She was skinny and blonde and kind of pretty. For this 12 year old to even think so must have meant that she was actually, beautiful.
She lived with her parents on the first floor of a six-family house at the end of an alley across from the playground. Her backyard was the parking lot of the A&P where, in the summer, we’d ride our bikes on weekends and in the winter become Kings of the Mountain atop piles of plowed snow. She never joined in our games, but would sometimes watch through the chain link fence that separated her from us.
We spoke only once. A bunch of us kids had ventured down the alley where she was sitting on the porch. I remember the house being painted green – jail-house green I would think as, years later, I patrolled past the old neighborhood and that house – that was the reminder of my shame.
“My parents work and I can’t leave the house”, she told us. “Both parents?” I asked. “Yes, both”. I had never heard of both parents working before. My dad worked two jobs, but my mother was always home. The same with almost all of the other kids, too. This was odd, I thought. But, not as odd as the way she spoke. There was something different in the way she said her words. She certainly wasn’t Irish, or French or Italian or Hungarian or Puerto Rican. I knew those accents. “Where are you from”, I asked. “Russia”, she answered.
If she had suddenly struck me with a baseball bat her answer could not have shocked or frightened me more. Russians were bad, I knew. We had drills in school preparing for the Russians to attack us with bombs. The government said they were bad. They killed people and starved them and didn’t believe in God. They were spies. And my eldest brother was at that very moment stationed in Germany protecting us from…The Russians. And they thought differently than we did. And, and…
“You’re a Commie”, I blurted. “No”, she said, “We got out”. It didn’t matter. She was a Russian. A spy. I just knew it. We all ran. And left that little girl sitting alone on those green steps of her new home, in the land of The Free. In today’s parlance, she was Cancelled.
Her name was, I think, Christine. Or, perhaps, Kristina. She was, after all, A Russian. If I could only do it all over. But, I can’t. And, the thing is, despite my fear, my sheer ignorance – I knew better. And that is the cause of the shame that still, to this day, haunts me. I knew better.
If thoughts could fly through the air, mine would somehow reach Kristina and she would know that I was and still am, sorry.
And, if thoughts could fly through the air, I would send them out to anyone thinking of acting as foolishly and hurtfully as did I those many years ago. Be Kind. The memory of our actions and of those we Cancel or Dox today may haunt us for a long time to come.
In April, 2006, I flew to Madrid, Spain to be with my son and daughter-in-law following the still–born death of their daughter, my first grandchild. It was Holy Week.
There are some sorrows that only can be described as profound; ones that leave you speechless and empty. Or, sometimes, in rage. This death, this loss of a purely innocent life, was such a sorrow. In the midst of this ancient city, I asked God to be with me, to help me understand and to save me from bitterness.
As Good Friday night fell, I walked through the narrow, darkened streets from my son’s apartment back to my hotel. Through the Plaza Mejor and down the winding Calle de Atocha, I suddenly found myself within a mass of people. Everyone was emptying the narrow street and moving onto the sidewalk. I had no choice but to move with them until I was able to find a small spot just across the street from Parroquia de Santa Cruz, the Church of the Holy Cross. The street outside of the church was filled with a formation of white robed, black-hooded figures carrying lit torches. I had never seen anything like this, but being American it conjured up unsettling images; I truly did not know what to expect.
Suddenly, the church doors opened. Another robed, hooded figure, carrying a large staff, appeared in the church doorway. He banged his staff on the steps and the robed column in the street came to attention. Another tap of his staff and he and the procession behind him started to move from the church toward the street below. This group was similarly robed and hooded and was carrying a platform supported by long poles. Atop this platform was a statue, but, because of the darkness, I could not determine of whom. The procession came to a halt in the street and the platform was lowered. After a few minutes and some prayers (spoken in Spanish, of course) the leader tapped the staff once. The figures lifted the platform to waist height. Another tap and the platform went to shoulder height. No other sound could be heard along the entire street. Two taps more and the procession started toward Plaza Mejor. Of the statue, all I could determine was that it was clad in black.
Most of the crowd waited in front of the church, Santa Cruz. With nothing waiting for me except a silent hotel room, I, too, stayed, unsure of what for. The tap of the processional leader’s staff could be heard echoing through those dark and still silent streets, first sounding more and more distant and then becoming closer. Whatever was coming, it was coming soon. Gradually, flickering torch light could be seen at the far end of Atocha, approaching our position in front of the church. I took out my camera and moved into a position to better see what was being carried by these silent, dark-robed, anonymous marchers. Perhaps it was the expectation, but through the absolute silence that filled the street I could feel something welling up inside of me. Fear, sadness, grief? I was not sure.
And, then it, rather she, was there. Atop this heavy wooden platform was a life-sized figure of the Blessed Virgin, depicted as the Mother of Seven Sorrows, adorned in black velvet with silver threading. Into the church she was carried. I moved on, but knowing something had happened that I could not express, even within myself.
The following day, returning back to my son’s apartment, I again entered Calle Atocha knowing I would go into the church and see the statue up close. On the steps of the church, against the wooden doors, sat two beggars, gypsies, actually. I had been cautioned about gypsies, but their presence did not concern me. Inside, I found an alcove, enclosed by an iron gate, in which was the statue I saw the night before.
I have been a Catholic my entire life and have seen thousands of statues and religious icons of every sort. But this, this was no ordinary statue. Beyond the absolutely stunningly beautiful garments was the face. The face of Mary. A face of unspeakable sorrow, a face of grief so profound and complete that it could only be brought about by the death of a purely innocent child. She took my grief onto herself. But, something else would happen that will stay with me – forever.
Call it imagination. Or transference. But, on the way out of the church I took closer notice of the two beggar/gypsy women. One was older than the other and I would later learn that they were mother and daughter. I gave each a small coin and went to my family. Later that afternoon, returning to the hotel, I again came to the church. The women were still there, sitting against the doors, bundled against the chilly spring wind. A quick visit inside and on the way out, as I passed them, I noticed their faces. The mother was perhaps 40. The daughter – I had to turn around and go back to view the Blessed Mother. Outside, again, it was true what I had thought. The faces were the same. Several days of visits further confirmed this. After about a week, my daughter-in-law asked to go for a walk. Of course, we went to the church that was only about a 10 minute stroll from her home. The women, as expected, were again on the church steps, their “spot”. I mentioned to my daughter-in-law my observation about the younger girl.
A week or so later, before returning back home, I asked that my daughter-in-law accompany me to the church to say a prayer – for healing, both emotional and physical. After our prayers I asked that she, since she was a native Spanish speaker, interpret something for me to the women. I explained how I was struck by the similarities in the faces and how interesting it was that it was this particular church, with that particular statue, that they chose to be close to. They agreed to have their pictures taken (something that is very unusual for them). The girl was, Magdalena.
Two years later, when my daughter-in-law had to return to Madrid for business, she paid a visit to Santa Cruz. There was Magdalena. She asked if I was there, too. When told no, I was back in the U.S., she got up and went into the church. When she came back out she handed my daughter-in-law a picture and said, “I will never forget your father”. The picture was a photo of the statue and the faces are still identical.
That Easter of 2006 was, indeed, a Holy Week. And I will always remember to look closely at what is in front of me. It just may be a face from heaven.
For those that are suffering or grieving this Easter, please know that you are remembered and not alone.