Sylvia Sukop, 2018 PSP participant
Sylvia Sukop has an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis where she is the 2018-19 Senior Fellow in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Southeast Review, Palimpsest, Flaunt, Huffington Post, and several anthologies.
I write personally voiced narrative nonfiction (essay, memoir, journalism, cultural criticism) and have recently started to experiment with doing so in shorter forms, including flash. This piece explores ongoing themes in my work — religious heritage, migration, and identity — and I am now embarking on a new project informed by my participation in PSP 2018.
My younger sister and I shared an upstairs bedroom with matching twin beds and, between them, a bureau that held aloft a Virgin Mary, one of our mother’s prized possessions. As newlyweds, our parents brought the plaster statue with them on the ship from Germany, packed inside a barrel among goose-down comforters and pillows, baking pans and black iron pots, and a bread slicer with a jagged circular blade. In the suburbs of Reading, Pennsylvania, we kneeled on shag carpet to say our bedtime prayers. Hands clasped at our small chests, we looked up at Mary while our mother watched. With painted blue eyes and silent nod, Mary returned our gaze, half-raising her arms in blessing. We wore Snoopy pajamas and our short hair in bangs. Mary’s wavy tresses slithered from beneath her long white veil. Cinched at the neck, her blue cloak parted to reveal a gown like vanilla drapes. Peeking out at the hemline, Mary’s toes, long as fingers, squashed a silver serpent, eyes popping, jaws agape, pink ribbon tongue split at the tip. With sweetness and poise and no hint of fear, she crushed the monster evil and I believed that she protected us. When we moved away from home, Mary stayed with our mother who said the Rosary alone till we came back to pray with her when she was dying. Before her body was laid in the coffin, I pressed my mother’s yellowed hands together, winding the shiny black beads around them just as she had asked me to.
Twenty years after our mother’s death, Mary reappears when we’re sifting the last of our parents’ things, lobbing into a rented dumpster what’s left after yard sale and donations. I take Mary in my arms—she’s the little one now—and strap her upright on the front passenger seat. At the office supply superstore, I spring for the expensive packing material and prepare her for the journey west in one of seven numbered boxes. Under fluorescent lights, Mary lies on the laminate counter, her expression changeless, same for the choking snake. I consider faith’s failures and resolve that evidence of its existence is worth keeping. The next day I fly home to California and when the shipment arrives a week later, Mary’s is the first box I open. She crowns through the bubble wrap and styrofoam peanuts and I can see she’s made it, hair, eyes, shoulders, hands—then, suddenly, further down, my fingers meet the sharp edge of cracked plaster. Lifting the statue fully out of the box, I find a fat chunk of Mary’s cloak is gone, broken despite my best efforts. I gather the fragments, place them in a miniature pail at her feet, my uneasy offering for our uncertain troth. But she stays. In a corner, on the floor, behind the closed door of my closet, she stays.
A version of this flash memoir was first published in the literary journal Soliloquies Anthology, issue 22.2, in April 2018.