(Essay 1) The Piggly Wiggly and the Black Madonna by Mary Saracino

Meet Mago Contributor Mary Saracino.

“The sun spun in the sky,” my father told me. “It twirled in place for a second or two. Then it stopped.”

He had witnessed this miraculous phenomenon outside the Piggly Wiggly supermarket a few blocks from his house in Seneca Falls, New York.

“Herbie saw it, too,” Dad added, as if mentioning his stepson-in-law would dispel any doubts I might have had about his sanity.

I sat across his kitchen table as he matter-of-factly related his tale. Calmly, with eyes as clear as sunlight, he sipped his afternoon coffee and nibbled a Stella Dora wafer cookie.  I was visiting from Minneapolis, returning to my hometown for a short stay. I was not unaccustomed to my father’s supernatural stories. He often talked of the numinous powers of saints and angels. He had even sworn that, as a teenager, his Guardian Angel had mysteriously dislodged a murderous chunk of crusty bread from his clenched throat. But never before had he spoken of errant suns.

It didn’t spin wildly, my father insisted.  The sun didn’t cartwheel over the astonished horizon or bound over billowy puffs of clouds.  It wiggled quietly, the way the tail of the grocery store’s giant icon, a butcher-hat-wearing-pig, might wag in a soft breeze.

“I stared right at it and my eyes weren’t injured at all,” my father attested.

Until that astonishing moment it had been an afternoon like countless others.  My dad and Herbie had routinely exited through the Piggly Wiggly’s automatic sliding glass doors into the hot sunshine, arms full of grocery bags, heading home to their respective wives.  “Phew, it’s a scorcher,” my father might have casually remarked as he glanced up at the sweltering orb, but on this day, that rascal sun was not content to merely beat down upon their sweating heads. It danced before their dumbfounded eyes.

Black Madonna of Tindari, Sicily, June 2001
Black Madonna of Tindari, Sicily, June 2001

Heat stroke, one might be tempted to scoff. Every rational adult knows that the sun can’t spin in the sky. Laws of nature notwithstanding, Herbie corroborated my dad’s story after the two men rushed home to reveal the miracle to everybody who would listen. Those chosen for the initial telling were members of the family who lived in and around the small town my father had claimed as his home for nearly sixty years.  His confessors included my stepmother, Rose, Herbie’s wife MaryAnn, my brothers and my father’s brothers and sisters. Eventually the news spread to an assortment of neighbors and the priest at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.  Some believed him.  Some didn’t.  My father had a reputation by then of being a self-styled, modern-day mystic.  Several times he had traveled to Medugorje, in what was once Yugoslavia, to visit the holy site where the Blessed Virgin Mother is said to appear.  The sun spins in the sky there, too, when She is present, and people are able to stare directly into it, without harming their eyes, without the aid of sunglasses or pinhole viewing devices.  The Blessed Mother’s divine powers shield and protect the retinas of staunch believers.

When my father arrived home after his first trip to Medugorje he sadly confessed to me on the phone that he was not among the fortunate who had witnessed the Holy Mother’s appearance. He had not seen the sun accomplish anything during his pilgrimage, other than to shine, shyly, in the sky.  Other seekers on that rocky hillside in Yugoslavia had been more generously blessed. They had witnessed the Virgin Mother and Her miraculous spinning sun. My father’s faith was strong and he believed their accounts. To commemorate the miracle, he collected small rocks from that holy hillside and brought them back to America, doling them out, like amulets, to his children, his mother, his siblings, his friends. When I flew out to visit him, he tucked a shard of Medugorje stone into the center of my hand, as well.

“Carry it with you,” he urged.  “The rocks heal people.  Pray to the Blessed Mother.  She will help you.”

There were other wondrous claims. My father swore that the metal links on his rosary had changed to gold since he had encountered the essence of the Divine in Medugorje.  Whenever the opportunity presented itself, he would pull the coil of beads from his pants pocket and proudly display them.  “See,” he would say with awe. “These weren’t gold before.  But look.  Look at them now!”

When he unfurled his palm and held the transformed rosary before my eyes, I stared at the swirl of black beads and blinked hard.  Although not the gleaming gold of a wedding band, the links appeared to be gold-like. I couldn’t recall if they had ever been silver before Dad’s pilgrimage.  I nodded compliantly. “Yes, I see, Dad. They do look golden.”

I could have suggested that my father bring his rosary to my brother Steve, a jewelry designer. No doubt Steve would have been able to verify whether or not the gold was authentic or merely tarnished pall.  As inane as it seems, it never crossed my mind to scrutinize the authenticity of my father’s statement.  It simply didn’t matter. Like a medieval alchemist, my father fervently believed that the silver had transmuted to gold. That was reason enough for me to let it be.

Other daughters might have tried to censor such claims.  They might have even urged their fathers to seek psychiatric help or petitioned to have them committed to a mental health unit. Still others might have called the National Enquirer causing an avalanche of Marion-crazed believers to descend upon my father’s small town. The faithful would arrive in droves, kneeling and wailing in the asphalt parking lot in front of the Piggly Wiggly, their wide eyes staring, unflinchingly, into the stupefying sun, surrounded by a passel of jaded entrepreneurs hawking

T-shirts and statues of Our Lady of the Piggly Wiggly.

I did none of that.

The folks to whom my father had imparted the story of his spinning miracle simply took the entire incident in stride. So did I.  That’s just Frankie we agreed. Our attention soon returned to the mundane routines of daily life.

My father’s talk of the sun moving, of golden rosary links, of healing rocks was as commonplace a topic for him as a chat about last week’s Yankee game.  Ever since I was a child, the Blessed Mother and the saints have suited up for Dad’s starting line up—right beside Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.  For him, the Piggly Wiggly spinning sun was just as thrilling, but no more extraordinary, than a no-hitter or a grand slam homer at the World Series.  Things of the spirit world, visions beyond the veil, images of halo-headed holy men and women populated my father’s everyday world. His devotion to the Virgin Mary was sacrosanct. Steeped in the religion of his southern Italian youth, this blend of canonical Catholicism and pre-Christian mysticism was the cornerstone of his faith. It comforted him through his joys and his sorrows.

It was not difficult for me to accept my father’s faith-filled assertions as possibility instead of fact.  He and I both believe in the power of the soul to experience things that the rational mind cannot comprehend.  The traditions of my father’s southern Italian Catholicism took root among a people that, in pre-Christian times, were followers of a more ancient longing. The blood of my father’s faith mingled with that of ancient Greeks, Moors, and countless others who, over the course of thousands of years, had invaded my ancestors’ homelands. Each conqueror brought their own distinct spiritual fervor, imposing it upon the conquered, until the result was an amalgam of creeds and practices. Sometimes god was even a woman. And dark-skinned.

My father’s religion is rich in metaphor. It is a spiritual poetry that embraces the essence of mystery. It differed in texture and content from the strict Catholic doctrine taught to me by the Irish-American nuns in the All-American parochial school I attended as a child.   My father’s Catholicism was far more intoxicating than the stories and commandments pontificated by priests from the pulpit at Sunday Mass.  The kind-hearted Irish-American pastor, Father O’Byrne, never mentioned the sun’s ability to defy the laws of physics. His oration never included stories about saints with stigmatas, or martyrs plucking out their eyes, as Santa Lucia had done. The good Father stuck to safer material—New Testament stories about Jesus turning water into wine or walking on tempestuous seas.

I learned the juicier tales from my father’s Lives of the Saints books, nearly the only reading material to be found on the shelves of the knotty pine built-in bookcase in our front parlor.  I dreamed of renaming myself Agnes in honor of the saintly, fourth century Roman who declared herself a Christian and was martyred for her devotion. This girl, of perhaps twelve or thirteen, refused to renounce her Christianity and so endured torture and threats to her life. Stripped and paraded through town as an example to all those who would wantonly display their faith, she sought only to cover her unclothed body with her long tresses and accept her impending death. She is depicted with a lamb, the symbol of her virginal innocence. I knew I was capable of such steadfast allegiance, although I secretly prayed that I would never be so fiercely tested.

Italian Catholics saints were brave and generous. Whether surrendering their worldly inheritance, like St. Francis of Assisi, or zealously championing the plight of children confined to the gallows, like St. John Bosco of Turin, these men and women embodied virtues and values that transcended the gritty, lurid details I devoured in the pages of their biographies. Who could not be persuaded to a life of compassion by St. Joseph, who had raised Jesus as if he were his own son? His selfless generosity enabled him to set a place at the table for a boy-child that he had not fathered, engendering a custom enacted to this day in Italian American communities across the country. On St. Joseph’s feast day, March 19, Italians open their pantries and feed those less fortunate.

By the time I was ten years old, Pope John XXIII had pried open the clenched doors of tradition and heralded the way for a more pedestrian, ecumenical Catholicism.  The Lives of the Saints were banished to the sidelines, a curious footnote in the annals of Catholic history. Priests donned less ornate vestments and faced their congregations in an attempt to suggest that they were merely members of the flock now, no longer overseers of the herds. They celebrated Mass, not in Latin, as they had for centuries, but in English or the vernacular language of their congregation. Anyone who still believed in Purgatory became suspect.  Limbo disappeared.  Indulgences fell out of favor. No longer could you merely say a few select prayers and earn a suspended sentence in Purgatory. Indulgences were once seen as an essential way to plea bargain with God, get Him to ease the duration of sin-induced punishment in return for good works on Earth (sort of like time off for good behavior). Now they were suddenly relegated to the status of off-color jokes; everyone had a favorite one but no one was allowed to mention it in polite company. The juicy, transcendental stories—the legends, upon which my father’s faith thrived— were also silenced, shooed to the attic like crazy relatives.

Many positive changes emerged as a result of Vatican Council II, not the least of which was a lessening of the absolute power that the Catholic clergy held over the spiritual lives of parishioners.  Somehow, in the transition, my father never succeeded in leaving behind his Old World way of seeing the Catholic cosmos.  Whether consciously or not, he clung to the mystical traditions that gave his faith its richness, its deeper, psychological meanings.  Why be a Catholic if you couldn’t believe in the power of novenas to save souls?  One might as well be a Unitarian.  To my father’s way of thinking, Heaven, and all its saintly royalty, had not forsaken the true believer, no matter what kind of revolution Pope John XXIII had set in motion.

My journey away from Catholicism has been long and serpentine. My questioning started when I was six and my mother began an extramarital affair with the assistant pastor of our local Catholic Church. By the time I was thirteen, she had run off with him, taking my two sisters (one of whom was secretly the priest’s daughter) and me with her, leaving behind my four brothers and, of course, my father.  I learned, at a very early age, that the canonical rules were flexible. Priests weren’t untouchable demi-gods; the Pope wasn’t infallible. They were merely mortals trying to do their best to interpret the ways of God, just like anybody else.

Throughout my junior high and high school years I went to Mass every Sunday, alongside my two sisters, my mother, and my stepfather, who was by then de-frocked. Both my mother and her new husband had been excommunicated when they had run off together—he for turning his back on his priestly vows and his diocesan duties, she for leaving her marriage. Although they were legally married in a civil ceremony their union was not blessed by the Church, which had damned them to the fires of hell. I thought it odd that non-Catholics were allowed to divorce and remarry while Catholics were sentenced to a life devoid of God’s benevolent grace. What kind of God was that?

“The Piggly Wiggly and the Black Madonna” was originally published in She Is Everywhere! Volume 1, edited by Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum (iUniverse, 2005).

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