TWO YEARS AGO this week, I had a few surprises. First, I found out my trip to Mexico coincided with the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a joyous and sacred event honoring St. Mary. This fiesta always held allure, with its origin story about Mary appearing to young Juan Diego.
The morning after my arrival in Puerto Vallarta, I opened a new email from a man who was, according to my Ancestry.com DNA test, possibly a cousin. We’d been exchanging messages, putting dates and places together — I was adopted back in the old days of no-disclosure adoptions — and this new missive was revelation No. 1.
Ben is my half-brother. Our mother, a nurse practitioner, progressive Catholic, Peace Corps volunteer, lover of dogs, nature and poetry, had died in 2012.
In the last years of her life, we lived in the same state: She in Spokane, I in Port Angeles.
Ben, along with my even-younger half-brother Michael, sent me a feast of emails about the woman who had surrendered me to an adoption agency when she was a 21-year-old college student.
We both went to the University of California at Berkeley; both love the Spanish language. Her word to describe someone she admired was “funky.”
Oh, and we both chose our own names. I added de la Paz to my surname. For the same reasons – she liked it, it felt right — she added Mary as her middle name. We share an affinity for Spain and Portugal; her/our family comes from the Douro Valley.
Learning these things was a gift of gigantic proportions. Still, I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit to feeling angry at the fact that we never met.
What to do with that?
Ever since that morning, I’ve wondered — and marveled at how opportunities seem to present themselves. I don’t follow the old-school Catholic doctrine I was taught as a girl, but I do feel a sense of peace inside a church, especially one dedicated to St. Mary.
As I went looking for ways to connect with my deceased mother, I didn’t have to go far in Mexico in mid-December.
The streets leading to the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe were festooned with petite flags in red and green. The front entrance is like a woman’s café con leche-colored skirt, and the bell tower wears Mary’s lacy crown. Inside, people in their Sunday best or their work shirts and jeans sit, stand, kneel and stand again, because we all know the steps in the Mass.
At the back of the church, rows of votive candles flicker. And I know what to do. The act of lighting a candle in remembrance is a natural thing, a comfort.
I spent three weeks in Mexico, and then embarked on the next leg of my travels: to southern Spain, then Faro, Lisbon, Nazare and Porto, Portugal.
Miraculously, this trip of a lifetime, planned the previous winter, happened to cover my ancestral homeland. My brothers clued me in to the fact that my great-great-grandfather is buried in Lisbon’s Prazeres cemetery.
And in every town and city were Catholic churches, of course. In each of them were candles to be lit.
Here we are, in the midst of the 2020 Feast of Our Lady. And Advent and Christmas. The churches are and will be empty of people — as they should be. I’ve no plans to go inside any designated house of worship.
That doesn’t mean I can’t say my own kind of prayer and strike a match to the candle my brother Michael gave me as a birthday gift.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, senior reporter in Jefferson County, can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]. Her column appears on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. The next one will be Jan. 6.