Our lady of electricity

By Candace Dempsey
From Passionfruit and Travelers' Tales Turkey. In memory of my sister Carole.


"Sister, there is nothing I would not do."-- Louise Erdrich

We were in deep need of divine intervention the day we climbed the dirt road to the house of the Virgin Mary, but we didn’t know it yet.

After three days of hard driving from Istanbul, we had reached the cool green spot in southern Turkey where legend says Mary, mother of Jesus, spent her final days.

High on a mountaintop, where the wind carries the scent of wild herbs and hidden springs, we imagined the Queen of Heaven praying at her gilt-edged altar. We had come to worship this glorious Mary, resplendent in silk robes, golden crown and jeweled halo. She is famous the world over as a curer of broken hearts and cruel diseases, mesmerizing even to fallen-away Catholics like me.

We made up a merry crew that day. My 73-year-old mother, a devoted Catholic seeing the world for the first time. My sister Carmela and I, the two religious skeptics. Eshber, a Turkish friend who'd offered to show us around his country for a week. 

Picture us rolling south along the Turquoise Coast in an elegant old black BMW, stopping on a whim to see the Virgin's house. 

For ease of conversation, Eshber had concocted a handle for each of us. He called my mother "Mama." Carmela and I were Electric #2 and Electric #3, because of our Italian blood, rapid speech and quick tempers. We had two electric sisters, Sherry and Carole, back in the United States.

Eshber had assigned each sister an electrical rating that reflected dramatic flair, not birth order.

"Electricity has nothing to do with age," he said. "It's a state of mind."

Carole, aka Electric #1, lived near me in Seattle. Before we left for Turkey, she kept calling to say she loved me. That did seem odd. We were not so demonstrative. But as is my habit, I brushed aside misgivings and hopped aboard a plane. 

The Virgin's house floats on a green hill above the white stone ruins of Ephesus, a magnificent pagan city devoted to Artemis.

Like Mary she is a goddess of childbirth and fertility, but with a lusty image. Artists often show her with multiple breasts and eggs dangling from her upper body. Greek scholars called her temple in Ephesus, destroyed long ago, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

In this mystical place one might expect to feel a premonition. But the power lines connecting us to Electric #1 had snapped. We didn't know she hid a terrible secret that would swallow us up for the next two years.

It was sweltering in Ephesus that day, where tourists perch on broken-off marble columns and faded signs point to whorehouses older than Christianity. 
 We felt miraculously cool, driving up the winding road to the mountaintop where Mary's house once stood. From the parking lot, it's a short dusty climb to that spot, marked by a pocket-size Byzantine church.

Believers say Mary arrived here about six years after Christ's death in the company of St. John, who found her a simple house. It fell into ruin after her death, its location disputed until the 1960s. Then Pope John XXIII declared the mountaintop a place of pilgrimage, the only one in Turkey.

We joined a slow-moving line of pilgrims waiting to get into the church. Mostly gray-haired women in neatly ironed cotton dresses and sensible shoes. The Muslims among them wore longer dresses, their black hair poking out from white scarves. We learned the Virgin is "Meryemana" in their faith and honored as the mother of the prophet Jesus.

Giant leafy trees lined the path, an amazing sight in that part of Turkey, where gnarled olive trees crouch on brown hillsides like bent-over old ladies.

"Olive trees have such a desperate look," my mother said, attributing this miracle of greenness to Mary.

"We're getting closer to her now," she added, lowering her voice in respect.


At the door of the tiny domed church
two blue-robed, buck-toothed nuns sang "Ave Maria" in soft tones. Smiling and nodding, they motioned to us to cover our heads. Soothed by the familiar rituals, we  entered the vestibule and dipped our hands in holy water.


We breathed in the scents of incense and polished wood, then bowed our heads before a bronze statue of Mary in a stiff robe. Her eyes were downcast, her empty childless arms pointed toward the earth.

In the next room, we saw Muslim women praying under framed excerpts from the Koran. Instead of spotlighting Mary as goddess or mother,  these tracts emphasized her meekness before the Lord.

"O, Mary, be obedient to him, kneeling, bowing and prostrating before him."

We hurried out, feeling like intruders. In the churchyard, amid souvenir stands offering holy cards and plastic statues of the Virgin, we stopped to drink little glasses of hot sweetened tea.

From that vantage point, I noticed something startling about the surrounding trees. White dots covered their bark like little stars, high as hands could reach.

"Bits of paper," Eshber said. "People write prayers to the Virgin on tissue paper and stick them into the bark."

"Why?" I asked.

"They believe Mary comes here every day to read them."

"Prayers for what?"

He shrugged. "What if a woman can't have a baby? What if somebody is ill? It could be lots of things."

Tree after tree was covered this way. So many scraps, so many sorrows.



Many times I've remembered that conversation.

I was a stranger to grief, a believer in my own good luck. But I got a jolt when I returned to Seattle two weeks later. 

My husband, who doesn't drink coffee, took me to my favorite coffeehouse.

"I have something terrible to tell you," he said.
It turned out that soon after I left for Turkey, my sister Carole had called him from a hospital to inform him that she'd just had a mastectomy. Worse, she was in Stage 4 of breast cancer -- Stage 5 being death.

I told myself this was just some horrible joke. That it would all go away the second I talked to Carole. So I picked up the phone and called her. She confirmed every detail.

"Why didn't you tell us?" I asked.

She sighed. "You wouldn't have gone to Europe. Mom wouldn't have gone. It wasn't fair."

As time went on, I continued to be in denial, even when Carole emerged from  chemotherapy with a bald head, which she refused to hide under a wig.

None of us could imagine her dying from anything. Wasn't she Electric #1? She could start a firestorm on any topic, from how to pronounce gnocchi to whether the nurses on the TV show "E.R." follow proper medical procedure.

"I'm a nurse," she'd say. "I think I would know."



She died, a little more than two years after the mastectomy. I could not accept this rude unnatural event. Not only did my parents end up burying their daughter, but Carole never got to finish raising her six-year-old son. 

Both of us had wanderlust. We used to compete to see who could cross the most destinations off the world map. On her deathbed she pointed out that she'd been to Egypt and Israel -- and I had not.

She was my younger sister. I was impatient with her. When we were little, I called her "the tagalong," because she insisted on doing whatever I did, even though I was four years older.  If I went to bed at 10 o'clock, then she would fight with our parents to get the same bedtime. If I got to ride the bus downtown with my girlfriends to go shopping, then she would lobby for that too.

Now she had managed to cut in front of me. She dashed ahead.



I handled her death in a typical way. I insisted on going somewhere I had never been before.

"Pack your bags," I told my husband and son. I reminded them I had a cousin down in New Mexico. "And she's been asking us to visit."

In Albuquerque we stayed with my cousin and then we started driving. We got all the way up to Taos in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains before we turned around.

I stared into Taos' famous indigo skies, mesmerized by the blue mountains that hover over steep canyons and dry washes.  

How could you die? I asked Carole. You said you weren't going to. You were a nurse. I thought you'd know.

                                          

We took the long way back to Albuquerque, descending along a narrow black-top studded with white crosses  that mark sites where people have died in car crashes. We saw elaborate altars decked out with red plastic flowers, Teddy bears, tricycles, dolls, bright paper and snapshots of the departed protected with plastic wrap.

I bought a holy card in a shop along that spiraling road. It shows Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows, Nuestra Senora de los Dolores.  Six shiny swords pierce her heart. Blood drips from her wounds.


I insisted we pull into Chimayo, the "Lourdes of America." Graced by a little adobe church amid baked red hills, this sanctuary had the same scraggly lawns and humble intentions of the  Virgin's house in Turkey. Hidden in cottonwood and piñon trees, it's cheaply built yet mesmerizing. .

We arrived a week after Easter, the most popular time, and yet the parking lot was packed with pilgrims. They come here from all over the world, the most devout lugging giant crucifixes down the road at Lent.

We crossed a patch of crooked gravestones to get into the church, which has twin bell towers and high ceilings. We weaved past pilgrims who leaned on crutches, rode in wheelchairs and coughed into Kleenexes. Then at last we entered the little chapel, a small square room with stiff-pews and 12 luridly painted Stations of the Cross depicting the death of Jesus.

I bowed before the altar, taking in the gnarled crosses and paintings of bleeding hearts. But I skipped the rest of the rituals, since both my husband and son are Jewish. They were ready to get back on the road. To go home.

To the left of the altar, we found the narrow prayer room that calls pilgrims to Chimayo from around the globe. In this unadorned sanctuary, priests cut a rectangular hole into the wooden floor. This allows pilgrims to stick their fingers into the dirt, which is believed to have a healing power. The lame rub it on their legs; the blind, on their eyelids.  

What a scene it was. Amid cast-off crutches and canes, pilgrims of all ages and nationalities were kneeling on the floor. Japanese tourist scooped dirt into white business-sized envelopes to take home.

Snapshots of the unfortunate lined the walls. Baby after baby. Police officers with black mustaches. Teenagers leaning against motorcycles. Shawl-wrapped old ladies.

What had happened to all these people? I wondered. Were any of them still above the ground?

Suddenly, I couldn't breathe. Dizziness overcame me.



My husband helped me push against the crowd until we got outside.

There, to our surprise, we found a charming open air cafe. Leona's Restaurante, shaded under a big green catalpa tree. Soon we were sitting at a rickety table, dipping handmade tortillas into a succulent, mood-altering posolo. The first food that had tasted good since my sister died.

Then I remembered a comical conversation about Chimayo I'd had with my journalist friend Eric, another Italian-American and fallen-away Catholic. Yes, he had fallen under its spell. He had even scooped up a bit of the healing earth.

Afterward he couldn't help feeling a bit skeptical.

"Think how many people go there each year," he said. "They have to run out of dirt. I bet they truck it in new dirt in the middle of the night, so there's always a great  big pile."  

Even in that sorrow-drenched place, I found that remark funny.

Before I left, I forced myself back into the church. I needed to do one final thing without my husband and son.

I had learned that love, like electricity, is a powerful but unreliable force. Lines can be cut at any moment. We can't repair them by ourselves.  

In the sweaty cramped room with the wooden floor, I knelt with the other pilgrims. I scooped up a handful of earth. It was reddish, with a pungent smell. I couldn't decide what I should do with it.

Finally I rubbed the dirt on my forehead and on the back of my neck, where the pain seemed to be coming from.

Please, I prayed. Let everybody in my family be all right.

*** 

Illustration by Ellen Chavez de Leitner. Gracias per la mia hermana.