By Mary Anne Anderson
Sophomore year at Ursuline Academy offered no comfort for the faint of heart, only more of the same: homework, daily prayers, and a first-class education. Laden with twenty pounds of books, I often stopped to daydream as I meandered through the woods to delay getting home too soon. Father always arrived before Mother, and I had to make the excuse of having too much homework to avoid being around him while he drank his first of many beers. That way, he might keep his grubby hands off me.
One day, the principal announced that our class was chosen to go to the New York World’s Fair, and that we had tickets to see Michelangelo’s Pietà. And we wouldn’t have to wear our uniforms. I could blend in, I thought. I opted for a simple blue shift with patent leather flats and a matching clutch, hoping to pass for at least sixteen.
I sat in the back of the bus and daydreamed as we crossed the Throgs Neck Bridge and reminded myself to look up the word “throg” when I got home. Father always made us use the dictionary to find the meanings of new words. I wondered if he was really going to be transferred to Switzerland and I could go to boarding school like he promised. I would let myself get fat on chocolates and pastries instead of purging my dinner every night.
I buddied up with two girls who quickly lost me in the crowd. Fine with me. I wasn’t popular, so it didn’t surprise me. I never seemed to fit in. The chalet-like Swiss Pavilion was first on my list, and I rode the Swiss Sky Ride several times, with its panoramic view of the fair and Manhattan in the distance. The tall skyline of buildings soon became mountain tops and I found myself transported to the Alps. I decided I would excel at French. And the free strawberry-topped waffles at the Belgian Pavilion were so yummy, I felt sure I would eventually live in Europe.
My new flats pinched my toes, so I found a bench near the astral fountain and closed my eyes, then bowed my head and said three Hail Marys, hoping to shake the sadness that trailed me like a shadow. I couldn’t calm the nerves that twisted my stomach into a ball of knots, and I worried that the new crease between my brows might reveal what I felt I could never tell mother was happening in her absence.
At two o’clock, we lined up at the Vatican Pavilion. The nuns darted about and could hardly contain their excitement as they took roll call. Tired from the noise and commotion, I entered the dimly lit, air-conditioned building and stepped onto a three-tiered moving platform. Hundreds of simulated stars bordered the sculpture, giving the impression of a heavenly night sky. The calming sound of chants echoed softly in the background. I saw several women clutching rosaries and crying.
There, in the profound silence, I fixed my eyes on the Pietà. The dark blue backlight cast a pall of gloom as I focused on Mary’s expression—her pitiful sadness, head down and eyes closed, her youthful beauty a sharp contrast to the horror and pain she must have suffered. Her left hand was outstretched as if to say, “I submit.” My left hand mimicked hers, and I clutched the handrail to keep from fainting.
The moving walkway inched along, then suddenly stopped so that I had a full frontal view. The ecru shade of marble was so pallid, the folds of her robes so lustrous. I could feel the mute presence of death all around her; in her expression, such aloneness. This I understood. Michelangelo had captured her condition so perfectly: here she showed ultimate compassion for the suffering of her God-child, rising above her own grief. Such strength in her compassion and acceptance.
How could God have forsaken her? She was just as much a victim as her son. Who would comfort her? Tears streamed down my cheeks and I felt the slow burn of anger churning. Three more Hail Mary’s wouldn’t be enough. Pray for us sinners? I thought. Why pray for the sinners; why not the victims? I missed my mother. If she couldn’t save me, maybe Mary could—if I prayed hard enough.
I held back more tears on the return trip to New Rochelle. The bus was quiet, and most of the girls were asleep or whispering and giggling quietly with each other. The image of the Pietà haunted me, and still does. Pity. Compassion. Death. I too had experienced it—the death of innocence. Would no one succor me? Clasping the rosary beads purchased at the gift shop, I began to pray, nodding off after the third Glory Be.
Throg: In 1642, John Throgmorton established a colony of the neck of an island in the Eastchester Bay in New Amsterdam. The name was later contracted to Throg.
Mary Anne Anderson belongs to the Cambria Writers Workshop and is also a member of Maui Live Poets Society. Her poems have been published in Monterey Bay’s Plentitude of Poets collection. Her poem “Ocean Walk” won first prize at the Marina Arts Festival, and her first chapbook, The Road Home – a collection of poems and photographs – was published in 2004. Her second chapbook, Dreamscapes, followed. Her new book of poems, Before the After: Love, Loss and Revolution in the Time of COVID, was released by Keyes Canyon Press in January 2021 and can be found at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0985007494/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_AGZ1WREJXZB46XV9JSGX.