Mary Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
by Courtney Preiss
On a Saturday morning a few summers back, I wore a purple dress so my dead grandmother would recognize me. In the already relentless heat of a Monmouth County July, we awaited the arrival of a medium my mother invited to the house I’d grown up in, a woman who could pull messages from the stratosphere of that great otherworldly realm. “Heaven” was convenient shorthand for the place where, I was told as a child, all my dead relatives had ascended to. I used to imagine them floating around up there, covered in white powder and draped long cloth—like Jacob Marley or Stevie Nicks.
My mother met the medium earlier that summer when a skeptical friend received a reading that frightened her with its accuracy. A loved one who had died by suicide came through to my mother’s friend, confirming his presence by rattling off the cross streets of the house where he was found hanging in a coat closet. My mother attended the medium’s next session one town over and returned home crying, clutching a piece of notebook paper covered in soft handwritten pencil and folded up into a tiny square. The notes skewed in every direction across the page, each line relating a message from her mother, who had been dead for seventeen years.
My grandmother—who succumbed to cancer at age fifty-nine just before my eighth birthday and just before my mother’s thirty-fifth—loomed large in my life, influential even in her absence. Her final birthday present to me, excavated from the depths of her closet months after her death, was a dress covered in wildflowers. “Happy birthday, Courtney Anne,” read the card attached. “Purple is really your color, you know.”
The loss so devastated my mother that for years after, she took to searching the mundane effects of her existence for signs of an afterlife. She invoked my grandmother’s presence daily, no matter how small the sign: unexplained coincidences, a pure-of-heart parking space, or a live version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” on FM radio. A devout Catholic school girl in her youth, as an adult my mother held tight to her religious beliefs while becoming preoccupied with the unexplainable. The first reading she’d attended confirmed something for her: the signs she saw in private were deliberate and divine. This emboldened her to commission the medium to hold a session in the house where I grew up and invite everyone we knew—aunts; neighbors; my best friend, Rachel—to witness a miracle.
This wasn’t the first time someone claiming a connection to the divine came to Marlboro, New Jersey. In 1989, a man named Joseph Januszkiewicz began receiving messages from a vision of the Virgin Mary that appeared in his backyard the first Sunday night of every month. Januszkiewicz was a draftsman in his fifties, living in a modest ranch house tucked away on a small strip of street connecting two larger roads. In one of her early messages, she requested he build a shrine to her, so he did: a small grotto in his backyard with a Mary statue, a cross, and an upturned plastic bucket where he would sit and commune with her. He’d had a previous run in with The Blessed Mother in 1988, when he visited a reported Marian apparition in a remote area of then-Yugoslavia and returned to New Jersey healed from a back injury.
Through Catholic newsletters and subsequent media coverage, word of the events in Marlboro got around and thousands of people from around the world began flocking to Januszkiewicz’s backyard in search of a miracle. The influx overwhelmed the town’s infrastructure, clogging its narrow roads and crowding the surrounding neighborhood lawns. The ire it drew made the cover of The New York Times. The more local officials and state diocese urged people to stay away, the more showed up. At the height of the phenomenon, eight-thousand visitors showed up in a single weekend to observe as Mr. Januszkiewicz received another message. Marlboro’s population was then only twenty-eight thousand.
I had been told many stories about the town I grew up in, its namesake dirt and the Lenape tribe whose land it occupies. My third-grade class went on a walking tour of historic Marlboro, winding along the dislodged Main Street that once served as a town center but by then had become a symptom of suburban sprawl. A sweating suspenders-clad man from the historical society stood in front of each establishment and crowed to the crowd of tiny faces about what once stood where we did. The 7/11 was once a general store. The Chinese restaurant was once a post office. The fire station was once a fire station, but with horses. A house sitting with boarded-up windows and filth crusted to the exterior was the childhood home of Garrett Hobart, the Vice President under William McKinley who would have assumed the office of the presidency after McKinley’s assassination had he not already died of cancer mid-term. The job went to Theodore Roosevelt, which left me to wonder—as a child and again now—if perhaps the most impactful act in the life of Marlboro’s prodigal son was his death.
Marlboro had hallmarks that made it known outside the county lines. The oft-imperiled state-run psychiatric hospital that opened in the 1930s and ran for seventy years before it was condemned after a final investigation, leaving its campus as exploratory fodder for lore-stricken teens until the ruins were demolished. The tiny airport where my father used to take my brother and I to eat sandwiches and potato chips at the lunch counter and watch cessnas careen down the narrow runway, until it closed following a twin set of crashes. A corrupt mayor who signed off on plots to overdevelop the land in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, resulting in failing infrastructure and overcrowded schools. Shortly after getting out of prison on corruption charges, he was sentenced to twenty five more years for raping a child.
I’ve been told a lot of stories about a lot of Marlboro ghosts, but none captivated me quite like when my mother spoke of Mary.
The medium arrived in a silver sedan and set up shop at our dining room table. My mother kept the crowd out back to give the readings an air of privacy, serving them jalapeno poppers and Crystal Light, offering shade beneath umbrellas on the deck. I was second in line behind Rachel, who appreciates the mystical but suffers no fools. When she emerged into the backyard with tears in her eyes, I thought: maybe this woman is the real deal.
I was anxious over the prospect of receiving a reading, feeling too fragile to let someone who claims to hold a sublime ability peek under the hood of my vulnerability and root around. I was freshly twenty-five and lost as ever: living in a tiny Brooklyn sublet, unlucky in love, and dogpaddling into a career I felt lukewarm about. I was suffering from a severe case of summertime sadness, craving clarity and direction. When speaking to my mother in the days leading up to the reading, I feigned a healthy skepticism. But that barely veiled the bald truth: I was banking on a miracle to free me from my funk.
At the dining room table, the medium took my hand in hers, warm and soft. She asked: Are you open to receiving messages? I told her I was. She proceeded to scrawl on a torn piece of notebook paper in her signature pencil, relating messages to me as they came to her, asking if I knew what the fragments meant. The notes were imprecise yet still accurately rendered the trappings of my life. She spoke of ballerinas and baldness, cancer and chemo, gamblers on the west coast and comedy routines on the east. A boy who died too young, he’s looking for you. Drugs? Yes. You think he is beautiful? Yes. He still thinks you’re beautiful, too. After about fifteen minutes, she took my hand for a final time, kept her eyes open and looked at me without blinking. You’ve had a hard year. Yes. But I was weeping, so I could only mouth the word.
In the backyard, Rachel and I pored over each other’s handwritten maps, trading details of each other’s childhoods to decipher the messages from the beyond. We were almost giddy until we found an identical phrase lurking in the corner of each of ours: you’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky! Not a note from a ghost, but a lyric from a Rihanna song that haunted the radio. This song, the medium had told each of us at the end of our readings in a tone that diverged from the one she’d been using until then, was a sign from our grandparents. When you hear it, she said, know whatever decision you’re being asked to make is being made with them in your corner.
The revelation between us made me reevaluate the reading, a slow nausea cloaking me as I realized I likely hadn’t been touched by the supernatural as I had so wished to be. Hasn’t everyone lost someone to cancer? Isn’t the state in the throes of a bonafide opioid crisis? She didn’t even mention my purple dress. Maybe subconsciously everyone is longing for someone to look them in the eye and say: you’ve had a hard year. Isn’t that the thing about being an adult? We’re all having a hard year.
For years following the final Mary sighting, my mom told the story of her appearance by rote whenever we drove past the house, now easy to miss. She had her own simplified version: the local government had had enough and condemned the site because they were done fielding that many visitors. Miracles be damned, she made it sound like the sheriff strode up on a thoroughbred to roll out the police tape and announce through a bullhorn: Mary doesn’t live here anymore!
She wasn’t far off: in September 1993, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Trenton released a report following a year-long investigation of the Januszkiewicz property stating that nothing miraculous was taking place on the site. The official statement on “The Marlboro Situation” was handed down from Bishop John C. Reiss, who asked the faithful to cease visiting the location of the reported apparitions while forbidding Januszkiewicz from publicly disclosing any forthcoming messages. The criminal who was then our mayor made hand-wringing statements to the press about his desire to restore a quality of life to Januszkiewicz’s neighbors and the town as a whole. Charter bus companies responsible for shuttling pilgrims to the site were contacted and warned to cease operations. An injunction was placed on a newsletter urging believers to come to Marlboro at the expense of public safety. NO TRESPASSING signs were installed across the lawn at the town’s behest. A judge from the State Superior Court announced Januszkiewicz was no longer seeing visions. “The Blessed Mother is no longer talking to him,” said the judge following a court order prohibiting gathering in the vicinity of the home. “The case is over.” A final message was delivered to the people: “I love you, my children,” said Mary by way of Marlboro’s Joseph. “And I will be in your hearts always. Thank you.”
Eventually the house became what it is today: unremarkable. A quiet molar nestled in the mouth of a New Jersey town.
After the reading I deemed to be false, the rest of the summer felt like a wound that wouldn’t heal. I wore a short fuse at work. My insomnia lingered like an unscratchable itch. I felt betrayed by a force I’d been hesitant to commit to in the first place. My mother, however, continued to see the medium. She brought her around the county, making introductions among friends.
“How do your friends feel after you assist a woman in robbing them blind?” I asked my mother once on the phone, sharp as a blade. But that didn’t deter her. Our dynamic became a microcosm of what makes the world turn: I thought she was delusional and she considered me unenlightened.
Before summer’s end, Rachel and I saw a movie about a beautiful young fortune teller who gently spars with the handsome skeptic challenging her direct line to the unseen world.
“You’d be happier if I was a fraud,” she tells him, “because then your whole fixed worldview wouldn’t be shaken up.”
“No, it’s quite the opposite,” he counters, holding a mirror to my insides. “If only you knew how much I don’t want you to be a fake.”
Invoking Nietzsche, she explains how badly everyone needs their illusions in order to survive.
Of the accounts I’ve found documenting my hometown’s Virgin Mary phenomenon, my favorite is an essay by Mark Warren from the December 1997 issue of Esquire. The essay is a letter in which Warren addresses his parents, recalling all the times they went on religious pilgrimages around the world, focusing on the time he followed them to Marlboro, New Jersey to see Mary in a man’s backyard. After following handmade APPARITION signs with arrows to what he decided was a clear ruse, he was forced to reconcile his disappointment with his parents’ unwavering beliefs.
He concedes in his letter that although he cannot live up to their spiritual expectation of him, he comes to understand that miracles are made in the ability to claim them. “If you think one has happened,” he wrote, “it probably has.” In the years that have passed since the medium came to Marlboro, I have come to accept the same.
My mother still searches for signs on the radio dial and is still moved to tears at the sight of a Crossing Over with John Edward rerun. She still sleeps with a Vatican rosary on her nightstand and slows down as she passes the house Mary made famous three decades ago. She kept in touch with the medium for years until the phone number where she could be reached was disconnected. Still, my mother keeps the medium’s papers covered in soft scrawl—notes from her mother to tide her over until they are reunited.
“I have faith in your faith,” Warren wrote to his parents the Christmas that he came around. “I believe in your belief and in the miracle of your miracles.”
I still slow down when I drive past the Mary house, too, flooded now with compassion over skepticism or contempt. I feel a soft fondness for the people who came to my tiny town at the prospect of hope or healing or just to bear witness to something they suspected they needed at that moment. In their longing, I recognize a piece of myself. We all need our illusions to survive, I remember when I pass by now. I’m still trying to pick mine.
Courtney Preiss’s stories and essays have appeared in places like Hobart, American Short Fiction, and Cosmonauts Avenue. She lives in Asbury Park, New Jersey with her family. You can find her on Twitter + Instagram: @cocogolightly.
Image: Amel Majanovic/Unsplash