Notebook: Opal’s Madonna

Madonna and Child, German, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Madonna and Child, German, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art Hewitt Fund, 1911.

Another Friday morning. Mim showers in Opal’s salmon-pink bathroom. The smell of Cameo brand soap, wet in her hand, reminds her of kissing her mother-in-law’s fragrant cheek.

Already, though Opal has only been gone for a week, Mim craves her sturdy kindness, her laugh billowing out over the dining table like oceans of acceptance. When Opal opens her side door — nobody but the mail carrier uses her front door — she greets you with the heedless energy of a rough-coated dog who has waited all afternoon for your return. A short, wide woman, her hands wet or floured, a drift of her gray hair falling out of its bun, her sensible shoes polished black and sprinkled with flour. She waves you into her kitchen and bends down to open the oven, where baked cinnamon apples burst out of their skins.

How could a woman like this have died? How could she have faded away? Opal, a woman as lavish in her affection as anyone you’ve met. Shrewd, mind you: an eye for a sound bargain. Mim can see where her husband, Opal’s son, got his head for business.

Mim shuts off the water. She steps out of the shower onto Opal’s plush bath mat. She dries her sad self with a striped beach towel, blows her nose, and shimmies into a set of underwear. Black pants, black top; salmon-pink socks, in honor of Opal, the lover of all warm colors: orange, marigold, cerise.

Then, at the breakfast table: “Sweetheart,” Mim says to Arnold, “shouldn’t I bring the Madonna to the funeral home? I want your mother to feel comforted. Those parlors at McMurphy’s are so impersonal.”

Opal had brought the Madonna home from Austria after the war, along with other treasures she’d found in antique shops in Salzburg. Her husband, Arnold’s father, was stationed there with the U.S. Army of Occupation after the German Reich surrendered. In the chaos of war, so many families had sold their treasures. The Madonna and Child, a devotional figure twelve inches high, was probably German, the antique dealer said, perhaps 18th century, polychrome on walnut.

“I’ll find you a box to put her in, Mim,” Arnold says, shoving his chair back from the table. His mother’s cardboard box collection, like other repositories of useful items, is in the basement.

As Mim lifts the Madonna down from the bureau in Opal’s bedroom, she sees that the Virgin Mary could be any young mother. Her watchful gaze; the mild gesture of her baby’s hand reaching out toward the visitor.

Underneath the statue Mim sees a deep gouge in the base that shows charred wood inside. Has the Madonna come through fire, or been treated roughly for an invasion of wood-boring insects? The unpainted surface on the bottom has darkened, over the centuries, to the color of roasted chestnuts. On the Virgin’s neck, where paint has flaked off more recently, the raw wood glows a soft umber.

Who else, Mim wonders, has prayed before this figure of the Virgin and her son? Who else, praying or reminiscing, has wept for kinfolk lost to old age, war, or execution in the street?

“I am not myself a believer,” Mim says now to the Madonna, “but Opal believed. She loved you; she loved your son. Give her peace.”

Spoken out loud in the quiet room, the words bring Mim a sense of relief so vivid as to be almost tangible. It’s as though nothing else matters. Only this moment. Only one woman, breathing and remembering love.

— Mary Ann Barton