My mother said, “Why didn’t they tell us these things in school?” I had just come into her room. “Like what?” I said. My mother is in an assisted-living facility run by our church.

“Well,” she said. “Did you know that after the Blessed Mother gave birth to Jesus, she went into the desert, to a place God had prepared for her? She was there for twelve hundred and sixty days. It’s in the Bible. Did you ever learn that in school?”

I tried to recall. Between us, my mother and I have twenty-four years of Catholic education. Enough to form two Jesuits. “There was the flight into Egypt,” I said. “Is that what you mean?”

She shook her head impatiently. “The Bible says she went into the desert,” she said again, “to a place God had prepared for her. After she gave birth to Jesus. She was just a young Jewish girl,” she added, as if I needed the context. “She had just given birth. She was there for twelve hundred and sixty days.”

“Like a spa?” I said. Although my mother is in her nineties and I am in my fifties, in our discussions of faith and morals, I am forever the sarcastic teenager.

My mother dismissed my irreverence with an imperial wave of her hand. “It’s in the Bible,” she said. “They read the passage at Mass this morning. It said how Mary wailed out loud during labor—they never told us about that in school either. And then she went into the desert, to the place God had prepared for her, after all she’d been through.”

“That’s not in the Gospels,” I said.

“Not in the Gospels,” she snapped back. I could see this turning into a fight. “But in the Bible. There’s a lot in the Bible they never told us about in school. Mary went through labor, and gave birth to Jesus, and then went into the desert, to the place that God had prepared for her. Look it up.”

I did. And found the passage in Revelation—the book that we, as sarcastic Catholic teenagers, had called the Peyote Gospel.

When the subject arose again, I told her so. We were in the garden, chatting with Marie, another resident. Marie is my mother’s age, an Italian Catholic, from Woodside, Queens. She’s the mother of two, a widow since 1958. My mother told her the story—from the wailing in labor to the twelve hundred days—and Marie said, “You’re right. They never taught us that in school.”

“It’s from Revelation,” I said, speaking in caps, as you do with the elderly. “Not the Gospels. Revelation. Where all that visionary, end-of-days stuff is. It also mentions a dragon waiting to devour her child. None of it is literal.”

Marie nodded thoughtfully, but my mother only narrowed her eyes at me, regretting, I could tell, that she’d ever sent me to college. That I’d ever learned to use words like “literal.” We could hear the happy, recess voices of the children in the Catholic school across the street.

 “Well, it’s no revelation to me,” Marie said flatly, in her Queens way. “I wailed like anything when my kids were born, too.”

A few days later, I stopped by at the dinner hour, and found my mother and her three tablemates, leaning toward one another across their soup, straining to hear. Lois is an elegant bleached blonde who lost a daughter to brain cancer twenty years ago. Helen—a great wit—lost a son to AIDS in the early nineties. Peggy—always smiling, always confused—raised five children in a house nearby but seldom has visitors. Her favorite story, which she tells repeatedly, is of the five new outfits she was allowed to choose “for free” on the day she retired from a local department store. She was wearing one of those outfits now, a decidedly 1970s-looking green and pink floral dress.

“And God prepared a place for her, in the desert,” my mother was saying. “She was there for twelve hundred and sixty days. After she gave birth to Jesus. God prepared a place for her.”

The other three women sat back in their chairs, shaking their heads. No, they agreed, none of them had been taught this in school.

“It’s awfully nice, though,” Peggy said pleasantly. “God doing that for her.”

“It’s true,” my mother assured them. “It’s in the Bible.”

 And then she turned to me as if, here at their own end of days, I myself had delivered to the women this happy news: a spa, a place in the desert, a place prepared for her, by God, after all she’d been through.

“My daughter looked it up,” she said.

Published in the 2010-12-03 issue: 

Alice McDermott is the author of eight novels. Her latest book, What About the Baby?: Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on August 17, 2021.

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