As our wedding days nears, I’m feeling nervous. I’ve worked hard these past months, harder than I’ve ever worked before. I’ve got the bruises and cuts to prove it. Sinking posts, cutting chain-link, all to give the four-hundred or so palm seedlings a chance in this rainforest. Only a couple didn’t make it. Now, I’ve got plenty of time to sit around and wait.
Maybe it’s the sitting around and waiting that’s making me nervous.
Now that I actually have time to drive into San Juan in the evening and meet Maria, she’s busier than ever. She’s got a beautiful spot reserved for the wedding ceremony– a garden terrace within an historic home in Old San Juan. She knows the innkeeper, and some of the staff. The wedding plans are all set, so she’s not busy with those. She’s involved in a big research project for a professor I’m not too crazy about. She had worked for him before I came to the island last Fall; and I guess she took a job with him again because we need the money.
“Won’t it be some time before your trees bear fruit?” she had said, when I asked her why she took the job. She’s also working with her mother who’s head of house-keeping at the Ritz near the airport. I just let the matter drop. What am I going to say? “I don’t like the professor. I don’t trust him alone with you.”
I’d like to say that, but I don’t. She seems so absorbed in the research she’s doing. Her research concerns a very old painting that originally hung in San Jose Church, which is now under federal historic preservation — supposedly. Not much real work going on there I can see. It looks the same it did four years ago, when I first touched down in Puerto Rico.
Its plaster walls and wood beams look like they’ve absorbed many a tear-drop and sigh, and every manner of prayer — from exultation to lamentation over five-hundred years. (That’s a lot of years — more than the number of palm trees I’ve planted.) The church would have been vulnerable every time a hurricane whipped up the sea or a foreign power laid siege to Old San Juan, which was often enough. And in one of its naves had hung a painting of the Lady of Bethlehem, a nursing Mary. Virgen de Belen. The painting is thought to have been carried in procession during the siege of San Juan by the British in 1797 after it was moved to the cathedral down the hill. The people’s faith in the subject of the painting and procession may have delivered a miracle: the startling retreat of sixty some warships.
Anyway, Maria is researching what has been done since 1973 to find the stolen painting, the 16th century original. Only very artful copies by Joseph Campeche are seen today. Maria’s feeling is that San Jose Church, whenever it is restored, will not be the same without the Blessed Mother of Christ smiling from its tallow-colored walls. I agree. As Maria misses the painting, I miss Maria.