The photograph is browning but the frame still gleams: a baroque affair, dense with silver storks and songbirds nesting in silver marsh marigolds and roses; a tiny silver scale and a miniature clock with its hands stilled a ten past eight. Engraved below: ARRIVED NOVEMBER 7, 1943 WEIGHT 7 LBS 14 OZ. The baby’s fat chin nestles in the puckers and tucks of a fine, white chemise. She is smiling. Marie. First daughter of the first daughter. Marie. I will have, as a baptismal gift from a guardian angel, a privileged and happy childhood.
I am posed in front of a white fence just before or just after the event. Not the layered First Communion dress nor the cuffed white socks and patent leather shoes, not the tulle veil affixed to my hair with elastic and bobby pins can draw attention from the scabbed knee or the healing scar above my upper lip. I am clutching a little white missal and a bunch of flowers. I can recite perfectly and in order every answer in the Baltimore Catechism.
Our Lady of Fatima
Mary is a blue apparition in the grotto on stage. We are the only ones who see her: three children dressed in what the nuns imagine are peasant wools and headscarves. Interrogated by priest and parent, still we hold fast to our vision, will not deny her secret messages. She promised a sign. Off stage left, the villagers mumble like thunder. Behind a scrim, the heavens darken, an orb careens toward earth, spinning and growing huge. As Lucia, the eldest, I am given one line: “The sun! The sun! Look at the sun!”
I am confirmed in white with a red sash that symbolizes the blood of martyrs. I take the name of Saint Agnes, though I’d have preferred (for this is my time of zeal and missionary fever) to take the name of Maria Goretti who sacrificed her life to preserve her virginity from the lustful, knife-wielding field hand).
And although throughout my convent schooling I am daily dressed like some proletarian worker, forbidden makeup or bodily ornamentation, there are feast Days and May processions requiring a white uniform dress and veil. There are flowers and music and slow walks down aisles.
Queen of the Angels
Mary is a whited statue in the convent garden. We are the handmaidens in white linen, singing at the top of our lungs. “Oh Mary we crown thee with blossoms today…” The procession breaks into a circle at her feet. I climb the ladder with my burden of lilacs, crown her with blossoms. I have been the perfect girl.
How natural, then, it must have been for me to mount the carpeted stairs of the Waldorf Astoria wearing that white taffeta gown, my neck set off by a scoop of tight pleats, my arms covered to the elbows in white kid gloves. At my wrist, a white gardenia. I stand in a line of debutantes that decorates the mezzanine like potted lilies. Our fathers stand groom-like behind us. Mothers and grandmothers whisper just outside the frame.
Our escorts arrive to take us from the fathers, lead us onto the vast ballroom floor. My two are tall. I am dancing with the dark one. Perhaps a foxtrot. I am dancing with the blond one. I am waltzing in my father’s arms. It should have been wonderful. The Cardinal appears in our midst, red against white. One by one we crumple at his slippered feet, kiss his garnet ring.
In a narrow hotel room six stories above 34th Street, I am lying at the end of a double bed. Two brown overstuffed chairs make stirrups. The doctor goes about his business, practiced as a priest at the weekday altar. There is a woman in the window across the street—a seamstress. I am very young and without skills.
I am wrapped like an elaborate gift in yards of white satin and antique lace. I am at the heart of every picture. Around me linens and china and silver and glass. The white guest book overflows with names. I know the answers to a new catechism. I am given to everyone like slices of dry, white cake.
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