(Hail May, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb: Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. AMEN.)
Congratulations on your big moment, Mary: March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation (Luke 1) when the angel told you you were to be pregnant—with God, no less—and you said OK, adding a few questions of your own. Good woman!
And congratulations to me as I remember the 29th anniversary of my priestly ordination on March 25th, 1988. Mary’s day in ancient times—and mine in 1988. We share.
I first learned to say the "Hail Mary" in Spanish when I spent a summer with a very pious family in Santander, Spain. In 1960, Santander was a smallish fishing town in northern Spain. Now it is my bank. I love the connection, and, despite complaints about questionable banking practices, I will never change banks. Nor will I ever forget Spain, the cradle of my devotion to Mary. I lived with a family who said prayers every single night. The Señora would clap her hands loudly like two small shofars, and we would all come running—for our food, yes, but first for our prayers.
Lucia Perillo, who wrote this poem to Mary, was known for her humor and being shaped by living with multiple sclerosis. She was born in New York City in 1958 and died in 2016. I find her humor most attractive, because it does not attempt to hide truth but rather expose it. Perillo was a Pulitzer finalist, a blythe spirit. May she rest in peace and make angels laugh with her as they pray.
The worst of it was the fruit of thy womb business,
through which the boys muddled in pig-latin sniggers
but being a girl you thought of plums, then grapefruit,
a catalog whose offerings led incrementally
to the one in school who’d gotten breasts,
her mother alky and her dad a pencil mark rubbed out.
After the bell rang she bundled her sadness
and walked it home in her serious coat,
the kind of girl who carried an umbrella, whose socks
defied the gravitational tug. And if other prayers
had someone offstage fumbling sheet metal, this one
made the woof of a broom swatting a rug,
a rhythmic thump below the scream
of the laundry tree she sent off on its wheel
around the backyard like a minor angel
flapping underpant-and-towel wings.
Someday she’d get pregnant by the shy and not-
unhandsome captain of the variety baseball team
without even getting a bad rep; everyone knew
they’d marry quick and he’d die slow
from all those years of Red Man packed behind his lip.
But she wouldn’t have loved him if there wasn’t something
about him to work on; you know the type:
you loved her, you hated her
for ruling your life as penmanship queen,
and you wanted to be her friend except you knew
beside her you’d be dirt. As far as Hailing Mary,
all you wanted to do was get through its last word,
though everyone knew this death was second-rate.
A man-god could get you bread or heaven, but pray
to a woman and all you got was prayed for in return.
Lucia Perillo, Luck Is Luck. Poems. Random House, 2005
Red Man, in case you didn’t know, which I didn’t, is chewing tobacco. But if you don’t pick the poem apart too much, which is a great temptation because you want to understand it, you get the full picture of a Roman Catholic girl trying to make good as she tries to grow more than breasts and wombs in a patriarchal world and Church full of Mary-Hailing.
I was a Protestant girl of twenty-one in Spain, also trying to grow more than breasts and wombs while ingesting Catholicism on steroids—too much and never enough. I found a woman who prayed for me.
Yes, Perillo is right: when you pray to a woman all you get is prayed for in return. I will take it with gratitude and affection. Gracias, María, and all women who pray with open heart and blessed intention. I will pray back.