O Sanctissima: Memories of May

My memories of May are bound to May altars and crownings. In the small Catholic grade school I attended, the May crowning was not an annual event as it is in my children’s school. Instead of a solemn celebration in which several students are chosen to place a lovely, silk flower crown on the large statue’s head, our small celebrations were held daily throughout May, with crowning duties rotating from one student to another. I anticipated my turn with a mixture of eagerness and dread.

May Crowning

Photo by Michael Astfalk.

I envisioned creating a sweet-smelling floral array befitting the animated Eve-like figure in the Clairol Herbal Essence commercials of the late 1970s. Birds, attracted to its natural beauty, would descend from the heavens, twittering and plucking blossoms from my handmade crown fit for the Queen of Heaven.

At the least, I hoped to create something that rivaled the professional-looking crowns created by my peers (or their mothers): blossoming lilacs delicately interwoven with wildflowers held together with sturdy floral wire.

Tears were shed as I cobbled together short-stemmed wild violets and floppy peonies. Stems and wilted leaves lay strewn across our kitchen table as I wrestled my pathetic, twisted blooms into a piece of tin foil for safekeeping on the trip to school.

Despite being crown-challenged (diadem dumb?), my devotion to Jesus’s mother flourished as a child. A small, stone grotto sat behind the convent adjacent to my grade school. My friends and I often paid a quick visit to the grotto after lunch, before joining our other friends at recess. The words of every Marian hymn I knew where committed to memory.

My family didn’t recite the Rosary together, but my mother said it privately, if infrequently, and I managed to develop at least some appreciation for the prayer. A small statue of Mary resided (and still rests) on the nightstand next to my mother’s bed. She encouraged me to place flowers there in spring and summer.

What I lacked in crown-ability, I made up for with bouquets. I collected dozens of violets from the grassy hill in our yard and placed them in a shot glass (oh, the piety) in front of the statue.

I’m grateful for the simple but consistent models of devotion to Mary that were shared by my mother and the Sisters of Charity at our school. It’s my childlike to devotion to Mary that has sustained decades, allowing me to return like an affection-starved child to her bosom, seeking her intercession again and again. Like a true, but sometimes neglected friend, she is there when I need her, ready to pick up where we left off.

In the summer of 2002,  my husband and I visited my home parish in Pittsburgh. The then-pastor of the parish had arranged for an after-Mass viewing of a traveling image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. My husband and I had been trying to conceive a child without success for about six months. While I was not aware of any medical impediment to conceiving and it had not been all that long, I was dogged by the feeling that a long and heart-wrenching period of infertility lay ahead. It seemed an ever-present specter among couples I knew, and I feared, with a certain amount of superstition, that it would be our cross as well.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe

As I knelt before the image of Our Lady, I prayed with as much earnest concentration as I could muster that we would be blessed with a child. I heard, not with my ears, but with my heart:

By this time next year, you will have a child.

Our oldest son was conceived that September and born the following May. For someone whose spiritual life has been and is drier than the Sahara, it was a unique experience. One that reminded me of the constancy of a mother’s love, despite the shortcomings of her child.

Like the limp dandelions and odd wildflowers presented to me by my own children, I like to think that the Mother of God sees beyond my wilted crown, my distracted prayer, and my spells of silence. That while she, like I, may discard those humble gifts when little eyes are averted, she treasures the love with which they were gathered. That she waits, modeling the gentleness and humility I lack, always ready to welcome me back onto her lap, always nudging me closer to her Son.

Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe courtesy of Restored Traditions.

Did you participate in May crownings as a child?

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