Grandma Winnie was a magical thinker and a devout Catholic, the kind who loved to drink, dance and gamble, and wipe the slate clean in Confession on Sunday. She believed in ghosts, devils and divine intervention. The saints were Grandma’s deities. Guardians who could be relied upon to get one out of a jam, provide protection or stick it to an evil-doer who needed to be taught a lesson. Floating above this pantheon of immortals, even above Jesus himself, was Guadalupe—the Mexican Virgin. She became Grandma’s patron saint and a permanent fixture in our family’s mythology after the miracle occurred.
As a child, I heard the story many times. A story that seemed to grow more fascinating with each retelling.
It happened at a time when Grandma Winnie’s life was crumbling around her. Aunt Shirley had run away and was living a wild and dangerous life. Uncle Cliff returned from the Army a devoted alcoholic, hell bent on self-destruction. Grandpa Herb was cheating with some floozie who was always hanging around the auto body shop, flaunting her mistress status like a badge of honor. And Mom had given birth to an illegitimate child and given her up for adoption. As soon as one crack in Grandma’s heart began to mend, another would tear the wound open until it seemed the bleeding would never stop.
Winnie tried to remain strong. “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken,” she’d say. But with each blow she did weaken. Her natural optimism gave way to despair—dark, heavy, saturating despair that left her exhausted and empty.
Sadness enveloped Winnie like a funeral shroud.
One day, alone in her and Grandpa’s second-floor apartment on Figueroa and 37th in Los Angeles, Winnie reached her limit. It was all too much to bear. For the first time in her 40 years, she considered the unthinkable.
“I turned on the oven and stuck my head in. But I couldn’t do it. Suicide’s a mortal sin. And I figured I’d had enough hell on Earth without burning for eternity in the next stage of the game.”
Unable to think her way clear, Winnie walked heavily up to her bedroom and lay down on the bed. She fell into a troubled sleep. Soon she awoke with a start. Right off she knew that something was not as it should be.
“I noticed a glow coming in the window. I wondered for a moment if there was a fire, but I didn’t smell smoke. So I walked over to look. And there she was as big as life.”
The Mexican Virgin hovered in front of the window two stories off the ground. Winnie was shocked. She dropped to her knees and genuflected once, twice, three times. Though the Virgin didn’t speak, Winnie heard her voice clear as day: “Winifred, you’ve had a hard time lately. Through it all I’ve been here, watching over you. I feel your sorrow. And though your life will always be hard, there’s nothing you can’t handle. You are strong. Just have faith and everything will be okay.”
When it seemed the Virgin was done, Winnie genuflected a few more times. She didn’t remember laying down. When she woke up, the Mexican Virgin was gone along with the heaviness in Winnie’s heart. In its place was a bright curiosity about what had transpired. Was it a dream? It had felt so real. The light, the voice in her head, that beautiful face so full of love.
“Of course I didn’t tell a soul,” Grandma would say. “They’d think I’d lost my last marble. But that same night, I walked down the street to the Mexican church and lit a candle. I prayed that Guadalupe would send me a sign so I’d know I wasn’t crazy.”
Days passed and nothing. No miraculous spring bubbled up from the side of the house where Guadalupe had appeared. No strange inexplicable image burned into a tree. Winnie went to her typesetting job, worked nine hours and came home. She ate canned food, listened to the radio, and went to bed. Grandpa kept cheating. Clifford kept drinking. Shirley stayed gone. Nothing changed. The world turned and the image of Guadalupe began to fade. Then came a knock on Winnie’s door.
“A drinking buddy of Herb’s stood on the landing. I told him Herb wasn’t home. But the fellow said he was there to see me. He was holding a soiled, brown paper bag and fidgeting.”
“I, um, found this,” the man said holding the bag out. “I passed a dumpster and something told me to look inside. So I did, I looked in, and I found this here bag with a picture in it. Like new. When I set eyes on it, I got this sudden knowledge it was for you. Sounds crazy, I know, but go ahead and keep it if you want.”
He shoved the bag into Winnie’s hands and left. She pried the greasy paper open. And there she was—Guadalupe—framed in gold and even more beautiful than the image over the altar at the Mexican church. Her skin and hair were dark. She was draped in a sky-blue satin robe adorned with glittering gold stars. The Mexican Virgin perched on a crescent moon that balanced on the wings of an angel. Rays of light formed a saintly aura around her.
“I knew then that what happened to me was real. It was a miracle,” Grandma would say, pointing to the picture.
Later, Uncle Cliff tried to destroy the picture in a drunken rage. He hated that image of Guadalupe because her eyes followed him. Accusing him. Reminding him of his sins. Something about her triggered his shame and guilt. So, while Winnie was at work one day, he smashed the frame and tore the cursed thing to shreds. When she came home, he was crying like a little boy.
Stunned, Winnie began cleaning up the remains of her precious miracle. Just as the last scraps of paper and shards of glass went into the trash, she spied a glint of gold sticking out from under the couch. With two gentle fingers, she grasped the last bit of paper and pulled it out. A second later she was looking into the face of her dark Virgin friend. The picture had survived! Somehow, in his frenzy, Uncle Cliff had only broken the frame and torn up the cardboard backing. The actual image had floated away like an autumn leaf and landed safely out of his sight.
“Who would believe that such a thing could happen?” Grandma would say with eyebrows arched and hands wide. “But it did, I swear my life on it. And that’s why, to this day, I have faith that she’s watching over me–and you too by extension.”
Whenever I heard the story told, I could feel the warmth of the Mexican Virgin’s presence fill my body. I’d look at her image, the image, and wonder: was She really watching over me? The thought led to questions about the troubles that constantly plagued my family, but I didn’t dwell on them. None of our petty problems seemed significant when held up against the magical possibility that the Mother of God was hovering nearby. Testing our mettle. Making us stronger. And, occasionally, granting a wish so we’d have the courage to carry on.
As a child being tossed about by events over which I had no control, believing in Grandma’s miracle was much better than not believing in anything. Besides, she had proof. Rock solid, undeniable proof that Guadalupe was real.
Today, of course, I’m much more skeptical than the child I was. Yet, oddly, I still believe in Grandma Winnie’s miracle. Because she believed. And that’s all I need.
After Grandma died, her few possessions were doled out to those of us who remained behind. Some photos. A few odd trinkets. A rosary or two. And Guadalupe? She went to Uncle Cliff—clean and sober some 20 years. The eyes that once drove him mad are now a comforting reminder of his indomitable mother. Full of humor. Full of grace and mischief. A magical being in her own right who, I believe, in some inexplicable way, is watching over us still.