The neighbors got talking one day after supper.
They always did in nice weather, sitting on the front steps while we played stick ball and caught June fireflies and ran around. But this time everybody talked about a family in town with a house shrine. The story was that this family asked for a nine day novena of Masses to Mary for a special intention. Then at the end of the novena they had an answered prayer. Maybe it was a son safe home from the Air Force, or a grandmother with an operation that turned out fine, something like that. So they put their car outside in a tarp and dedicated their garage to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. They said their rosary in their every night. Anybody else who wanted could pray there too.
Outside regular church and prayer times, people had extra devotions too. I copied Catholic Sister pictures from the encyclopedia, and make cardboard figure cutouts showing all the different habits. One grandmother made rosaries out of old beads. One mom in town had a baby born who couldn’t hear, and the first Saturday every month she got up in the night and left her family with Dad and drove all the way Upstate for a special healing Mass and a bottle of holy water; she got home after midnight and put drops of that holy water in the baby’s ears every day until the next trip. One neighbor went to her garage piano at 5:00 in the morning, and you could “Immaculate Mary, our hearts are on fire” all over the street. One family lost their son when some boys went drag racing and hit him. So the father made a little plaster mold of the Pieta by Michelangelo, the size of your hand. He put it on an altar with a picture of his son. Then he made another Pieta, and pretty soon more and more in white plaster dipped in glitter, and soon he lined the sidewalk with them in lines sparkling in the sun.
So when we heard there was a house shrine, we all got in the cars and drove right over. The family with the garage was home mowing the lawn and hanging up the wash. They said to go ahead into the garage for a look around.
The adults knew good plumbing and electric and concrete work when they saw it. They looked and agreed that the shrine was fixed up very nicely and was worth the trip. Then we sat down inside quietly for an hour.
There was never anything like it before. The door had white corky panels like Munster cheese to keep everything silent. There was hymn music, and not like our transistor AM radio or record turntable in the box with the carry handle. This music filled the air in a soft way coming from everywhere. There was a real waterfall with spray mist trickling down rocks, and tiny stars twinkling in a black velvet sky. It had all ferns and jade plant and peace lilies and moss. The Mary statue had a plain white flowing robe and veil and gentle face, holding out a crystal rosary.
The shrine was a different world completely like the Bronx Zoo Nocturnal House but in a heavenly way. Even at home I kept thinking about it, lying on the lawn to look at the sunset and feeling the planet turn under my back. It was clear and quiet out. The sky was all blue-green with gold light. Right overhead, there were very high light wisps of cloud in stripes like flying geese, turning from white to pink. I had a completely pure feeling hatching out of my heart.
What if I could keep this shrine feeling forever?
What if it helped me go my whole life without committing even one more sin?
What if my soul could stay like this, and then rise like another rose cloud? What if everybody heard about the garage and came from everywhere to see and be amazed?
Then everybody could feel like this too.
It’s 50 years later. It’s a clear summer sunset in June with just a couple of pink clouds. Maybe the same ones.
Back at home in Levittown, the adults didn’t talk about our experience. They mostly talked about work, because they worked all the time. For them, taking an evening off and letting the kids stay up for a pilgrimage was a comfort and innocent pleasure.
The host family didn’t talk either, not about special visions or messages from the Queen of Heaven. They just gave up some savings and weekend work and living space. They put the car outside, made trips to the hardware store, tinkered with the tool box, and then opened their driveway to just anybody. Those actions did the talking. Their hospitality and devotion was a special grace down at the Carmel Garage. It was a pure intention, the kind that can take place anywhere. Any time. Anybody’s roof.