A Story’s Miraculous Life

Katherine Vaz

Publisher’s note: In Katherine Vaz’s short story “Our Lady of the Artichokes,” 17-year-old Izzy and her Tia Connie try to fend off an eviction notice by staging a “miracle”: an apparition of the Virgin Mary on the wall of their apartment building. Here Katherine discusses the inspirations for the story and its many manifestations (included in our anthology The Female Complaint).

I wrote the story “Our Lady of the Artichokes” over a dozen years ago, after a great-aunt, Conceição Valladão—Tia Connie—learned that the apartment building where she’d lived for decades in San Leandro, in the San Francisco East Bay Area, was being converted into condos that would cost more than twice her modest pension per month.

She was originally from the Azores, as was my father and all his family, and most of the other residents of that building were elderly Portuguese (Lusa) and Latina women. “Huh,” she said, “maybe if I paint the Virgin Mary on the wall, they’ll call it a miracle site and not throw us into the street.”

Of course this didn’t happen, but I thought it would make a funny idea for a story.

I had another, more uncanny impetus: My Tia Connie had married very late in life, at around age fifty, most likely a virgin, and her Tony (also Portuguese) was a lovely man whom I recall fondly. (I was always amused by a photograph of them sitting with glasses coated with the buttermilk they’d drunk—almost all Azorean immigrant men in northern California worked in the dairies.)

He died after only ten years, of leukemia. Their love, of course, his care and sweetness and hers toward him, was the great miracle of her life, what C. S. Lewis would call “surprised by joy.”

The idea, too, that older women, many of them widows, could not afford to stay in their homes, was a driving force in my writing, and alas, this gentrification, this careless way our world shakes the foundations of the most helpless among us, has worsened.

The story itself has had a miraculous life: It first appeared in Pleiades in 2003, and I included it in a collection of Luso-American stories that won the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. Originally I had suggested Stories from the Portuguese as the collection’s title. The editors felt that a little literary wordplay using Elizabeth Barrett Browning was all well and good, but Our Lady of the Artichokes was far catchier. I agreed.

Fast-forward another six years, to a bit of a stunner. Right after my beloved father, August Mark Vaz, died in 2013, I received a phone call telling me that my one-page idea to convert “Our Lady of the Artichokes” into a screenplay was one of eight national winners of a contest sponsored by the Writers Store and the New York Film Academy. During one of the worst winters in the history of New York City, where I live with my husband, Christopher Cerf, I went to Los Angeles for a six-week boot camp to write the script. (I am still revising it.) I swam outdoors while Christopher sent me amusing photos of him bundled up, shoveling the snow on our sidewalk.

That was the miracle (and miracles are always the deepest thing we need, but they prefer to take the form, always, of a surprise) the story gave to me: In that balmy southern California air, in the intensity of learning a challenging new form of storytelling, my grief over my father softened and converted itself into something perfumed, the honeysuckle bushes and gardenias outside the patio of my long-stay lodgings in Burbank letting me pretend that he was right outside, tending to his spectacular garden. He was a history teacher and painter known for having a magical skill with plants.

And then I heard from Rosalie Morales Kearns, whose passion for magic and writing and women writers gave the story yet another breath of life in The Female Complaint, from her Shade Mountain Press.

The original story is fictional, but the true-life kicker was that when my father and his sister had to take their Tia Connie to the retirement home where she would finish her days, they were distraught with worry that she would be upset.

What happened was that she heard a woman’s voice coming from one of the rooms. It would turn out to be not only someone originally from the Azores, but someone from the same village where she’d been a girl. “I’m home, I’m fine,” she told my father and aunt, because she immediately understood the accent, the cadence, the music; she could pinpoint it that accurately, and with a wave of the hand dismissing them, down the hall she went.

Katherine Vaz is the author of the novels Saudade and Mariana and the story collections Fado & Other Stories and Our Lady of the Artichokes. She has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a citation as a Portuguese-American Woman of the Year, and other honors.