I am from an Irish-Catholic family.
Right there that qualifies me to be a card-carrying member of Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and more.
My mother, God rest her soul, had a particularly deep devotion to The Blessed Virgin Mary, in any of her manifold disguises. Ie., Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of County Cork, ad infinitum. I grew up thinking that The Blessed Mary Ever Virgin had more “persons” in her personhood than God Himself! I mean, depending on which spiritual persuasion you subscribe to, the most we see in God is three.
So this in itself threw me into a mental/spiritual muddle. There were just too many Marys to pray to. I began early on to withdraw into a sort of fantasy world in which I created my own Mary. Now, seeing that she was not listed in the Roman Catholic (should have been the Irish Catholic) hierarchy quite as high as Jesus, the Holy Ghost (that title threw me for a long time, too), or God the Father, I figured in my eight year-old mind that I’d be in a lot less trouble by making another her, instead of another them. I would be kind of blasphemous, maybe, but not totally, like I would have if I had invented God the Daughter. See my rationale?
So I grabbed one of Mom’s statues of Mary, including the dime she’d stuck underneath it to make sure the prayer she’d offered way back when got answered (dimes had the power, somehow, to insure this). Grabbed it and spirited it off to my bedroom in the basement. Situating it on my rickety nightstand that Pop had banged together for me in one of his cursing carpentry adventures, I found a white cloth and “decorated” it with numbers—1, 2,3, and so on. Lovingly. Then I draped the cloth over her head and shoulders—a shawl. Voile. My Blessed Lady of Arithmetic. At Our Lady of the Presentation Catholic School, I was an A student in Daydreaming, a B+ student in Cutting Up, but I was flunking Arithmetic. She’d help. And I even swiped another dime out of Pop’s pocket to add to the bribe underneath the statue.
Jim came home late one evening while I slept. Jim was my older brother, my idol, a student at Regis College (taught by the dreaded Jesuits). I’d been having a nightmare about him beating up on Pop, I think. Maybe it was Grandpa.
Jim slept with me in a big double bed. That was cool. All Irish gang up in multiples to sleep. It’s like none of us can afford twin beds or new mattresses or enough blankets. Or pillows.
So, Jim was studying…PHILOSOPHY…at college. Do not use CAPS for emphasis—but in this case it’s essential. God help all of us in our quiet home. He was also majoring in Coors, leading a group of other philosophy students at Joe’s Cave (a local bar) after classes. I don’t know what the Joe’s Cave discussion that night was all about, but Jim came rolling into the bedroom, hit the lightswitch (literally), and wanted to talk to me about Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Hegel, and of course, Augustine. Like I could understand any of it. Mary and all the divinities were hard enough, and I was sleepy; had a test in Arithmetic the next morning as well.
“Leave me alone. I’m sleeping.”
“Now wake up, Paddy. Yoush a smart kid…”
So I learned that Augustine was a Catholic, a good guy. The rest of them were Communists and screwballs. Basically. And then Jim noticed Blessed Mary of Arithmetic on the nightstand, and the dissertation switched gears and headed down a long, dark grade in the direction of Hell.
Grandpa slept in the room adjacent to ours. He was eighty-seven or thereabouts; quiet, well-mannered usually, and a light sleeper. Still, eighty-seven year old men need uninterrupted nights, and being situated next to mine and Jim’s room was bound to lead to a donnybrook in time. I don’t know to this day whether it was God, or Mary, angry about her un-regal shawl, or Jesus or the Holy Ghost, but I think it was one of them who wiggled an angry finger into our household. Someone. Maybe just the devil.
”Ain’t that Ma’s statue of Mary, Queen o’ Heaven?” His mood had soured somewhat, having run the philosophers from Germany into the theological mud. I glanced over at it and asked for help, very underbreath.
“Nope. It’s an old one. Umm…Blessed Mary of…” What?
Hail Mary, full of grace…
“Of what? Hic.” He said this in an unusually loud voice, not angrily, but the way an inebriated philosophy student would when confronted with a serious metaphysical dilemma. Question. Thing.
Grandpa woke up. He tapped on the thin wall separating our rooms with his gnarly old knuckles, which must have offended Jim.
“Ah, go to sleep, Grandpa. Hic.”
…the Lord is with thee…
There followed a rather one-sided exchange, as Grandpa would not back down and just plug his ears, then go to sleep. He kept mumbling. Jim kept answering, a little louder each time. This went on for some time until Jim left the room and went to grandpa. I heard, “Shaint Augustine…mumble, mumble, hic.” Some unintelligible reply. “You woushn’t know, though, woush ya’…mumble, mumble. Hic, hic?”
I slipped out of bed and knelt down to finish the Hail Mary, and threw in a couple more quick ones, just in case she was sleeping too.
Mom and Pop slept on the main floor. Pretty soon I heard stomping on the floorboards. And then, “Goddamit, Jim, go to bed!” Pop. Not Mom.
Jim replied in one of his Ciceroic bursts, with a few deleted expletives added for emphasis.
Pop came down. Mom, too. Marianne and Rosie. Mike and Donnie and Tim and Buddy and Uncle Jack (he lived with us, too). The house was small, and none of them had to travel very far to get to the scene of another midnight fight.
Mostly, the fight was between Jim and Pop because the rest of us were way too young; not in Jim’s league with fists, feet, and teeth. Yes, it didn’t take a genius to predict there’d be an all-out knock-down, drag-out brawl over philosophy that night. And all because I’d made another Mary.
By the way, at breakfast the next morning, Mom pulled me aside after serving up leftover corn beef and hash to everyone except Jim, who was sleeping it off, and told me it had been the right thing to do…dressing Our Lady of Switzerland’s Woes in a new gown; that my prayers would always be answered for the act.
“What’re all them numbers on that hankerchif, though?”
“Nuthin’ Ma. They were on there already.”
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.