Dan Newland celebrates his addiction to writing and the right to life, literature and the (sometimes desperate) pursuit of happiness. Essays, stories and comments on writers, writing and life in general, in a twice-monthly blog published on the 13th and 27th of every month..."or any other time the spirit moves me."
Doing some historical research on organized labor the other day, I
suddenly recalled, in very vivid detail, when I first heard the word “strike”. I
can’t remember the political details involved, but I assume it was during a
prolonged strike (156 days) by electrical workers at Westinghouse plants all
over the United States that took place in 1955-56. I would have been about six
years old at the time.
My pristine little home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, is located—as I’ve
mentioned here before—about 20 minutes south of the once thriving industrial
city of Lima (pronounced “lie-mah” not “lee-mah”, although it was indeed named
after the Peruvian capital). Or, better said, perhaps, Lima is located 20
minutes north of Wapakoneta—since the founding of our town pre-dates that of
Lima by a couple of decades—and lies about halfway between Cincinnati and
Toledo on Interstate 75. The land where both towns were built all originally
formed part of the Hog Creek Reservation, the traditional tribal homeland of
the Shawnee Nation, wrested from their hands through a series of broken
promises, ignored treaties and forced relocation operations, in which these
noble natives were “invited” to make a new life for themselves in Kansas on the
distant opposite side of the Midwestern region.
It still says Standard Oil but now it's an art center.
Back in its day, Lima was best known for its oil industry—boasting, as
of the early 20th century, one of the largest oilfields in the
United States and one of the country’s largest oil pumping operations (the
Buckeye Pipeline), as well as a major refining and petrochemical operation
(which continues to function today, 125 years after its founding). Such was the Lima oil boom that John D.
Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, headquartered at the time in Cleveland, decided to
set up refining operations there and to open a major office on the town square.
The building is still there, and still has gold letters on the façade reading
“Standard Oil”, but today houses a cultural center.
But oil wasn’t all that Lima was about. It was home to one of the
country’s most important locomotive builders, its most important builder of school
buses, a major steel foundry, one of the country’s most important military tank
and amphibious vehicle construction plants, and the Westinghouse Small Motors
manufacturing division, among other industries. This last business,
Westinghouse, as I mentioned before, was where I first learned the word
Back when I was a little boy, I-75 was still being built and the only
way to drive into Downtown Lima from Wapakoneta—unless you wanted to come in
from the west and cross the entire West Side—was either on the North Dixie
Highway or on what we called “the back way” along country roads. But both of
these routes took you through the grimy, industrial area known as the South
End. There, the highway ran past endless fields of enormous oil storage tanks
and industrial plant gates. The air was usually thick with the sulfurous stench
of sour crude and ammonia from the refinery and by night was eerily lit by the sullied
orange flames of the operation’s venting towers.
The South End was also home to some rough neighborhoods and some even
rougher slums. Although when I was growing up there never appeared to me to be
a lot of surface racial tension between blacks and whites in Lima, the city had
a bad reputation for racism dating back to when my father, Whitie, was a kid. That
was when Lima was a major center for an infamously violent branch of the Ku
Klux Klan that was known—ironically enough—as the “Black Legion”. It was,
regrettably, a homegrown Ohio racist organization that originated as the “Black
Guard”, the armed band of black-hooded thugs whose original job it was to
protect KKK officers and their families. In a city with an estimated
population of around 50,000 at the time, the KKK openly held a parade in the
center of Lima in 1923, a year after my dad was born, that drew a crowd of
Members of the Black Legion in their ridiculous regalia
Against this background, Whitie grew up in a mostly white enclave of the
South End during the hard times of the 1920s and ‘30s—an era in which the natural
grit of both he and his older brother Red got well-honed living there. Neither
of them were guys you wanted to mess with, even before they went off to train
and fight during World War II.
But Red and Whitie were educated in a bi-racial atmosphere and while
they weren’t exactly chummy with the African American kids they went to school
with, neither were they hostile. Living daily, blacks and whites together, they
weren’t imbued with many of the prejudices and irrational fears of the majority
of the people in our all-white town. For Whitie, the South End was home and we
always felt fairly at ease when we traveled through it with him.
That was not the case with our mother, Reba Mae, who had grown up in the
all-white conservative rural community in and surrounding our town. She had
nothing against blacks, inheriting her mother’s tolerance for all rather than
her father’s open and virulent racism. But she was indeed permeated from childhood
with the fear-mongering that was common in many carefully preserved white communities
back then. And if we kids accompanied her on a shopping trip to Lima, we knew
that when we passed through the last “friendly territory”, crossed an old
concrete abutted bridge and started entering the South End, she would
invariably begin to almost literally prick up her ears, sitting forward, tense
in her seat, gripping the steering wheel hard at ten and two and murmuring, “Are
your doors locked, kids? Answer me. Are your doors locked? Roll up your
windows. Danny! Lock you door!”
So there was always a certain apprehension when we drove through the smoky,
steely South End of Lima. But on this particular day there was something new. I
think Whitie was driving us all to downtown Lima for a dinner of hamburgers,
fries and frosted malts at the Kewpee sandwich shop—a kind of busman’s holiday
for Dad, since he was, at the time, part-owner of the Teddy Bear Restaurant, back
then, the go-to place for hamburgers, fries and malts in Wapakoneta. I was, as
usual, on my knees on the backseat of Whitie’s ’49 Ford, my nose pressed to the
window, because I always liked to be watching once we passed the Westinghouse
plant and the car climbed the tall bridge over the railway-yard below, to take
in that gritty, grimy industrial view—which today promised to be more wintry,
grey and thrilling than ever—and especially to observe the long rows of air
ducts on the roof of the massive locomotive works building, looking for all the
world like so many large rusty tin hens come to roost in a row on the soaring
heights of the structure far beneath the bridge.
Today, however, something else caught my attention first. Directly
across the street from the Westinghouse plant, the sidewalk outside of the
factory parking lot and the tarmac on the other side of a tall fence, within
the lot, were lined end to end with scores of men. Conspicuous by their absence
were women and children. The men inside and the ones outside were grimly facing
one another. It wasn’t hard for me to tune into the mood that was very
apparently unpleasant and hostile. I noticed that my mother and father were
purposely looking straight ahead as we drove by very slowly, directed by
traffic cops around the part of the crowd outside the fence that had spilled
off the sidewalk onto the pavement, but I gawked unabashed at the scene.
A number of the men on the outside of the fence were uniformed police
officers, most holding long clubs at port arms with both hands—one gripping the
butt, the other palming the tip. A few of them were carrying riot guns instead.
Others on the outside of the fence were men in plain clothes. They mostly wore
overcoats against the day’s dank chill, the brims of their felt hats pulled low
over their eyes, so much so that their colorless grey clothing also resembled
uniforms. And some of them, too, were carrying clubs.
On the inside of the parking lot fence, men stood pretty much shoulder
to shoulder as well, but in less uniform style. They came and went and milled
about and spelled each other at the fence. Some warmed their hands at a few metal
drums from which yellow-orange flames sometimes leaped, others shared steaming
coffee from metal Thermos flasks, and still others stood with their fingers
laced through the diamond-shaped wires of the chain-link fence, staring down
the men outside, their faces challenging and angry. Some of the men inside also
wore overcoats and hats pulled low. But others were wearing bomber jackets or denim
and sported billed caps with ear tabs, ball-caps or snap-billed tweed cloth
caps. There were men carrying hand-lettered, poster-board signs nailed to
two-by-fours. A few, I recall, had their heads bandaged in gauze underneath their
As we advanced past the scene, I heard my mother mutter to my father, “I
wonder when this is going to be over so people can get back to work.” Whitie
said hard telling, but probably whenever the damned union got its way...or when
the company’d had enough and run that bunch of goldbrickers out of there. I
leaned over the seat between them and asked what was going on.
“It’s a strike,” my father said.
“What’s a strike?” I asked.
And that question got me my first abbreviated and editorialized lesson on
labor relations. My parents’ view was pretty much the norm among conservative business
owners, small and large, in our area of the country. Indeed, Whitie identified
with a factory-owner in our town who, when threatened once by his workers with
unionization, told them that he was a wealthy man. He didn’t need a job. They
did. He treated them fairly, he claimed, and said that if they wanted to
unionize, to be his guests, that he would simply shut the place down, put a
for-sale sign on the door and send them home. Result: The workers practically
lynched the union activists who had tried to organize them, and sent them
In short, from what I gathered,
the guys on the outside of the fence who were defending corporate interests
were the the "good guys", and the ones on the inside of the fence defending
their livelihoods and their families’ lifestyles were the "bad guys".
They were anti-American, socialists who wanted to undermine the American
economy. I remember feeling afraid of the strikers, being glad they were being
contained behind the fence, inside the parking lot, by the “good guys” with the
clubs on the sidewalk outside.
It would take me years to
figure out that this wasn't always—hardly ever, in fact—the way things actually
worked. And it wasn’t until, as a professional musician, I became a union
member myself, that I really began to think about the anti-union prejudices I’d
been brought up with and to realize that, whatever certain big-labor unions had
morphed into, the idea behind unions had started out, and often continued to be
a good one: people standing together, without discrimination, to defend
themselves and others against helplessness and exploitation.
This is an excerpt from my as yet unpublished novel, the working title
of which is “Life and Death”. In this passage, the protagonist, Chaz Dickson, a
newsman who lives in Argentina, has received a religious medal (the Miraculous
Virgin) from his wife Mo’s mother, Doña María. A former Protestant cum
agnostic, Chaz accepts the medal and wears it, as he might a rabbit’s foot, for
good luck. But Doña María, a fervent Catholic who boasts personal relationships
with her favorite saints, is bent on convincing him that it is so much more...
It wasn't until some time after doña María had made a miraculous
recovery from her heart attack and was practically back to normal that I had
what I can only describe—and believe me, I writhe a little at the use of the
term—as a religious experience. The only person, other than doña María, whom
I ever told about it was Mo. As a newsman, and one who had gained a fair amount
of success at a rather young age, I had worked hard on my image as a cynic, and
admitting that I had witnessed something like this would have been tantamount
to "getting religion", which would surely have cost me my credibility
as an "objective", hard-nosed, believe-it-when-I-see-it,
ultra-critical, poison-pen editorialist. But hey, something happened.
It wasn't the wines of the Eucharist, because in Catholicism only the
priest gets to sample the Blood, although, who knows, maybe it was an allergic
reaction to the incense. I admit, I'd been to a get-together beforehand and had
a few drinks, which could have had an influence, but to this day, somehow, I
don't think so.
It happened when doña María was still on a lot of medication after
her near-fatal heart-attack, but feeling fine enough that it was hard to keep
her from overdoing. A friend, Aurelia, was celebrating her seventy-fifth
birthday and doña María said she wouldn't miss it for the world. In her
own circle, doña María was a very sociable person. Frugal to a fault in
daily life, she knew how to cut loose at parties. She relished the free-flowing
wine and rich food and she loved to chat and joke and dance all night long in
the company of a select crowd. Her friend Aurelia was what is known in
Argentina as a "Peronist of the first hour"—an undying admirer of the
controversial political strongman, General Juan Domingo Perón, an old-guard
follower who now, in the post-coup 1970s pined for the days when Peronism was
more like a monarchy than a tacky democracy and an outlawed, discredited,
has-been popular movement.
Because of her untiring political activism at a neighborhood,
grass-roots level, Aurelia had literally hundreds of friends—a handful of
intimate ones, like María (who, oddly enough, was not only not a Peronist, but
had also been an active anti-Peronist back in the fifties just before the Revolución
Libertadora overthrew General Perón in a bloody coup), and then scores of
political "friends", people who owed Aurelia something, were
currently seeking some favor, or to whom she herself was somehow indebted.
María and Aurelia never talked politics, except at the most superficial level,
because María respected Aurelia for her dedication to a cause and Aurelia
respected the fact that María had other political leanings. Doña María
was a bit of political snob, a conservative, who thought the populist
tendencies of Peronism distasteful, but who found the social cream at the top
of the movement fascinating. Aurelia was fun-loving, bright and generous, and
loved a good party even more than María did.
Mo and I were worried when doña María made known her decision to
attend the party. We were concerned about how her health would stand up to the
excitement, rich food and abundant drink, all of which, we were sure, she would
have trouble resisting. We told her we didn't think it a good idea for her to
go partying so soon after her brush with death—to which she laughed, said, "Nonsense!"
and told us to mind our own business.
When our protests continued, however, she said that if we were so
worried about her, why didn't we accompany her? We said we didn't know anybody,
and she said that if we never went anyplace, how could we expect to get to know
anybody ever? The party coincided with my night off at the paper, so in the
end, we agreed to go.
Aurelia lived in a big old house with a wrought-iron gate and a little
inner garden beyond the doorstep, where María's friend cultivated spectacular
red, yellow and white roses. The house was on Calle Bahía Blanca,
fronting Plaza Vélez Sarsfield and just a few doors down from the Church of the
Candelaria, the parish around which doña María's neighborhood had grown
up. When we arrived, something of a crush of arriving invitees had formed at
the door of Aurelia's house, and even many of the uninvited faithful making
their way up the street to evening Mass at the Candelaria stopped to offer
Aurelia their best wishes from the garden gate, as she stood at the door
welcoming her friends and greeting her neighbors.
Once inside the house, I was impressed to see the level of Aurelia's
influence. Despite being a rather minor former neighborhood party official, she
obviously had friends in much higher places. I counted at least five faces of
former Peronist officials whom I recognized from the photo files at the paper.
There were also several Federal Police officials and field grade Army officers,
who were no doubt breaking specific High Command orders by being present at
what could be construed as a "political meeting", all forms of which
had been outlawed by the governing junta under the terms of the State of Siege
Decree. There were also a couple of recognizable stage and screen actors, a
Catholic monsignor, two independent political columnists whom I vaguely knew
from press conferences we had all attended, and a former contender for the
world middleweight boxing title.
Originally having gone along reluctantly for the sole purpose of making
sure doña María behaved herself, I now forgot my appointed duty entirely
and began to mingle, taking advantage of the windfall of journalistic material
at my disposal. It was already past midnight when I remembered María and Mo and
began searching the rooms of the rambling old house to find them. When I did,
they were at the center of attention, accompanying Aurelia in the patio, and
surrounded by a covey of attentive older gentlemen—a former classmate of María's
who was now a successful TV scriptwriter of considerable fame, a former
Peronist culture secretary, a former district court judge and a silver-haired
retired colonel on whom, Mo later confided, her mother had always had a crush.
Mo was a little peeved at me for having gone off to do interviews instead of
staying with her and her mother, but doña María was delighted that I had
"Success," she said, "is in who you know," and then
she embarrassed me by introducing me to the illustrious men in their circle at
the party as "one of the directors" of the newspaper. "They'll
never know the difference," she murmured when I whispered a protest, "and
if they think you're in a position of power in the press, they might very well
be of help to you in reaching your future goals. Just remember, Carlitos, the
riffraff come and go, but the gente bien remain afloat no matter who's
toed the line extraordinarily well, just enjoying being alive, out and
circulating again, high on the social event and with no apparent need to
shatter the limits of her convalescence. She sipped no more than two glasses of
champagne all evening, ate only two or three canapés and celebrated her friend's
seventy-fifth year with no more than one thin slice of sugary birthday cake.
She topped off her reencounter with society by dancing a discreet but not
unenergetic tango with the silver-haired colonel and returned to her seat
slightly flushed with excitement, smiling coyly as Aurelia clucked her tongue
and said, "Watch out for the colonel, María. They say he's an incorrigible
mujeriego, a womanizer to be sure."
"What do I care?" doña María laughed. "I'm not
looking for a faithful, boring husband, just a little interesting male company."
I laughed and Mo cried "Mother!" To which María said "Oh
grow up, nena. You only live once and I'm already on borrowed time."
After the tango, Mo kept observing her mother, worried that the
excitement and exertion might bring on another heart attack. I was just buzzed
enough that the world seemed a harmless beautiful place and I urged Mo to
loosen up and quit sheltering her mother. Maybe a little romance was just what
she needed to make her feel healthy, to make her feel like a woman again
instead of a disease. She said if I wanted to kill my own mother it was up to
me but that she knew what was best for hers.
overheard our terse whispers and said, "You listen to Carlitos, nena.
You have a wise husband."
"And you've had too much champagne, Mamá," Mo
The colonel stood from his seat beside Aurelia and asked doña
María for another dance. Mo refused for her mother, telling the colonel that
she wouldn't permit it because as the lady's daughter, she would be the one who
would have to sit in the emergency room crying if doña María were to
have a heart attack.
looked embarrassed and pinched Mo's arm.
But the colonel, unperturbed, counterattacked, saying, "Well then,
maybe we can just chat for a while and get to know each other better." He
gestured for Mo to make room and she went and occupied his seat by Aurelia,
while the colonel sat down beside doña María and boldly took her hand in
his as he said, "Did I ever tell you, señora, about the time when I
commanded a scientific expedition in the Argentine sector of Antarctica?"
It was well past midnight when the party started winding down and we
were finally able to tear doña María away from her friends. The colonel
walked us to the door after we had kissed Aurelia good-night and wished her
well. The colonel offered to drive us home. Doña María thanked him but
refused, saying that we only lived a few blocks away and the walk would do her
good. He promised to call her to have dinner soon. She seemed charmed, and
moved with a girlish gait down Aurelia's garden path to the street.
It was a week-night and the street in front of the plaza was quiet. The
only lights in the houses along the block were those burning brightly in
Aurelia's place from which the sound of canned music and the loud talk of boozy,
late-night hangers-on still emanated.
Our house was the opposite way from the Candelaria, but doña
María said, "Let's walk past the church before we go home."
"Mother," Mo complained, "it's late and I have to get up
"That's all right, nena. You go on home. You must be tired.
Carlitos will walk with me, won't you?"
"Sure," I said and Mo looked daggers at me in the light of the
street-lamp. "I'll bring her right home," I said reassuringly.
"You'd better," Mo warned.
"Oh, stop fretting," doña María snapped. "A walk
around the block before bed will be good for me."
Mo shrugged resignedly, kissed us both on the cheek and headed for home.
Doña María looped her arm through
mine and we made our way to the Candelaria. It was a beautiful, clear, moonlit
night, unseasonably cool. I offered doña María my blazer to put around
her shoulders and she accepted it.
To my surprise, when we reached the steps of the church, she said, "Let's
stop in a minute."
As usual, I froze at the thought of entering a church. There was
something about Catholic sanctuaries and their multiple plaster images and
imposing altars that simultaneously fascinated and spooked me. I didn't mind
dropping in on one of the countless churches of Buenos Aires in the light of
day, accompanied by Mo, and in a detached, touristy mood, pretending to, say,
study the architecture, record the history of the place in my pocket journal,
try to place the artist who had painted the ceilings, observe the comings and
goings of the faithful as they bustled in off the workaday-busy streets for a
moment of meditation and prayer. But we did it seldom and I always secretly did
so whistling low in the back of my mind and silently repeating again and again,
"There ain't no ghosts, there ain't no ghosts," like Stymie and
Buckwheat in the Our Gang movies that WDTN Channel 5 ran on weekday afternoons
when I was a kid back home. I wasn't altogether comfortable in the Protestant
churches where I'd been brought up. But their Puritan lines and stripped-down
architecture made them somehow more innocuous and insipid. They had fewer
shadows and candles and statues and paintings. Their crosses were empty and
hygienic, there was no blood and gore splashing walls and windows and ceilings,
no stain-glass Saint Steven with a score of arrows bristling from his body, no
severed head of John the Baptist, no Christ in agony, hanging from the brutal
spikes in his hands and feet. True, Protestant churches were somehow unnatural
and creepy with their smell of mothballs, talc and mildewed hymnals — places
where you lowered your voice even when no one else was there. But Catholic
churches were mysterious, haunting, soaked in a long and bloody history of
torture, war and intrigue, festooned with power symbols, saintly images and
scenes devoted to the glorification of Christian martyrdom. They made me
nervous even when I pretended to be a casual tourist. But the thought of
entering a closed church in the middle of the night in the company of a woman
who was spiritually strong enough to think nothing of maintaining practically
first-name relationships with long-dead saints and departed loved ones suddenly
turned my blood to ice-water.
"Come on, Carlitos," she said again. "Be a sport. Let's
"It must be closed at this hour," I said.
"Nonsense. The sacristán always leaves a side door open so
early worshippers can get in before work without bothering him, because he
hates getting up early."
When I didn't respond, she said, "Please, Carlitos. For me. Por
favor, un minutito. I want to show you the Milagrosa."
"Okay," I said reluctantly, "just for a moment."
It was dim and dank inside the sanctuary. The side door into the nave
squawked on rusty hinges as it closed behind us and our heels echoed on the
dew-slick marble floor. I peered into the semi-darkness as doña María
tugged at my elbow, urging me forward into the church. There was a single light
on over the front altar. Another dim bulb burned far at the back of the church
near the main doors. We had entered the sanctuary in approximately the
mid-section, where the gloom seemed forbidding. I felt like an intruder in the
sepulchral silence and froze for a moment, wanting to turn back, but doña
María continued to shepherd me further into the nave, where, it was obvious,
she felt completely at ease.
"It's only a moment," she said, sensing my reluctance.
was as familiar with the sanctuary as with her own home. She found a light
switch on a column a few meters in and flicked it on. A feeble bank of overhead
lights turned total darkness to a diffuse, dusky twilight. We stepped out of
the penumbra of the side aisle and walked down the middle of the church toward
the main altar. Near the front row of pews, doña María pulled her arm
free of mine, crossed herself, nimbly genuflected, then stood and crossed
herself again, kissing the knuckle of her forefinger and the nail of her thumb.
Christ hung in torment from the cross above the pulpit, eyes rolled heavenward,
mouth slightly agape, His bright red life's-blood running in rivulets down His
forehead and one side of His face from the cruel crown of thorns, arms
stretched to the fullest and knees bent against the agonizing pain of the
terrible spikes driven through His palms and feet, a gash in His side spilling
blood onto His otherwise impeccably white loincloth. Although I had seen many a
crucifix since moving to South America, this image seemed particularly vivid
and chilling in the somber light and desolate late-night silence of the
Near the front of the nave, in the wide horizontal passage where the
faithful gathered at the culmination of each Mass to receive the Host from the
supple white fingers of the officiating priest, we turned abruptly to the
right, away from the altar. Doña María was girlish and bright-eyed,
suddenly an excited youngster, despite her advancing years and now chronic
"Come, come," she whispered in a conspiratorial tone as if we
were two children crashing the gates of the graveyard by night, "I want
you to meet the Milagrosa." I
followed her along the south side of the church, past a cluttered row of
plaster saints of all shapes and sizes, every one painted in the garish greens,
reds, blues and golds preferred by the Italian founders of the parish. The
saints stood in their niches, silent and gaudy in their colorful robes, some
with wilted floral offerings at their feet, others with the yellow-gray
spatterings of spent candles littering their pedestals.
stopped about a quarter of the way back from the front of the temple and did a
neat left-face in front of a tall, almost elegant figure. She stepped back a
pace and pushed me forward, centering me in front of the image by placing her
hands on both my elbows from behind. Then she asked me for a coin. I
unquestioningly reached into my trouser pocket and produced one. I heard her
drop it with a dull clunk into a wooden box. Then I heard her strike a match
before she returned to where I stood. She was carrying a lighted candle, which
she ceremoniously placed in a small jar at the statue's feet. She crossed
herself and again stepped back, leaving me alone before the effigy.
"This," I heard doña María say, as if from far off
somewhere, "is la Virgen Milagrosa. She is your protector."
I could say nothing and immediately began to tremble, my hands sweating,
my teeth gritted to keep them from chattering.
"Isn't she beautiful?" I heard María say somewhere behind me,
and still I couldn't respond. "I'll leave you with her for a few moments,"
my mother-in-law said and suddenly I found myself alone with the Virgin and
riveted to my spot.
Something like fear and awe rose up in me and a kind of joy mixed with
anguish welled up in my chest. I vaguely and vainly sought to quell the
powerful emotion by seeing the statue for what my logic told me it was—a
plaster image. But try as I might I could not control my illogical feelings.
The Virgin's blue shawl flowed in soft folds from the crown of her head to
beyond her waist and the heavy pleats of her white robe caressed the tops of
her delicate-boned feet. Her benign, tallow-pale face was more tender and
radiant than the flesh of any classic human beauty. Her lips formed an almost
sensuous bow that might well have just kissed the gentle brow of a newborn
babe. Her hands, palms out with arms open to her sides, begged an embrace. Her
deeply compassionate eyes locked on mine and refused to let me go. As I looked
into them, everything else around me seemed to recede and an inexplicable
luminescence suddenly emanated from her and engulfed me, so that nothing but
her beauty existed.
I had been brought up, back in the American Midwest, to believe that
tough guys don't cry, and had been able to successfully restrain my tears
completely from adolescence on. But now, against my will, against all reason,
my emotions welled up and spilled over the rims of my eyes. Tears slid down my
cheeks and an involuntary sob choked me. Joy, awe and incomprehension filled me
and then melted together in concentric waves of warmth and security that seemed
connected to the glow that the Virgin was apparently generating.
With a monumental effort, I tore my eyes from hers and shut them, and
the feeling abruptly stopped. But as soon as I glanced at her once more, the
emotion again caught my spiritual core in its grasp and brought new tears to my
eyes. It wasn't until doña María laid her hand on my shoulder and
whispered, "Isn't she beautiful, Carlitos?" that I was able to turn
away from the Miraculous Virgin. As I did, I could distinctly feel the oval of
medal dangling from the chain around my neck lying warm as an only half-cooled
rivet against my breast.
I brushed my cheeks with the backs of my hands and tried to speak, but
had to clear my throat before I could say, "Yes, more beautiful than
anything else I've ever known."
That was the sum total of our conversation about what had happened
between la Milagrosa and me. I never again had this type of dramatic
religious experience in waking life. And during the three years that followed
until doña María's death, not once did we talk about the incident. Nor
did we repeat the unique nocturnal visit to the sanctuary. I occasionally
walked my mother-in-law to Mass, but I would invariably sit in the plaza reading
until she came out, never again, in those three years, entering the Candelaria—although
doña María never failed to invite me to come inside with her.
died while reading in her bed. (It was her custom to read long into the night
when she couldn't sleep). She passed away in the company of two great works:
open, face-down on her night-table, lay Paradiso from Dante's La
Divina Commedia, the book she had re-learned Italian to read. Open on her
lap was The Confessions of St. Augustine. In her right hand, when my
brother-in-law found her body the next morning, she was clutching the
Miraculous Virgin Medal. According to Alfonso, his mother appeared to have died
in complete peace. And why not? When she crossed over, she was surely among
The night of the day of her funeral, the chain on my own Milagrosa medal broke while I was
sleeping. Mo found the medal and its necklace in the bedding the next morning.
I had become so used to the medal's presence that I wasn't even aware I had lost
it. When Mo told me she had found it, I felt a sudden chill, a kind of terrible
anxiety at the thought that I had gone through the night unprotected. Suddenly,
the Milagrosa was a lot more to me
than a surrogate rabbit's foot.
I painstakingly repaired the clasp on the medallion's chain and replaced
it around my neck. That same day, I went alone to the Candelaria, pushed
through its tall doors into the nave and strode directly to the niche of the
Miraculous Virgin to try to re-establish spiritual contact with her and with my
mother-in-law, for whom I was grieving more than I could ever have imagined I
would grieve for any human being. I stared long and hard into the eyes of the
Virgin, but it was no go. Nothing happened. I felt nothing but disgust and disillusionment.
She was just another plaster image, a chipped, frozen-faced statue, with
staring, painted eyes, a too-deliberately-sweet painted bow of a mouth and
gaudy blue and gold-glitter shawl which, I now noticed, could have stood a good
dusting. The only light that radiated from the plaster saint was that which
glinted off the ridiculous gold-foil pseudo-rays that fanned out behind the
When I came out of the church and crossed the street to sit alone in the
plaza for a while, I felt something cool against my belly and, reaching inside
my shirt, found my medal resting against the waistband of my trousers, the
chain once again broken, but this time in the middle instead of at the clasp.
My hands began to shake as I stuffed the broken chain and the medal into my
shirt pocket. I sat down, exhausted, on a bench in the plaza and wept for a
time in grief and desolation.
Later that day I said to Mo, "My chain broke again."
"Maybe you'll have to have a new clasp put on it," she said.
"This time it broke in a different place."
"Don't worry, darling," she said soothingly, sensing my
despair and talking to me as if I were a child afraid of the dark, "we'll
get you a new chain."
She was so gentle and attentive despite her own grief, that I put my
arms around her and began to weep against her shoulder.
"It won't do any good," I said. "With your mother gone,
the Milagrosa has abandoned me."
At this, Mo held me away from her and looked sternly at me through tears
of her own.
"Don't you believe that, Chaz! Not even for a minute. The Virgin
hasn't abandoned you. She's just telling you that you no longer need her. You
now have a protector of your own on the other side."
I bought a new chain for my medal, a stronger, heavier one. But it was
no use. It broke again and fell to the floor when I undressed to bathe the
evening of the same day that I attempted once again to wear it. Broken chain and
Virgin now lie in state in a box in my dresser drawer, little more than
a slightly tarnished reminder of doña María's love.