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Big Mama Mary

Jesus had been a boy like me. And he loved his mother as hungrily as I Ioved mine.

Michelangelo's Pietà

There’s been a lot in the press this week about the fiftieth anniversary of the New York’s World’s Fair.

You all remember that, right? Everyone went. At least everyone of a certain age. It was a generational thing.  Little Boomers being towed by the Greatest Generation for a look at what the future held.

I was there, a 10-year-old allergic asthmatic. My doctor back in Michigan didn’t believe in giving steroids like prednisone to kids, but in this case, well, it was the World’s Fair, after all. So I got a supply of pills and braved the spring pollen in Queens, New York. I don’t remember a lot about being 10, but I remember a lot about the World’s Fair. Especially how it felt. It felt important and futuristic, like we’d stepped into a great new era. It was the ’60s and considered the coolest time in history.                  

Coming from an Irish Catholic family we were of course required to stand in line for half a day to be allowed to briefly view Michelangelo’s masterpiece of sculpture, Pietà.

I was wheezing piteously by the time we got close, leaning into my mother’s hip.  I could smell the Jean Nate bath spray I got her for Mother’s Day. It was the cheapest stuff in the world, but she didn’t care.

A scholarly know-it-all behind us harrumphed that if Michelangelo’s Mary actually stood up she would be 10 feet tall at least while Jesus was the size of a normal man. I was quite astonished by this information. The man went on about the proportionalities classicism demanded of the form blah, blah, blah, but I couldn’t shake the image of Giant Mary.  It was off-putting, frankly, and also comical in a grim sort of way. I looked at my mother as she led me away. She knew there would be questions.  

“Was Mary really 10 feet tall and that’s just another thing they’re not telling us at church?”

“Don’t be blasphemous.”

“Then why?” I wheezed.

“Because the artist wants us to know that Mary’s love for Jesus as she cradles his body is sacred and pure. Her son is diminished in death but her love grows.”

I think I understood that in my own way. Jesus would have given his mother Jean Nate. Jesus had been a boy like me. And he loved his mother as hungrily as I Ioved mine. She seemed 10 feet tall to me then and for a long time to come, even at the end when she was dying bravely of Alzheimer’s.

I ran into the Pietà last month in Rome while touring the Vatican with a great group of Guideposts readers. Perhaps since Michelangelo’s stupendous dome is so dominant above it, I almost didn’t recognize it. It was more like a larger version of those cheesy souvenirs you get at the stalls outside.

But it was beautiful, as beautiful as I remember it. And for an instant I caught the scent of Jean Nate.

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