These were a once-common sight in areas of Catholic settlement. Especially common in urban areas and in certain gardens one would see Our Lady, the Holy Madonna, Our Lady of Blessed Sorrow, Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, or any number of smaller devotional forms, each one made clear by what was once a Universal language of images and devices. The rose. The heart. The arms up or out or to the sides or in prayer.
In rural areas an up-turned bathtub, one of those old claw footed ones, would be half-buried into the ground and serve as a ready-made niche or form the basis for some grotto where rocks would be piled and more often than not roses which area associated with the B.V.M. as are lilies and certain other flowers. In urban locations the Mary statue will be often in a window, but She is found in plenitude in gardens, even when the ground is cement and the only greenery allowed are bent and stuffed into cheep plastic containers and old coffee tins.
When I first moved to Brooklyn, it was still an extension of the Old Country. Italians, Irish the stereotype of Catholic traditionalist, the black shawl, the biddy, the crying Saint, the men who kept the house and home together with a fist, the ones the media calls backwards and parochial while they call their brown and black compatriots “spiritual” and “full of music” for practicing exactly the same traditions. Back in the Brooklyn days, when I was young, before I was washed up and forgotten, I lived next to St. Oneofthem and Our Lady Of Greenpoint. Our Lady of Greenpoint had a grotto, a shrine to the Holy Mother and in memory of a parishioner who I would not know. For those who need a little schooling in what a grotto is in Catholicism, it simply is a stack of rocks, maybe there is water involved, and in an overhang as if a cave, a dark place of mystery, there is a statue. More often than not, it is Our Lady. In those days, there was just the rocks, the statue, the candles and Brooklyn. The nights coming home late perhaps after a night of carousing, I paused.
The night was cold and damp, the trees were flowering. Somewhere there was a nightingale calling and this sound of nature competed with the howl of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and low wattage hum of the city. I would be still in a city that is forever moving. The candles flickering to the last wick of the wax would make a crackling sound. I would sit there on the bench and look at all the candles. Maybe tend to a few where I knew this trick from long ago to make them come back to life for a time. I would watch the number of candles, the prayers I would never hear. “Make my grandfather go to heaven.” “I have prayed to you for 60 years and I still cry myself to sleep.” “Thanks for the life I have had here in the New Country.” “I guess it is Tuesday, and every Tuesday I light a candle.” I would not have those prayers. I had others. Fear and loneliness and the darkness and the potential and that bird signing in the distance and the churning traffic of the BQE. I re-lit a candle that had gone out. Did I make that prayer return, or could I slip in my own? “I want my life to be forever….” The candles, the silent statue, the lights changed and someone at White Castle had a problem with their order and was fighting with the 24/7 window.
It was humble walk to my place – 20 mostly lonely and dark minutes after getting off the Subway. One had a long time to think on that walk. Questions, fears, reflections, was this the right thing to be doing with my life, oh why did I say that, was this the right place to live, was this the right time to be alive? The shops on the Avenue were closed then, no bars, no life, the people had gone to bed except for the Korean grocery stores guarded by the Mexican heavies. As I walked perhaps I stumbled, perhaps I was coming from work, as I walked either way and in whatever state I may have been I came cross such surprises. Vestiges of the Old Country and not just window treatments or decorations, but living theater, people out in quite hushed times in warm-cool spring and summer nights where were watching, waiting, keeping hope alive in the way they were taught. These were the last gasps of tradition from Europe. Our Lady of the Snows still had vigils and walks about the neighborhood. There were the well-known ones, the ones families came from out-of-town for, huge parties with bands and that made the papers, the ones that degenerated into street fairs with Sock Man, the Fried Dough, the Italian Sausages. But, what I remember were the small ones. The ones that appeared from a mist as if a remembered scene from a Fellini film you watched when drunk and high and later thought, did I really see that?
Was that a metaphor or was that a thing? Did I really stumble home at 3 in the morning and some grandmothers were outside with candles and statues and a late vigil and I barely was able to walk in a line and these grandmothers all were doing the Rosary looking into the dark lit by mercury lamp all pensive and expecting as if the Saint would perhaps come to life or die if they did not watch in such a way. I wondered if I were 80, could I stay up all night? I could barely make 2 or 3 and that was with an unhealthy mix of chemicals and booze. I wanted to be at the vigil. The nightingale sang somewhere deeper into Greenpoint and the warm and cold patches of spring mixed and fought. I wanted it to be warmer. I wanted to stay up all night an not have to work in the morning. I wanted to know some secrets of the ages, I wanted to translate a book from Latin that told the story of a Saint we needed to know. I was young, and perhaps that is what we want when we are young. To be restored when we have yet to be broken. To be pure before we have been sullied. To be new when we are yet fresh and healthy. And here there was this neighborhood I was luck enough to see before it died. Before it was all gone.
In time, there had to be a gate protecting the whole grotto endeavor from I assume the Unbelievers or radical hipsters who were moving into the area with their art bikes and trust funds. The church I loved closed down and I cannot tell you why it pains me to see it converted into lofts. I am a bad everything, but I still churn to think at the school of the Holy St. Greenpoint being turned into Condos and all manner of collectors pulling each devotional out of the church and selling it on Ebay until there was no prayer left to be had. Nothing greater than us. We die. The condos replaced so many old houses, I go back to what is now for me The Old Neighborhood and like any old person… I don’t recognize it at all. Those grandmothers are all now gone.
Wandering the world as I do, I was outside of Gotham in the city of Yonkers. A mess of problems and issues and streets and hills but once not too long ago it was a mix of those same forces as once were found in Dear Expensive Brooklyn. Italian and Irish and the rest of so many countries that have come to these shores. Those from Mexico and other areas of the Americas, many of which are similar in the practice of Catholicism, the ancient Christian religion. And as those Irish and Italian, and unlike so many of today’s “whites” who eschew the past since it certainly has many bitter elements, much of what these newcomers do is perhaps more familiar to those older generations – what was once called the co-religious. And in the gardens and often in the trees or other unlikely places one can still find those Blessed Mothers watching over the houses, on alters of their own, devised by unskilled hands or unique perspectives to devotion.
Walking about it reminded me of being younger, and living in Brooklyn and perhaps Yonkers is the New Brooklyn, but not because it has hipster atheist millennials making home brew and sifting through record shops but because there still remain a generation perhaps a culture that is today so unlike ours that language and class and race and ethnicity and all those other attributes provoked and exclaimed by those sources we read on and offline or cannot fit into their narrative or refuse to capture. Perhaps there too grandmothers watch over the Saints late into the night.
As I moved between the hills and areas of Yonkers I shifted in neighborhood and some remained Irish and Italian and others were Mexican or Puerto Rican or Guatemalan or wherever. All had statues of Our Lady and similarly adorned and positioned. This expression crossed languages, generations, immigration statuses, and economics and I wondered what it would like to live again in that old Brooklyn or the Old Country or any place where strangers could talk on the street and have a common frame. I was in a doughnut shop getting a bad coffee when I overheard two old people talking as friends. They talked about the park in the old city, the way they went out of town for holiday, the churches they went to on Sunday the time they came to this country 60 and 55 years before, the jobs they got, the families they had, the children they raised, the grandchildren who blessed them, and in time I realized that they had not until just then, met. In the loud and garnish chain doughnut shop with the yelling machines and the twisted excuse for food. They met just then. In Yonkers. Blocks down from the church with the statue of yet another Mary.
I felt a tinge of loneliness creep across my back and rest at the nape of my neck which was all of a sudden sore. I eavesdropped like some child copying answers from the nerds at the other table. I wondered for a moment what it would have been like to have been born back a long time ago in a safe place, know nothing else, to live as one just lived, worked as all worked, and be dead today and not wonder or fear.
I gulped my terrible coffee and left. More hills. More streets. A cold spring day with a hot sun, the trees again blooming and I was listening for those vigils and looking for the Holy Mother of My Youth, the Blessed Virgin of Sinners and Saints.