An attraction that's a real mother

You'd think the only virgins in windows were in places like Bangkok and Amsterdam, but it's not true. There's one in Clearwater, off Highway 19 and right across the street from the Kash 'n' Karry. And this is the Big One, the Cherry Royale, the mother of all Virgins, the Virgin Mary.

Her image is strangely imprinted on the windows of the Seminole Finance Co. there, joining the ranks of knotholes that look like Jesus and clouds that resemble Elvis. A Seminole Finance receptionist told us they had seen something there since 1994 but thought it was just damaged glass and were going to have it replaced. Then a customer came in to make a car payment, saw what the image resembled, and called the media. Since then almost half a million people have come to see it.

Since tours, rants and benders are the only things we get to go on, we thought a pilgrimage would be a refreshing change, although we know that pilgrimages are often ridiculous, even perilous. Take, for example, the 113 pilgrims, nude and smeared with ash, who croaked in a snowstorm in the Himalayas in August. They had all trotted off to worship a stalagmite thought to be the phallus of the Hindu god Shiva. The only way the story could have been better would be if the holy wiener had fallen on them.

Cash 'n' tarry

Cash 'n' tarry

Knowing that such surprises often greet the pilgrim, we should have not blinked when we began our quest at a gas station and were told the car needed a bit of work. An entire day and $300 later our faith was a bit less spiffy than the car. Pilgrims just have to face this kind of crap. That, and detractors who call and say, "Too bad you didn't get to go today. I heard on the news that (the two-story virgin) walked out of the window and started stomping people."

We did make it to Clearwater and into the parking lot where one young pilgrim was yelling, "Use your eyes!" at some olden pilgrims who walked in front of his car. With all the canes, walkers and wheelchairs poking their way to the Image you'd have thought this was Lourdes. Then you'd remember it's Clearwater. There are more canes, walkers and wheelchairs here every day than Lourdes ever saw, and the real miracle is that the dead are up and around, wearing peach and driving.

They were all over the parking lot at Seminole Finance, too, along with the young, the tourists, the folks selling Mary T-shirts for $9.95, plus all the other thousand people an hour now said to be visiting It. And when you cross the parking lot, the It is very distinct: a prismatic picture of a veil and lines that drape just as the fabric would hang on small shoulders with folded hands. As glass defects go, this one is a pip.

The landscaping wall was covered with more flowers than a Rose Bowl parade float and enough candles that, if we melted them down, we could have waxed the legs of every pilgrim there, and even some of their bikini areas, if asked. But most interesting were the notes. One in a sealed envelope just said, "To God," probably a party invitation. Some said, 'Thank you.' Some asked for help with illness or weight loss. Some asked for money. Some were memorials. One simply asked to "make us better people."

The question came down to what the question always comes down to: Is this chick really a Virgin? Of course everyone I asked said yes, except for one visitor who said he thought it was just a trick of the light. My own mother, standing right in front of It, said she thought the image "could make a person convert." Later on the road out of town I asked her if she was serious. Did she think it was a miracle? No, she said, "not with all the crap going on in the world."

Getting reflective

Holy crap, she's right. If you were the Mother of God and wanted to give people hope, would you end wars? Cure AIDS? Or stick your own hazy image in a Clearwater window, something David Copperfield could do in his spare time?

The road out of town, incidentally, led to Tarpon Springs, where I once pilgrimmed to see an icon of Mary that was said to cry real tears. But while there were plenty of tourists whacking down beers by the sponge docks, no one was beating down the doors to the churches. Even holy images, it seems, are no match for the fickle mistress of fate.

On the other hand, who cares? The image is remarkable. It was fun. And it gets people to shut up and think for a minute, about possibilities, about miracles, things we never have the luxury of thinking about in our thin little lives. It stretches our thinking to include wonder we thought we'd lost. As a cheap magician in a movie once said of illusions, "People need them like they need the air."

Oh, and a little cash wouldn't hurt, either.

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