigid governess firmly instructing the fair child at her knee. There were seats left in her shrine on Ash Wednesday because we were late, as we have been and ever shall be, and many people had already received their ashes and spilled out onto the slushy streets of Indy, marked and satisfied. Who would go all the way to a Catholic Mass and skip communion, I wondered? Accept a smudge that confirms mortality without also receiving the bread we’ve been told will give us life? But I remember then, that if I follow the rules I will not receive communion either. I haven’t been to a Roman Catholic Mass in over a year.
I’ve been what I’ve heard Christian intelligentsia call “deconstructing,” though deconstruction makes it sound like we took the house apart ourselves when really it was blown to bits. The hurricanes came and the things they said would protect us failed. I’m not just talking about church here, though I’m talking about that too. In the meantime I have been going to churches that don’t feel like home but also don’t make me want to cry. Today I am taking a tentative step back inside as a Lenten practice.
When I do, there is the same feeling of stepping off the plane and into the hot, damp air of New Orleans, except this place smells wonderful. I breathe deep. I’m home, with all its perils. They’re praying for those who’ve lost their faith or are struggling with the faith, which, of course, makes me want to cry. I also want to cry because I was late, as usual, and I ran over a traffic cone in the parking lot and it’s stuck in my wheel well. I told the kids to jump out and run in to get their ashes and then parked three blocks away and ran back in the snow. They’re old enough to handle this now, and old enough already to feel nostalgic for traditions we established when they were little, when their parents were still married. Maybe they are not thinking that last bit but I am. They wanted to come today, even the younger one. I could tell because he only complained once before going to his closet and finding his single button-up shirt, his church shirt, and putting it on without my insistence. Anyway my friend Cassidy is in there, who they call their Aunt Bro. She isn’t Catholic either but she likes churches and ashes and she loves us.
By the time I find them I have missed the ashes, so I rub my forehead against my son’s, then my daughter’s. She whispers to me, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” and I receive it as a blessing, a small relief that she remembers these ways that we taught her, and that she takes some delight in them.
In the overflow folding chairs in front of St. Anne’s shrine, I think, I was once that careful a woman. I thought saying the right prayers in the right order and in the right buildings would mean my children would be safe inside their walls and we’d all grow in wisdom and virtue into orderly saints. I once tried to be that rigid governess. I try not to feel judged by her. She is only a statue. She is only a story of what we once imagined motherhood to be. We imagined holiness grew from this kind of a mother, the organized, well-groomed kind who does not have grease on her hands from trying to free a traffic cone from under her 2008 Honda.
I have, lately, been praying the rosary, though in my own way, comforted, again, when I think of those medieval Christians I read about, who didn’t have the benefit or the shame of perfect orthodoxy breathing on them all the time. I am thinking of them too because my kids keep referring to the Corona virus as the plague, and though I keep downplaying their internet-stoked fear I can’t help but mark a similarity in the general panic, and how, for all our sophistication, we still think we can protect ourselves by avoiding and even shaming the contaminated, the carriers, those who will bring their germs into what we thought were our safe spaces. Again I’m making writerly connections where I probably shouldn’t, but I can’t help myself.
Go easy on me, St. Anne, I pray. Mama tried.
When I pray my rosary tonight I will think of the Anne of my kitchen, and walk not at her knee but by her side, holding the elbow of the bent old lady who has softened into herself because she couldn’t spare her children pain. I will accept the humble gift of her latest score from Goodwill. This St. Anne is a little bit French Quarter mystic and a lot my late mother-in-law, who was not Catholic either, but who loved second-hand stores and church sales. She would handle the ugliest objects, cast off and forgotten on a dusty shelf, with the care and forgiveness of a mother. “Someone made this,” she’d say, in awe, and treat it like a priceless treasure before pressing it into my hands. My daughter, this is for you.