By Rosalie Tirella
I’m eating lunch, and there he sits, between my make-up “counter” to the left and my cocktail shaker-mini bar to the right, behind the tip of Cece’s tail in the photo: Saint Behind the Glass.
Jesus behind the glass. Or, more accurately, the Infant of Prague behind the glass. He used to have a change of costume – one for winter and one for summer. But his summer wardrobe has gone missing, so he wears his maroon velvet cape, fur trimmed, year ’round. There’s a light bulb at the top of the inside of his glass house and, when you screw it tight, it lights up. Still. For night show.
The Saint Behind the Glass was my Mom’s for 50 years. It’s been mine for almost six, the number of years since her death. It’s been sitting in my kitchen, watching over me and my crazy life, ever since.
The Bishop of Springfield, my mother’s old boss, gave it to her when she left Springfield to move back to Worcester. He also gave a Saint Behind the Glass to each of my mother’s two sisters, my aunties, as good-bye gifts. They too were leaving the Bishop for good. Now, in their early 30s, and having successfully supported Bapy, Jadju and themselves through the Great Depression and World War II, my mother and her sisters’ family obligation was fulfilled. Their mission accomplished – not with missiles but with maids’ brooms, dust pans and sponges. Working for the Bishop as live-in maids/housekeepers for 10+ years kept the money coming in during hard times: kept them well fed, well clothed, warm and sheltered. My mother and her two sisters ate roast beef at the Bishop’s house, after the Bishop ate his big meal, and where Ma and my aunts shared a big bedroom, while many Americans went without. Or worse (hungry AND homeless). Their friends back in Worcester, included. Ma and my aunts bought themselves snow suits, Doberman pinschers, took in litters of stray kittens…
My aunt bought a new car for herself. My mom and other aunt saved their money for their futures: kids, husbands, a home … They all chipped in and bought Bapy a nice new ringer washer, Jadju a new television set on which he could watch all his cowboy shows, and, for the both of them, a kitchen set from Millbury Furniture, a Green Island dream store for many Polish immigrants.
The Bishop also gave my mom and her sisters radios, his personal, older plush rugs that he replaced with new ones and his older office furniture, which he also replaced with new goodies. My mom got the Bishop’s HUGE, hand-me-down, stand-up mahogany radio with a record player on top and lovely gold cloth and wood trim in front. Inside, when you opened the heavy wood lid, you saw the green faded felt turntable where you played your 33s under the heavy shiny silver arm with stylus at the end. I remember that radio from my childhood. It was in our parlor on Lafayette Street – twice as tall as I was and gorgeous, even old. It was too tired to play records any more, and the radio didn’t work either, but I believed it was magical! As a child, I dusted it with Pledge on a cloth, every Saturday morning – a fun chore – to make its wood shine. I’d turn its big, black, shiny knobs, pretending I was tuning its radio or upping its volume, all the while singing one of my mother’s favorite songs to myself, the one that she always sang around the house:
She just loved that country song! She really got into it when she was cleaning our tenement or making French toast for us kids on a Sunday morning! She’d dance around the kitchen, one shoulder up, then the other … she’d clap her hands in a downwards motion. She looked so young and pretty in her flower covered “duster” from the Mart, her dark brown, almost black, hair in a curly perm, clapping, singing loudly (and off key!). I’d peek out from under the covers in my bed (I was still in bed, it was Sunday, after all!) and loved my Mother more than anything in the world! I’d jump out of bed, ready for my French toast!
I know all the words to Jambalaya by heart, having them “imprinted” on me as a toddler!!
Back then, in Green Island, Jesus Behind the Glass had his complete wardrobe. I’d watch my mother change him every winter and spring, staring in wonder as she took the Saint out from behind his glass, lifted his glass house ever so gingerly above his head, carefully untied his cape and, one arm then the other, lifted his delicately embroidered “dress” off. I watched, raptly: Did Jesus wear underwear? What did He look like naked? Like me? Would Ma wash him in the old tub in our old bathroom, like she washed me?
No such luck. Jesus was just wearing a plaster robe. Ma dusted him off with a cloth, softly whistling, and quickly put on his new outfit. I didn’t dare ask to play with this beautiful doll! I never even touched him in all the years Ma had him! Ma let us all feel He was sacred. Like the statues in church or a museum.
Saint Behind the Glass! Just cool vintage decor for me these days, but such a living presence – God Himself! – when I was a little girl growing up in Green Island, when The Saint Behind the Glass belonged to my mother! First it sat in the parlor, along with the stand up radio, where all the fancy furniture was located. But Ma closed the parlor all winter long to conserve heat – we only had the gas stove’s “gas log” to warm the entire tenement during winter, plus a space heater for my bedroom – so Jesus Behind the Glass was cut off from family life. Which I’m certain is the reason why Ma hauled Him out of the parlor one November night, right before she shut the parlor door for winter. She moved Jesus and his glass abode into my two kids sisters’ bedroom – on their bureau, between their matching twin beds. There Jesus Behind the Glass sat, at night his light on. My sisters had the coolest night light in Worcester!! During the morning, before Ma woke us kids up for breakfast and school, around 5:30 a.m., she’d grab a wooden kitchen chair and softly place it before Jesus Behind the Glass. Then she’d kneel on the chair’s seat, holding on to its stiff, high back, and say her morning prayers. Sometimes, from my bed in my bedroom, I’d watch her praying in the early morning light, with my sisters still sleeping in their beds, looking so cute and huggable… Ma would “bless” herself (make the sign of the cross), lift up her two strong arms to heaven, murmur softly “Oh, Infant of Prague, have Mercy on us sinners … .”
But we weren’t sinners! We were one, poor, single, car-less, clothes-dryer-less Mom, her old arthritic Polish immigrant Mama and three little girls – our existence precarious! Hanging from a thread! Hanging from Ma! Our Daddy was a useless fool! Gone most of the time and abusive as soon as he set foot in our door way! Ma was the bread winner, the payer of rent and bills, the grocery buyer and getter, the cook, the teacher, the coach, the doctor, the EVERYTHING. No wonder she prayed to the sweet-faced, pale blue-eyed Saint Behind the Glass! two to four times daily. He was Jesus! Son of God the Father! He held the whole world in his hand! He’d hold ours, too!
Keep Ma, Bapy, my two little sisters and me safe! Keep us from entropy! Now and forever, Amen.
Ma was before the Saint Behind the Glass feverishly saying her night prayers every night, fervently whispering her morning Novenas every morning, stopping in sometimes just to look and say a few prayers, words of grace, to Saint Behind the Glass. Saint Jesus of Lafayette Street!!
Saint Jesus smelling the morning coffee Ma brewed. Listening to Ma scrape butter on her two – always two! never three! she was the most self-disciplined person I’ve ever known – slices of toasted Wonder Bread. Enjoying the warm April breeze as it separated and blew through the pretty, flowery! rose-covered plastic draperies in my sisters’ bedroom window, just bought special by Ma from White’s Five and Ten on Millbury Street. For 50 cents.
Oh, Saint Behind the Glass! Tight-lipped just like Ma! Never showing your true feelings to the world! Instead, listening to the beautiful Beatles music and the peppy Polkas blaring from Ma’s old radio atop our round-edged refrigerator. …Watching my two little cute sisters sleep, their faces so open and peaceful … Catching Daddy stick his big red face into the bedroom where Ma is praying to You to yell: HEY, FUCK NUT! SIMPLE AS THE DAY AS LONG! KEEP PRAYING!!
And Ma does.