I grew up attending the Catholic Church. The traditions and architecture of Catholicism are seated deep within me, and although I no longer attend the Catholic Church, I am sure what I experienced as a child lives within me still.
One of the traditional Catholic celebrations that I participated in as a child was the May Crowning of the Virgin Mary. Spring was regal during May in Indiana. The tulips had come and gone and the earth worms were back, covering the sidewalks and drives after the soaking warm rains of the season. The earth was wet and ripe, prepared to receive the seeds of life that she would carry through the year. Heavy winter jackets were replaced by raincoats. Gloves were happily stowed away. Galoshes were slipped over shoes and umbrellas popped up across the community. The May Crowning in the sanctuary was the highlight of spring, preceded by days of gathering lilacs and bachelor’s buttons to adorn the small shrine to the Virgin Mary placed in the classroom. There were processional practices in the afternoons. The girls were released to line up for the processional, while the boys restlessly waited in the rows of wooden pews.
May crownings occur in many Roman Catholic parishes and homes with the crowning of a statue of the Virgin Mary. The ceremony traditionally takes place with young girls wearing dresses and carrying flowers, traditionally hawthorn, to adorn the statue. One of the girls, often the youngest, carries a crown of flowers or an actual golden crown on a cushion for placement by the May Queen, often the oldest girl, on the statue. The flowers are replaced throughout the month to keep them fresh.
It was an eighth grade girl who was always selected to climb the wooden ladder up to the Virgin Mary and place the floral crown on her head. My sister, Candy – Cassandra Renee – had the honor when she was in the eighth grade. As I watched her I wanted to do that, too; to be like her.
When Candy was in high school, she dated the local drug dealer. He was a national debate champion and a druggie. Doesn’t seem to fit, but at the time it was manageable for him. Things got out of control for him when he went to college and the police caught up with him and my sister. It was a first offense for my sister, who was along for the ride one too many times. A good attorney and all of my parent’s savings cleaned things up for Candy. For my parents things weren’t as cleared up. It was the end of their relationship with Candy. She moved in with her boyfriend and he refused to allow her to see us – any of us. The last time we were together was the day before my sister Fran’s wedding. I went to her home to ask her to come to the wedding; to come celebrate with us. We got stoned together and listened to Michael rant about government policy. My sister gave me an “isn’t he wonderful” look and I was too stoned to argue, even though I wanted to tell her to run away as fast as she could. She didn’t come to the wedding.
The procession for the May crowning started at the back of the sanctuary and moved up the aisle toward the altar. The Virgin Mary had her place to the right of the altar, mounted on the wall behind a candelabrum, which was moved for the placement of the processional ladder. Classrooms of girls wearing pastel spring dresses and polished white shoes proceeded down the aisle, organized by grade and height to file into the front row pews. The eight grade girls entered the sanctuary, the chosen one following the pillowed crown of flowers. I’m sure there was music, but I don’t recall what it was. The sunlight flowed in from the windows over the altar and the pungent smells of wood and incense were strong. We each carried flowers. I either carried a clutch of bachelor’s buttons or lilacs. I do not recall.
Bachelor’s buttons grow wild in Indiana. They are a weed; Cornflower – Centaurea cyanus. They grew rampant in the field by the pond in our neighborhood and would bloom in shades of blue and purple. Their blooms lasted what seemed like forever. My sisters and I would clip them for our Mother and for the Virgin. I didn’t know they were a weed until one day when I took them for the classroom Virgin Mary shrine. My classmates laughed at my offering.
My Mom had a lilac bush in our yard and she allowed us to cut clippings from her bush to take to the shrine. She stopped going to church when Candy started dating Michael. We weren’t allowed to clip lilacs for the Virgin Shrine after that.
I never got to be the girl to crown the Virgin Mary, the May Queen. After the sixth grade I transferred to the local public school, said good-bye to daily mass and Nuns and turned my attention to boys and my own search for truth. My sister ran away from Terre Haute to find her truth. We heard that she was in Washington State and then Arizona. When I became a mother and started to understand my own mother’s heart, I hired a private detective to find her. She was in Hawaii, still with her Michael. We wrote for a while and I forwarded her address to my Mom and Dad. My mother wrote her and she wrote back. She also wrote to our Grandmothers who have passes away and with their passing, a loss of being in touch with Candy. My mother keeps Candy’s yearbooks, her first communion dress and a box of memorabilia for her in the coat closet in her home. The things wait for her return, but the reality of such an event is unlikely. My parents are selling their house and candy’s things will have to go. Candy sent flowers for my parent’s fiftieth anniversary but could not make the trip. Michael needed her. I sat in my mother’s bedroom this last summer and read the postcards that she sent from Hawaii to my Grandmother Miller. I read about her portrayal of an idyllic world with Michael and her three cats in her high rise condo with the view of Diamondhead. After I finished reading, I sat there for a while on my mother’s bed then got up, smoothed out the comforter and went outside to smell the lilacs.
Years after I found Candy my mother stopped me in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a family Christmas celebration and thanked me. Her eyes welled up with tears and she said she wanted me to know that she was grateful for what I had done. He said that without my efforts she still wouldn’t know where Candy was.
My Mom has a jar shaped like a snail in her china cabinet. It is an icon of my childhood, having been hanging around the house for as long as I can remember. It has wiggly antennae and looks at you with big eyelashed eyes. On its side is scrolled the word “candy.” She has had it for over fifty years. Inside it is a note reminding the curious visitor that the snail jar belongs to her oldest daughter, the YWCA national representative, prom queen, choir soloist, award winning pianist, salutatorian daughter who lives in Hawaii. Someday, after my mother dies, I will take that jar from her possessions, board a plane to the island and give it to Candy. It may not be the climb up a wooden ladder to adorn the Virgin Mary that I had always dreamed of doing, but maybe, if you will, a small act given to honor the sacrifice of a devoted mother.