Musings + Essays

The Headwater of a Hail Mary.

By: Jen Shoop

*Above image is not of Mount Koressos mentioned below, but when I came across it, I was reminded of the photographs I’ve seen of it, and the entire nest of thoughts below came tumbling out.

My sister and brother-in-law came over for Easter Sunday dinner. They had declined to attend Thanksgiving with us just a few months back because we were too skittish about the spike in COVID cases at the time to share a single meal.

We have been in and out of Manhattan a couple of times in the last few weeks viewing potential homes in D.C. after spending nearly a full sixteen months in the city, with only a one-week reprieve on Long Island last July.

We have seen my parents and Mr. Magpie’s parents several times thanks to those brief visits to Washington after not seeing them — and the way my father-in-law is always early to the train station, and my mother is always perfumed, and my father is never without a handful of papers and envelopes to pass along with my initials in thick black sharpie at the top — for over a year.

Slowly, then quickly, more and more of my siblings and friends and cousins and acquaintances — healthy young people in their 20s and 30s — have gotten their vaccines.

Yesterday, Mr. Magpie and I got ours.

And, possibly accelerated by the frenzy of activity around finding a home and moving, what felt like quagmire now runs swiftly underfoot, as though a thin trickle of water has made its way through a stagnant pool and is now racing, rushing, crashing into a downhill stream turned river. That thin trickle was hope. It was the beginning of a prayer, the headwater of a Hail Mary.

A few years ago, my parents made a pilgrimage to Mount Koressos in Ephesus, Turkey. My father has mentioned the excursion a handful of times with a startling, spine-straightening solemnity:

“When we got there, your mother knelt and cried.”

My mother is not a dramatic person. When I was weepy with hormones and shock after the birth of my daughter, blubbering in my recovery bed, she took my hand and patted it a couple of times. “Now Jennifer, what is it?” Something about the question, and the way she busied herself arranging my pillows, asking whether I wanted this or that to eat, jolted me out of my tearful haze and returned me to the present. When my mother is moved, she will dab at her eyes and clear her throat and somehow, elegantly, without denigrating the intensity of the moment, emerge with a smile and walk right into the next thing — “Did you want a sandwich for lunch?” A high school girlfriend of mine, whom I have elsewhere presented as Amelia, always envied my mother’s poise and perspective in such moments, the way she could regain composure and reset the table in a matter of seconds. I remember remarking on the proximity between a graveyard and a playground while on that other-worldly trip to Annecy, and that observation fed into my comment that afternoon that “I keep waiting for the day when I can be like a grown woman about these things. Like, Elaine [my mother’s name] would be able to move on.” As in: my mother would be able to observe but not be derailed by monkey bars over tombstones. She has a way — conditioned by experience and time — of keeping herself moving.

So this vision of my mother prostrated in tears is irreconcilable. But my father has repeated this story so many times, and with so little variation, that it must be true. So there she was, kneeling and crying at the House of The Virgin Mary in Ephesus.

I have always felt a special devotion to The Virgin Mary. I have even, on afternoons passed in hazy reverie, when I am wraithlike with imagining and thought, pondered the symmetry of attending a grade school called Annunciation and then a high school called Visitation — the first two consecutive joyful mysteries of the rosary and both centered upon the figure of Mary. It was the rosary we took turns reading over the crackly P.A. system at my grade school: it was Hail Mary my trembling nine-year-old voice broadcast while I stood on a small stool in a plaid kilt, tentative but sedate. I was cast as Mary in the Christmas pageant in eighth grade, a slipshod production where the angels came out too early and someone’s candle caught fire with a wig in the vestibule, but I took the role seriously, arranging my face into one of solemnity on the altar. Mary has sat with me through the hardest days of my life. Her prayer is always at the tip of my tongue. When I wrote about my panic attack, I neglected to mention that when my mother came to me in the waiting room of the ER that afternoon, she squeezed my hands and said: “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee…” And again, when I found myself alone in a taxi cab in pre-term labor on the way to Mount Sinai on the Upper East Side, it was my mother’s calm voice on the line: “…blessed art though amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” And it was Hail Mary, too, at the beautiful candle-lit event that used to be held in the manicured green “quad” at my high school, when classmates and their mothers would form the shape of a rosary, each candle-wielding participant a “bead” alit by her neighbor, and my mother would stand with me, and I would occasionally find a lump in my throat as I witnessed something I could not put into words, and I suppose it was the first rivulet of reassurance that has carried me through the darknesses we have borne.

I guess what I am saying is that it is true: it begins with a prayer, and it ends with something laughably, improbably trivial, like the splash of champagne that spilled over the edge of a coupe on my Easter Sunday table as I sat with family after months of separation. Both are reassurances that life — that love — will find a way. It is my mother kneeling and crying at the House of Mary, and it is my mother calling me on the phone to ask: “Did you want me to pack you some snacks for the train ride home? I know you like Cheez-its.” It is the expansiveness of faith and the preening minutiae of motherhood, and one way or the other, we have made it.


+Musings on the Visitation.

+My best high school friend also has a special connection to the Visitation.

+When I announced my second pregnancy on the blog, it dredged up a lot of memories of my childhood at Annunciation.

+Love finds a way.

+A verse that got me through my c-section.

+On not being particularly good at prayer.

+A prayer that brings me tears every Thanksgiving.

+My father has read a beautiful pre-Vatican rite to all of his children on the occasion of our weddings.

Shopping Break.

+If you have a little girl, please look at BellaBliss’ 40% off spring sale — you need this precious swing set. Mini owned it in a different colorway and it was maybe my favorite outfit of her second year of life.

+These striped napkins in the pink are perfect everyday napkins for spring.

+Pretty green paisley dress.

+A late entrant into my roundup of great transitional coats: this sage green parka!

+This Etsy shop has the prettiest pareos for around $20!

+This white blouse is just so good. More great spring tops here.

+Stunning spring plates — another reason why going with solid white is a good idea; you could layer one of these on top for a dramatic tabletop moment!

+More spring tabletop.

+Cute gingham pocket umbrella.

+Love these ribbed floral leggings for a tiny girl.

+Anthro just released a cute scalloped basket of its own!

+Gorgeous rug for a boy’s nursery.

+This dress looks like Rhode, but costs $108.

+Cool jeans, on super sale, from The Row and Khaite.

+These dresses are really just stunning for a vacation.

+This peony-print sweater is amazing.

+Spring fitness finds and more here.

+Gingham linen dock shorts for a little boy.

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12 thoughts on “The Headwater of a Hail Mary.

  1. This brought me to tears!! So beautiful and so grateful you shared the link in today’s post. My mother’s name is also Elaine and there is nothing that keeps more afloat than a Hail Mary. Had to leave a comment. Wow! Love all you do.

    XX !

    1. Thank you so much, Caroline!! I was revisiting this essay yesterday with my mom, too. It was such a powerful memory for her but we also just feel such a strong, shared devotion to Mary in general.


  2. This post left me teary and hopeful and awed — thank you for sharing it! I have my second dose tomorrow (!) and I am so, so happy and grateful to almost be there, to be able to visit my family next month, to plan a trip to New York this June after being away for 15+ months … I can’t wait! Sending love your way as we make it to the other side.


    1. Amen and good luck tomorrow!!! Hoping your side effects aren’t strong. Cheers to reuniting with family and beloved places…


  3. This is so beautiful. A little over a year ago, just before shelter in place precautions began, I had started to explore my own relationship with Mary. Looking back, I have to think that the beginnings of a new devotion to Mary right before COVID became serious was some kind of divine intervention, preparing me for times ahead with a spiritual tool that I’d come to lean on during this hard year. I just love the metaphor of ‘the headwater of a Hail Mary’, a trickle of hope: over this year, when I’ve felt too emotionally and spiritually depleted to bear whatever burden I’m shouldering, I’ve returned to a Hail Mary as the baseline that if nothing else, will carry me through the moment. And I mean that literally, as I’m sure you can relate–sometimes when it all feels like too much to handle in that instance, praying the Hail Mary is all I can do to get me through the swell. And on the other side, there is peace, calm, and clarity.

    1. Hi Hayden – Thank you so much for sharing this. I completely relate to how you’ve described the utility of the Hail Mary — sometimes the only thing I can manage to say in the face of challenge/stress/pain/loss/etc. I am so glad this resonated with you, friend.


    2. PS- Is the grade school you refer to Annunciation on Mass Ave? I go to mass there in DC, it’s walking distance from where I live! 🙂

  4. Beautifully said, as always. Your description of your mother stoically patting your hand as you fretted with feelings after childbirth reminded me so clearly of my own mom that I laughed out loud! Our moms seem very similar- able to dab their eyes and move on (while I usually dissolve into a puddle of tears and anxieties). I’m very much like my mom in a lot of ways, so I think I’ve always unconsciously wondered when the day would come that I would wake up and be able to be like a grown woman about things, too- move on like Susan would be able to move on. My mom would also pack me some Cheez-its, but without asking first because she likes the added element of surprise haha. It wasn’t until I had my sons that I realized that her way of saying, ‘I love you’ isn’t with tearful grand gestures and flourishes of emotions but with surprise Cheez-its. The preening minutiae of motherhood- I love that.

    1. Cheers to Susan and Elaine! They sound cut from the same cloth. You are so right that it’s those small things, like stocking her fridge with my preferred yogurts and La Croix flavors (and, yes, cheez-its), that are permutations of the words “I love you.” So sweet. Thank you for this note, my friend.


  5. Oh yea! So happy to hear you got your shot! I found it to be such a relief in many ways! It was a bit overwhelming.

    1. Thank you! I felt the same way — relieved, overwhelmed. I almost cried (!) when the doctor who administered my vaccine asked how I felt afterward and I said: “Just…happy.” And he said, “Me, too.” It turns out he is a practicing doctor who opts to give COVID vaccines on the side because (his words) “it’s my own form of COVID therapy.”



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