Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee
I was driving into Wyoming on a late August day in 2016, wandering through the flats and scrub, the southern part where the mountains were a faraway postcard I was hoping to see, en route to where I was supposed to be. The sun was high and hot and I kept the radio off to hear the wind numb my racing mind. I had to pee. A good excuse to stop and stretch my legs on this long ride in the moonscape, and I hoped for a truck stop, a gas station, some little café to appear.
Pine Bluffs, Wyoming. In the distance I saw it. Wasn’t sure what it was at first. A shock of white in the beige and brown tumbleweed. A point at first that grew as I climbed the hilly curve, grew and loomed, shadowing over the bowl of a little town below. As I saw the green rectangular exit sign, Exit 59, a huge white cross stood as a strange welcome to this ghost town. Large white crosses weren’t so surprising to me. There is on on I-40 on the way to Memphis. There’s one on a Texas highway I travel. Someone built one into the side of a mountain near Roanoke, Virginia; at the top of the hills of Williamsport, Pennsylvania where, in high school, we gathered near Steve Landale’s house and walked to the cross to drink beer in cans and smoke cigarettes. I pulled off the road and found a café, got a coffee and peed, but rather than head straight back onto the highway, I turned toward the cross at the edge of the town. Just a five minute diversion. I’d take a photo. Send it to my Catholic mother and make her smile.
Blessed art thou amongst women
As I pulled into the parking lot, the thing loomed larger than it looked from the highway and cast a mid afternoon shadow along the tops of the trailers and low-rent one story vinyl-sided houses. I parked my car and walked toward the cross, a gravel path to some green, a little grass, some flowers and plaques I wouldn’t read.
A small group of elderly women and men stood in a semi-circle in front of the cross. I moved closer. They had rosary beads dangling from their hands. There were eight, maybe ten of them and I tiptoed away, around them, so as not to disturb. I didn’t want to bother them and I certainly didn’t want them to notice me. I didn’t want small talk. I was looking for something else in the still desert air, in the shadow of the monolith.
Blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus
“Would you like to join us?” One of them had spoken.
“Oh, no. I’m sorry, I’m not…” and I couldn’t find the end of my own sentence.
“It’s ok. We are praying the rosary. Do you know it?”
I did. My mother. My grandmother. All my grandmother’s sisters, my great aunts, the nuns in their black widow habits with rosary beads dangling from their hips. The cold marble of the stations of the cross. The frankinscence that tickled my nose and set off allergy fits of sneezing in the middle of Mass my entire childhood.
Holy Mary, mother of God
“Yes. I do,” I almost whispered. One of them held out a rosary, an invitation. Surprising myself, I reached out and took it, joining them at the end of their arc.
Pray for us sinners now and that the hour of our death
And the words tumbled like tears from my mouth. I knew them better than I know anything. More than memorization, I know this prayer like the beating of my heart and, although I have raged against The Church in capital letters for the better part of 25 years, I fell into the lullabye of this prayer. My grandmother’s hands found my shoulders as the breeze touched my skin and I could smell her wrinkled fingers, talcum and rosewater. “My princess,” she would coo to me, brushing my hair away from my tears. My mother in her paisley skirt, stained by orange juice and flour, making cookies and pies while the four of us clung to her pleats, competing for her love.
The cross came out of the sun’s shadow and the words became whispers and one of the women next to me touched my hand as I touched the beads to my lips.
It was a mid-August afternoon. I stood with strangers on a borrowed pilgrimage for 10 minutes at most and the wind changed and the sun warmed and a prayer came out of my skin anew, a gift from all the women who gave life to me, to the mother I knew I wanted to become, finally, birthed in a strange barren landscape, just a stop on the way to nowhere special.
September 29, 2017