Our Lady of the Lost and Found
A Novel of Mary, Faith, and Friendship
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On an otherwise typical Monday morning, a middle-aged writer enters her living room and finds a woman standing by her fig tree. The woman is wearing a blue trench coat, white sneakers, and a white shawl over her hair. She is holding a purse and a suitcase. She is the Virgin Mary-and after 2000 years of petition, adoration, and traveling, she's in need of a little R&R. Invited in for lunch, Mary decides to stay for one week, during which an unlikely friendship develops. As our narrator learns the remarkable history of one of the most influential and complex women of all time, she is moved to examine life's big questions and her own capacity for faith. Witty and gently ironic, this inventive novel is an inspiration to believers and nonbelievers alike.
Looking back on it now, I can see there were signs. In the week before it happened, there was a string of unusual events that I noticed but did not recognize. Seemingly trivial, apparently unconnected, they were not even events really, so much as odd occurrences, whimsical coincidences, amusing quirks of nature or fate. It is only now, in retrospect, that I can see them for what they were: eclectic clues, humble omens, whispered heralds of the approach of the miraculous.
These were nothing like the signs so often reported by other people who have had similar experiences. The sun did not pulsate, spin, dance, or radiate all the colors of the rainbow. There were no rainbows. There were no claps of thunder and no bolts, balls, or sheets of lightning. There were no clouds filled with gold and silver stars. The moon did not split in two, the earth did not tremble, and the rivers did not flow backward. A mil-lion rose petals did not fall from the sky and ten thousand blue butterflies did not flock around my head. There were no doves. There were no advance armies of angels. There was not even one angel, unless you care to count the squirrel.
Three mornings in a row a fat black squirrel with one white ear came and balanced on the flower box at my kitchen window. It was the middle of April. There was nothing in the box but last year's dirt, hard-packed and dense with the ingrown roots of flowers long-gone to the compost pile. It would soon be time to refill them with fresh soil and plant the annuals: impatiens, lobelia, some hanging vines.
The squirrel appeared on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, each morning at seven o'clock. I sat at the kitchen table in my nightgown and housecoat, drinking coffee and reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende for the second time. I had read it when it first came out a dozen years before, and had picked it off the shelf again on impulse, without wondering why it suddenly seemed important to read it again. I was enjoying it even more the second time around. The squirrel sat on the edge of the window box nibbling on something that looked suspiciously like a tulip bulb from the flower bed below.
I realize there is nothing intrinsically unusual about a squirrel on a window box eating a tulip bulb. What piqued my interest was that white ear. The squirrel looked in at me with its head cocked as if listening hard with its white right ear. We stared at each other. The squirrel kept eating and listening. Even when I leaned closer to the window and made ferocious faces and carnivorous sounds, the squirrel stayed put, twitching its fluffy tail like a flag.
On each of those three mornings, the squirrel sat at my window for exactly half an hour and then it scampered away.
On the fourth morning, I got up early, got dressed, and waited. I am no more sure now than I was then of what I intended to do if and when the squirrel appeared. Feed it, kill it, or tame it and keep it for a pet? Chase it away with the broom, invite it in for coffee, or simply sit and stare into its beady eyes some more?
I waited and waited but the squirrel never came. I went outside and repaired the damage to my flower bed. I came back inside and began my day again just as if nothing had happened. Because, of course, nothing had.
That day, Thursday, turned out to be what I now think of as The Day of Mechanical Miracles.
The kitchen faucet, which had been dripping for a year and half, stopped.
The toaster, which for a month had been refusing to spit out the toast (thereby necessitating its extraction by means of a dangerous operation with a fork), repented. That morning the toast popped up so perky and golden, it fairly leaped onto my plate.
The grandfather clock in the living room, which I had bought on impulse at an auction six years before and which had not kept good time since, became accurate and articulate, tolling out the hours with melodious precision.
The answering machine, which had been recording my callers as if they were gargling underwater or bellowing into a high wind, recovered its equanimity and broadcast my new messages into the room in cheerful, dulcet tones.
I, of course, marveled extensively at these small miracles but had no reason to suspect they were anything but fortuitous gifts meant perhaps to finally prove my theory that if you just leave things alone and let them rest, they will eventually fix themselves. I had no reason to suspect that these incidents of spontaneous repair might be products or premonitions of the divine. These self-generated mechanical healings were just as likely, I thought, to be the ultimate and inevitable culmination of such modern innovations as self-cleaning ovens, self-defrosting refrigerators, self-sealing fuel tanks, and self-rising bread.
The next day, Friday, I had several errands to run. I was hardly surprised to discover that my car, which had lately been suffering from some mysterious malady that caused it to buck and wheeze whenever I shifted into second gear, had quietly healed itself during the night, and it now carried me clear across town without complaint. There were parking spaces everywhere I needed them, some with time still on the meter.
At the bank, I got the friendliest, most efficient teller after a wait of less than five minutes. On a Friday afternoon, no less. While I waited, I noticed that all three of the women in line in front of me were wearing navy blue trench coats and white running shoes.
At the library, all the books I wanted were in and shelved in their proper places.
At the bakery, I got the last loaf of cheese bread.
At the drugstore, all the things I needed-toothpaste, shampoo, bubble bath, and vitamins-were on sale.
On the way home, I stopped at the corner store for a quart of milk and a chocolate bar. The clerk behind the cash register was new, a young woman with long brown hair and dark dreamy eyes. She was sipping coffee out of a Styrofoam cup and reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. The clerk who was usually there at this time of day would have been doing her nails and reading the National Enquirer. There was no one else in the store. There was no one choosing a dollar's worth of penny candy one candy at a time; no one trying to cash a check; no one buying forty-seven Scratch-and-Win tickets and then feeling obliged to scratch them all right there. Feeling gregarious in my good fortune, I asked the clerk how she was enjoying the book. She said it was wonderful. I agreed wholeheartedly and mentioned that by coincidence I was reading it too. She said that was amazing.
At home I put away my purchases, ate my chocolate bar, and thanked my lucky stars. Still it did not occur to me that there might be anything more going on here than a random bout of serendipity at work in my life. We have all had weeks where everything went wrong. So why not a week where everything went right? As far as I was concerned, I deserved a day or two of smooth sailing through the hazardous waters of daily life. Undoubtedly this was my just reward for having so often weathered the more familiar barrage of everyday ordeals.
I thought of all those times I had finally reached a cranky, incompetent bank teller after waiting in line for half an hour wedged between a crying baby and an unwashed man who had recently eaten a large clove of garlic, only to have her put up her next teller sign or inform me that my checking account was overdrawn by $2,486.99. And what about all those times when every book I wanted to borrow from the library was either already out, lost, or stolen? How many times had the bakery run out of cheese bread three minutes before I got there? How many times had I searched that same drugstore for my favorite health and hygiene products only to find that they were temporarily out of stock, permanently discontinued, or twice as expensive as they had been six weeks ago? How many times had the only available parking spot within a four-block radius been whisked right out from under my wheels by a more aggressive (and remorseless) driver in a hulking black minivan? And how many times had I been so overjoyed to finally find a parking spot that I had walked away without putting money in the meter and so got ticketed the minute my back was turned?
Obviously I deserved a good day and I was not about to question either its meaning or its message.
On Saturday morning, I did my regular rounds of vacuuming, dusting, dishes, and laundry. In the afternoon, I got groceries. Then I decided to clean out my bedroom closet. It was spring, after all, and some extra cleaning seemed appropriate. Once a year I sort the contents of my closet into three piles: Keep, Give Away, and Back Bedroom, the closet in the back bedroom being the way station between Keep and Give Away, the place where I put all those things that I know I will never wear again but that I'm not quite ready to part with either. After a respectable period of time in Back Bedroom limbo, these items, too, eventually find their way out the door. This time the Back Bedroom pile included a pair of flowered cotton drawstring pants that made me look fat, an expensive olive green blouse that made me look sallow, a short purple skirt that made me look ridiculous, and a chocolate brown cardigan that made me feel dowdy and depressed every time I looked at it.
As I hung these items in the otherwise empty back bedroom closet, I caught sight of a small cardboard box wedged into the far right corner of the top shelf. I could not imagine what it contained. I couldn't reach it, so I dragged a chair in from the kitchen, climbed up on it, and lifted down the box. On the top was a yellowed mailing label, addressed in my mother's handwriting to an apartment I had lived in nineteen years ago. The label and several lengths of brittle cellophane tape came off in my hands. I thought briefly of Pandora's box, all those eager evils let loose upon the unsuspecting world.
Inside the box was another box, of a color somewhere between robin's egg and sky blue, with a gold insignia embossed on the lid. Inside the blue box, in a nest of cotton batting, was my old charm bracelet.
I had begged for and got this bracelet from my parents on my fifteenth birthday. It came with one silver charm already soldered on: a round Happy Birthday with my name and the date engraved in italic script on the back. Over the following years, the charms accumulated one by one. Most were gifts from my parents, on Christmas, other birthdays, Valentine's Day, high school graduation. There was a Christmas tree studded with tiny red and green stones and, from another year, a miniature Christmas stocking with multicolored gems the size of pinheads bursting out the top. There were charms that said Sweet Sixteen, Always Eighteen, Congratulations, and Good Luck. There was a diploma, a typewriter, and a bicycle.
By the end of high school, all my friends sported similar bracelets heavy with charms. We jingled through the high school hallways, laughing, gossiping, and watching for handsome football players out of the eagle-eyed corners of our eyes. As we pulled lunch bags, gym shoes, and battered textbooks from our lockers, the charms sometimes caught in our sweaters, our nylons, or each other's hair. They were the amulets of all our hopes and dreams, the untarnished talismans of our promising futures, our expectant selves.
Looking at them now, I found a few that seemed to have nothing to do with me: an airplane, a horse, a treble clef, a tiny ball of wool pierced by two crossed needles. As if the charms from someone else's bracelet had somehow detached themselves and migrated to mine. Or maybe it was just that at the time anything was possible. I might fly to Mexico, France, or Kathmandu. I might learn to ride a horse. I might learn to play the harp, the trumpet, the mandolin. I might compose a symphony. I might knit up the raveled sleeve of care.
When I moved away from home at the age of twenty-one, I left the bracelet behind on purpose, having decided in my fledgling maturity that it was childish, tacky, and cheap. My mother, discovering it still there in my jewelry box after I'd left, assumed I'd forgotten it by mistake, and promptly mailed it to me.
I had given the bracelet up for lost a long time ago. Having mellowed somewhat over the years, no longer feeling the need to guard so vigilantly against the seductions of nostalgia or regret, I had looked for it several times but without success. I figured it had been accidentally left behind somewhere in one of the many moves I'd made since that first one.
But now here it was in my hands. How had I not seen that little box on the top shelf all the other times I had used this closet? Why did I not remember putting it up there in the first place?
I could not answer either of these questions. I am not a careless person. I never forget appointments, birthdays, letters to be answered, or phone calls to be returned. I have never lost my keys, my wallet, or my gloves. I once left my favorite scarf on a train but that was an aberration brought on by my own travel anxiety. Until this day, I would have sworn that I could close my eyes and conjure up the contents of every single closet in my house, also the junk drawer, the spice cabinet, and the laundry hamper.
At first, my discovery made me uneasy but then I began to feel exhilarated, wondering what other unexpected treasures might show up, what other mislaid pieces of my self might eventually be unearthed and reclaimed.
I put on the bracelet and wore it for the rest of the day. At bedtime, I put it back in the blue box. Then I put the box in my top dresser drawer beside my socks and underwear where I would not lose track of it again.
On Sunday, after six days of bright spring weather, it rained, just the kind of gentle, steady rain you want in April, the kind of rain you know really will bring those alleged May flowers.
We were enjoying an early spring that year. Since Easter, which had also been early, falling at the end of March, the temperature had been steadily rising and the snow had long since melted away. Other years in April, there were still gray patches of it under trees and in shady corners, and we were still being warned by the weather forecasters to expect one more big storm before winter was done with us. But that year, April was not the cruelest month, the forsythia and the crocuses were blooming, the tulips were in bud, and we had put away our shovels with confidence and relief. I had already raked the lawns and cleaned out the flower beds, delighted to be digging in the dirt once again.
The day passed quietly. Nothing unusual happened until later in the evening. I had put on my nightgown and housecoat and curled up on the couch to watch the ten o'clock news. The anchorwoman, in a smart red suit and a frilly white blouse, told of an earthquake, a civil war, a military coup, a car bombing, a hostage-taking, and a missing child whose clothes had been found in a Dumpster behind a fast-food restaurant five hundred miles from her home. There was video footage of each of these stories and a series of still shots from various angles of a well-dressed man lying in the street while all the blood ran out of his head.
Then they cut to a commercial for a new improved brand of sanitary napkins with wings. A pair of graceful female hands caressed the wings, then slowly poured a blue liquid over the napkin, and spoke in a soothing voice while it was neatly absorbed. As if we all bleed blue blood once a month. As if all we really need is a new pair of wings. Then one hand caressed the napkin and its manicured fingers came away clean and dry. This was followed by a commercial for furniture polish, which was being lovingly applied by apparently the same pair of hands.
Just then I heard a strange sound. It seemed to be coming from near or behind the potted fig tree in the corner to the left of the television set. It was the soft sound of a sigh, a breath inhaled deeply through the mouth, held for a second, and then let go slowly. Once, twice, a third time. These were not sighs of exasperation or impatience, but simply the sighs of fatigue, tinged with a shadow of resignation or regret.
I thought maybe a branch of the fir tree outside was brush-ing against the corner of the house in the wind. I went to the window and pushed the drapes aside. The rain had stopped but the pavement was still wet, glistening in the glow of the streetlights. The grass in my front yard looked lush and moist, visibly green even in the darkness. I thought I could smell it right through the glass. The air was perfectly still.
I looked behind the fig tree. I saw a dust bunny, a dime, and three dead leaves the vacuum cleaner had missed. I turned off the television. I listened. I heard the grandfather clock ticking, a car passing, the fridge humming in the kitchen.
I decided the sighing must have been my imagination, the way sometimes in the street you think you hear someone calling your name but when you stop and turn, there is not a familiar face in sight and the crowd on the sidewalk parts impatiently around you, then regroups and charges on.
I locked the doors, turned off the lights, and went to bed.
That night I slept soundly and deeply, undisturbed by dreams, desire, or any prescient inkling of what was going to happen next.
—Reprinted from Our Lady of the Lost and Found by Diane Schoemperlen by permission of Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Diane Schoemperlen. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
"A graceful novel...lovely, clever [and] imaginative." —The Wall Street Journal
"A clever hybrid of religious fairy tale and straight up spiritual inquest, this visitation of the blessed virgin is a holy hoot." —Elle
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