Hilltops

by Annie Heckman

In 1986, my grandmother and her two sisters took me in a small navy blue Chevette up across the Wisconsin border to the shrine of La Salette.

Or in 1985, my grandmother, her two sisters, and I, together with my brother, piled into my Uncle Stanley’s big brown sedan and drove up across the Wisconsin border to the shrine of La Salette.

Or it was 1987. Or we went twice.

La Salette Basilica, France

La Salette Basilica, France

In 1986, when we drove up past the northwest suburbs of Chicago, up the scenic way on the county roads instead of the highway, because it was more beautiful, because we felt safer going slower in the car, because it was off the toll road, we packed a big lunch. We put it in the trunk of the car, or in the hatchback, and brought it to our family friend who worked at the shrine. Or we went out for a big lunch together when we arrived there. Or he had food ready for us, but I don’t think that’s right. Or we did both, twice, once in 1986 and once in 1988.

When I think of La Salette, I remember an arrangement of figures like this:

Our Lady of La Salette

Our Lady of La Salette

We told the story in the car, maybe we had told it before, maybe we watched a film afterwards, or there was a book that explained it. There may have been a pamphlet at the site, and anyway my grandma would have repeated the story for me as many times as I asked for it. The children had seen an apparition, and the site of their vision became a source of refuge. I loved this story so much. I don’t remember if they told it at school.

When we arrived at Twin Lakes there was a hilltop, or it seemed like a hilltop, with a circle around it, or space to show that it was separate and precious, with the statue of three figures standing there, a woman and a girl, and a smaller boy. I had my own little statue, which I brought home with me and kept safe.This little statue was perfect, and eventually I remembered the big statue to be like this little one, colored in, shiny, pearly all the way around except the bottom, which was chalky white with a hole in the base, but I remembered the big statue all wrong. The big statue stayed grey and solid. I made a similar mistake with a Care Bear toy, thinking I had the big stuffed animal when I fell asleep, dreaming about my amazing bear, bigger than my head, waking up and remembering that it was the small plastic bear, smaller than my hand. Expectations were not so reasonable, but strong. So scale and texture were part of a mixed bag, and La Salette took on a luminous quality in memory.

There was a place where all of this had happened before, not in Wisconsin, back in France. But when they came to Wisconsin there was no way to go back to the old place, so now people could go to this new place in Twin Lakes to remember the old place that they couldn’t go to in France. There was blessing. The children were young shepherds who saw the apparition and recorded the prophecy. Their story stayed the same, and finally the leaders in the church believed them.

Miles away in Ware, Massachusetts, in a church I didn’t know, Our Lady of La Salette was sitting, crying.

Our Lady of La Salette

My brother and I could imagine ourselves as the boy and girl in the story. They were friends. The Virgin Mary appeared to the two children and told them to pray, and gave them a prophecy about the end of the world. It was the mid-19th century. She was crying because of the coming disasters, which she could see. She could give warning. She was dressed in shiny white clothes, with roses. I remember the statue silky and white, with the two children standing in front of her. There were roses carved around the statue, or they were real, in bushes, or on the ground.

The La Salette Shrine in Wisconsin looks like this from the side:

La Salette Missionaries and Shrine, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, USA

La Salette Missionaries and Shrine, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, USA

And from a satellite, it looks like this:

La Salette Missionaries and Shrine, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, from above (Google Satellite)

La Salette Missionaries and Shrine, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, from above (Google Satellite)

And in France, where the first place named La Salette is sitting, the statue looks like this:

Notre Dame de La Salette, France

From a satellite, the area around La Salette looks like this:

Notre Dame de La Salette, France, Satellite view (Google Maps)

Notre Dame de La Salette, France, Satellite view (Google Maps)

On the way to La Salette (Wisconsin), you have to be prepared to save enough space in the car, to stake your ground. But other than this issue of personal space, the ride is relatively easy on the body. La Salette in France has zig-zag lines on the map, and high peaks. It appears that many people use their cars to get most of the way up to see the site of the apparition. Here is a picture of some of their cars:

Cars near Notre Dame de La Salette, France, Satellite view (Google Maps)

Cars near Notre Dame de La Salette, France, Satellite view (Google Maps)

In both places, then, you would probably bring a car, unless you were walking for a very long distance on purpose to go see the site of the apparition. In Wisconsin, it’s more important to hear the story and imagine the site of the apparition, and in France you can say, “This. Happened. Here.”

The distance between 2 La Salette sites

The distance between 2 La Salette sites

Both places are beautiful. People who like mountains may say that the place in France is more beautiful. People who feel stuck in the city may find Wisconsin just as beautiful, by comparison, at the time they find it. There are two most-beautiful things to me about all of these pictures: the poignant gesture Mary makes in Massachusetts, with her hands to her face as she sits and cries—there are other statues like this, and really we can’t see the tears, but that’s exactly how I like to hold my hands to my face when I’m cryingand the zig-zag lines stitching down towards La Salette in France, from the upper left corner of the photo, edging off the hilltop into a nest of roads.

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