What’s the mystery behind Mother Grace?

The portrait of a lady we call Mother Grace, photographed in Freiburg, Germany, by J Gerald Crawford. Another in our series of “What’s the Mystery behind the image.”

But she had her faith and her cathedral and her God to keep the secrets buried in the past.

The rain reached Freiburg, Germany, before we did. The day was gray. A heavy mist had rolled into town. We arrived by bus and were on the way to Switzerland, a bunch of artists and me. The artists were all looking for opportunities to recreate the scenes and images of the Old Masters. Much of the country, it seemed to me, looked about the same as it did when they pulled out their easel, canvas, and paints a long time ago.

The center of Freiburg hadn’t changed much at all. It had been around since the twelfth century, straddling the Dreisam River and situated at the foot of the Schlossberg, a timber-covered hill that rose up from the edge of the Black Forest. Freiburg, through the years, had become well known for its ancient university, founded in 1457, and its medieval minster.

Thank God for travel brochures. Photographer Gerald Crawford and I had no idea what a minster was. It happened to be a great cathedral in the heart of town, surrounded by a cluster of shops and cafes and stores and, as I recall, a bar or two. A Swiss historian had said that the 116-foot tower on the church “will forever remain as the most beautiful spire on earth.” Through the years, the phrase has been changed, revised, and misquoted until people now say that the spire is the “most beautiful tower in the whole of Christianity.”

But you know how gossip goes. Especially a long time ago. They didn’t have travel brochures to keep them straight.

We did know that our bus rolled into Freiburg about mid afternoon. The day was cold. The coffee was hot.

Our coats weren’t nearly thick enough or warm enough. When we left Texas in early September, we didn’t need coats. Temperatures were hovering around the high nineties and sweat was the cheapest thing we owned. But some fool told me to bring a coat along. We thought he was crazy. In Freiburg, we owed him our lives. We sat there huddled beneath the umbrella of an outdoor café and gazed up and down the deserted streets. The chilled rain had driven everyone inside.

Well, not everybody.

When w saw her walking down the sidewalk, we could barely make out her image in the gray mist. She was walking slow and steady, using an old cane to balance herself. Her coat was the color of the day. Her hat and purse were black like her shoes. She looked like winter.e

She stooped, but it was not against the wind. The stoop had come with age.

The day was cold. It had not stopped her. The rain was coming down hard. It had not stopped her. The little lady was headed for the cathedral. Old, fragile, her faced wrinkled with the wisdom of her years on earth, she was making the trip across the wet cobblestones alone and unafraid. Nothing could stand in the way of her going to church.

Crawford had time for one quick photograph before she reached the door. If the cold and the rain and the winds didn’t bother her, they certainly didn’t bother me.

We would forever call her “Mother Grace.”

And I would forever wonder about the mystery behind her life. She she had survived the reign of Hitler. She had survived the war. She had known hardships, death, and loss. She had no doubt suffered. But still she came to the cathedral each day.

She had secrets.

Perhaps those secrets were too painful to remember.

But she had her faith and her cathedral and her God to keep the secrets buried in the past.

I only wish I knew what her secrets were.

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  • Carol Toberny

    I love your story and Gerald’s photograph. Both touch my soul.

  • Kelly Marshall

    I love the image. I love your words

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