When I was a little girl, my mother and I would make a pilgrimage to Grandma’s house several times a week. She lived in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago, so named because it was behind the stock yards that produced most of the country's meat back in the day. That heyday had passed long before I was born in 1968, and the yards shut down for good when I was three.
Her neighborhood was not safe. There were drug deals out on the streets, bags of white powder and pistols in plain view. Gutted out buildings stood on each block, mostly from fires deliberately set. There was a terrible smell when it rained--the stench of rotting flesh and blood from the closed stock yards that haunted the streets.
Little 8 and 9 year old prostitutes approached Grandma's neighbor, who considered giving them a couple of dollars before thinking, "better not, don't want to be accused of anything." I overheard him tell the story.
On the pavement in front of Grandma's house there was a crack, the shape of an alligator's head, hard for me to roller skate over.
The inside of Grandma's house was a cozy cocoon, filled with open bags of hard candy, stacks of National Enquirers and shiny-framed pictures of me. Next to the television stood a shrine to the Virgin Mary.
"Come here, Doll, give me a kiss," Grandma called as soon as I walked in the door.
"I know you're a good girl," she comforted me whenever my mom tried to convince her otherwise.
Grandma mostly lived in the big chair in front of the television. I rarely saw her move: it was painful for her to do so. But I liked always seeing her in the same spot wearing her bright polyester pants and floral blouses.
Grandma worried about me because she thought my mom, her daughter, was a little nuts. "Doll," she whispered after my mom reported my most recent sins and left the room, "I know your mother is high strung. Believe me, I know."
Then she sighed and reassured me that everything would be okay.
Grandma also worried about Cher's daughter Chastity. She had a habit of talking about TV stars as if they were her personal friends. "Accchhhh, what is that woman doing now? Somebody needs to say something to her for Chastity's sake."
Sometimes I got to spend the night at Grandma's house. She and I stayed up late playing gin rummy, then we would both get under the covers of her squeaky bed. I fell asleep as she whispered her prayers and fingered the rosary beneath her pillow. The eyes of Jesus and Mary stared at us from the pictures on her bedroom wall.
I tried to believe that I was good enough to go to heaven.
When I was fifteen, a miracle occurred. It happened in Grandma’s church in the Back of the Yards. It was a beautiful old church with huge ceilings, stained glass windows, ornamental carvings, solemn statues--and a three foot tall statue of Mary that one day started to cry. It's true! Not big sobs or anything, her face didn't pucker up, her mouth didn't make gurgling, gasping, choking sounds. Silent tears simply seeped out of her glass eyes and glided down her porcelain face.
People came from all over to see her. Grandma was not well enough to witness the miracle but she insisted that my mother and I go, and so we did. I remember climbing over the drunks on the front steps, opening the church doors, kneeling before the weeping Mary and praying that we wouldn't get mugged on the way back.
It was quiet in the church and the air was heavy with hope, anxiety and incense. I remember feeling that anything could happen: the earth could split open and pull us into its core. Angels could swoop in and serenade us. Lightning could strike us dead.
My mom seemed so small kneeling next to me and I wanted to touch her hand, but I didn't. She fixed her gaze onto the weepy statue and then so did I and soon we were crying, my mother and I, crying silently, like Mary, tears streaming down our faces. What is it? I'll be better. I'll be good.
We waited for the Blessed Mother to speak.
But she didn't, so my mother and I solemnly returned to Grandma's house and reported what we saw. Somehow, the telling of the story excited us. We declared that the three of us were truly blessed--something special must be on the verge of happening because the Blessed Virgin herself had come to Grandma's church.
For days we were giddy and anxious, wondering what it all meant.
The TV anchorman delivered the bad news a week after our visit to the weeping Mary. A lone gunman had stormed the church, shooting at Mary, shooting at her three times. I imagined us there, my mother, grandmother and I, crouching down under the pew, peeking to see if blood poured from the bullet holes. How satisfying that would be! More proof she is here, Oh Blessed Mother, you are really here!
But the bullets missed Mary, merely knocking her over as they whizzed past. My mother, grandmother & I weren't even there to see it.
The church placed the Blessed Mother inside of a bullet proof case. She no longer wept. The National Enquirer picked up the story and printed a picture of the now protected Virgin who used to cry.
Grandma cut out the picture and hung it up in a frame on her wall.