The Little May Madonna

I’m not religious, but my community is. My neighbours, my relatives, the people who congregate in streets and courtyards and city squares range from pretty religious to intensely religious. By which I mean Catholic. In the Roman Catholic calendar, May is the ‘Marian month’, the month of Mary, virgin mother of Jesus son of God. Today, as I left with my parents in our car parked in the claustro, a feature of the town of Altamura consisting in a courtyard open on one side to the road, the ladies next door asked us in serious and concerned tones if we could park so as to block anyone else’s access to the claustro when we got back, ‘because the little Madonna is coming this afternoon with Don Vito’. I could tell they were excited, because they were wearing their Sunday clothes (it was a Thursday), and even slight heels. I think I’ve only ever seen them in slippers and homey cardigans. Was that makeup on Gianna’s eyes…? Anyway, we did as we were told. When we got back, I found them busy shifting flower pots around to create a sort of altar to host the little Madonna. Their love for this event was infectious, I helped them drag potted trees to the centre of the courtyard. They looked satisfied. It felt good to be of use, and I could tell they were happy to have more people participate.

Later that evening, I was on my way to football practice, in my gym gear, my backpack on my shoulders, pramming my bike along. ‘Bella, have you taken some photos?’ Ever since my dad bought me a reflex camera, I go around town all too trigger happy, and may have earned a reputation as most annoying ‘who the hell is that girl doesn’t she have a home to go to’ of 2016. ‘Uhm… no; I’ll go get my camera!’ They never ask for anything, was I going to let them down this one time? So by the time I get back down, like, two minutes later, the claustro was teeming with middle-aged ladies in their Sunday best, and the elders in their traditional black (little Italian widows dot corners and alleys in this town like figures on an Avercamp).

The little Madonna stands among roses, lemons, fig leaves, lilies, a little pine tree. They’ve put her on a white embroidered tablecloth. She’s a simple porcelain cast as far as I can tell, under a metre in height, in a lily-blue painted mantle, gracefully supporting a be-haloed baby Jesus holding up a book and a few fingers. She stares peacefully ahead. She’s a ruler, somehow commanding respect in her meekness. I have to hand it to these ladies. This was a very beautiful sort of tacky.

I start clicking away and hear something along the lines of ‘Look at that Australian, just look at her’. I ignore, not because I want to avoid anyone, but because I don’t want to presume I’m the only Australian around. It’s Rosa, my old neighbour. I used to play with her two kids when we were little in that very claustro. Pacts were made and broken in those times, feuds given birth to, some dissipated, some alive and well to this very day (at least I haven’t forgotten). We chat, she shows me her son, ‘Gosh he’s turned out mighty fine!’ I say, ‘He was always fine!’ she retorts, ‘I remember him being a total brat’, she doesn’t like that, ‘You were a brat too, Bella’. I smile ‘well, shame he’s too young for me now’, ‘Oh come on how old are you? Don’t let that stop you! He’s still single you know’. But that’s another story.

An elegant woman approaches, characteristically short. ‘Who’s this young lady? Will she do the first reading tonight?’. Not one to let people down (you’ve figured this out about me already by now), I flashed her a dashing smile and took the script, waving goodbye to football training in my mind.

At this point the claustro is completely crowded, Don Vito, the priest, has arrived and is ordering the readers to get into formation on his left. I follow orders, looking through the camera lens at women and men in humble awe of the little statue, chatting among themselves. Children start to gather in the centre too, curious what all the fuss is about, and eager to be part of it. Don Vito says a few words about the significance of Mary around the world, then passes me the microphone. I stumble through a few lines, but as I go on, I remember the correct tone and pace from a youth of church and procession going, and I get to the end with the elegant woman smiling at me, and I feel less awkward about being in my sport gear. We sing, more readings are read, then the kids actually line up practically begging to be taken seriously in this affair as well. Don Vito obliges, they get to recite parts of the Hail Mary, of the Our Father, to lead the others through it. They compete over who can say it faster, most precisely, most piously. They’re happy, their parents are so proud. There are a few disabled people in the crowd. Disability is considered such a curse here, disabled sons and daughters and brothers and sisters always spoken of with a sigh and a hushed tone of sorrow; but there they are, they lead prayer too, they bellow out the words with fierce conviction.

I step around the crowd to take a few photos from different angles, familiar faces throw their hair back and look at me with a smile. Nothing can be taken too seriously. A man, perhaps in his forties, beckons me over to him; as I approach he points over to a particularly well dressed lady in a green rain coat, his gaze holds on to the back of her neck until she feels it and turns around, the corners of her eyes wrinkle into joyous recognition; ‘take a good close up of that lady, take a real good one’, he says to me, loud enough for her to hear, not looking away from her. I raise my camera and my eyebrows together, as if to ask her permission, she laughs and nods, flicking her hair away. He’s happy to have gotten that reaction from her. I take the shot, the light is right, her smile is perfect, I only need one go.

Don Vito leads one last song, I remember this one from the processions, so I sing along. He thanks the people of the claustro for doing such a good job with the setting — they look at each other without widening their smiles. I admire their poise. The priest gives his blessing, and the crowd draws closer as people on opposite ends meet and greet each other, then the slow exodus begins, like a calm morning tide crawling up over land, then backing away, leaving the clean sands to dry in the sun. Gianna and Rosa bring out the brooms, I help put the plants back in their usual spots; ‘Thanks for the rose and lemon, Fedora’, ‘What are you thanking me for? Come, it’s for the Madonna, of course!’.

I’m not religious. But my community is. This was a small thing in the calendar, other religious feasts are more majestic, more splendid, they cover more ground, they reach more people. But even today was special, thanks to the people who cared enough to make it so. Everyone and anyone got to take part, just by taking up space, a glance or a smile was enough to be made an integral part of the event.

For my part, I’m all too happy to let Mary take permanent residency if it means cars won’t park in the claustro on hot May days like these.



Traveler, historian, seeker. I own three plants. Two of them are dead. Whiskey.

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