Magazine article The New Yorker

PILGRIMAGE; ARE WE THERE YET? Series: 3/4

Magazine article The New Yorker

PILGRIMAGE; ARE WE THERE YET? Series: 3/4

Article excerpt

My parents got the idea for our only vacation from a priest. Their marriage was based on shared devout Catholicism; our days were shaped and colored by it. They were middle-aged when I was born, my mother forty-one, my father fifty-five. My mother had polio, but she supported us by working as a legal secretary because my father didn't have a job.

In the spring of 1954, when I was five years old, a priest suggested that we make a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Anne de Beaupre, in Quebec, where prayers were said to be very powerful, particularly if the petitioner made his request while climbing up the stone steps to the basilica on his knees. We would also visit a nearby shrine dedicated to the Virgin: Cap de la Madeleine. We would pray for my father to get "a good job." We knew that the jobs he got, and lost--bartender, taxi-driver--were beneath him. We knew that "a good job" would involve words. He was a writer. An editor.

As a treat for me, when we had finished visiting the shrines, we would stop at Storytown, a recently constructed poor man's Disneyland that was north of Albany. I don't know how my parents learned of it; it was not the sort of thing they usually knew about. It was as if they'd suddenly become interested in space travel.

To save money on hotels, we would make the trip from New York to Quebec in one long twelve-hour drive. We would eat all our meals in the car. My mother packed ham sandwiches, Ritz crackers, a special juice for me whose name I loved: apricot nectar. I was happy in the large back seat. I could see my parents' heads, turning pleasantly toward each other; she would pass him a bite to eat, a sip of something. I pretended that the back seat was my hotel and that the window crank was a phone, and I ordered room service: champagne and caviar. We crossed the border into Canada and I was disappointed that people weren't speaking French. I loved the sound of French words, and I especially liked the name Cap de la Madeleine, which sounded to me like a dancer tapping down a flight of stairs. And I was disappointed that we were staying not in a hotel but in a motel, with wallpaper that was meant to look like knotty pine.

In the morning, when we got to the basilica, my mother and I stayed in the lower chapel, praying as my father made his way up the stairs on his knees. …

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