Given Shelter from the Storm by a Heavenly Host

Seeking shelter from a sudden storm, a mother finds safe haven for her kids.

- Posted on Jun 13, 2012

Joan Ripley and her granddaughter Clara

Finally, the storm clouds lifted! It had rained for nearly two weeks straight, our European vacation better suited for ducks than my two youngest children and me. Still, we’d had a wonderful stay with my elderly cousin, Tante Helga.

She’d lived her whole life in Thumersbach, a tiny village of about 900 people, and knew the mountains like the back of her hand. A retired obstetrician, she was a friend to everyone in the community.

Her villa, on the shore of a lake high up in the Austrian Alps, was like a scene from a storybook. It was magical.

We’d been to cathedrals and museums, castles, outdoor markets and beautiful gardens, every historical site for miles around. But what I really wanted to do was go hiking! We’d come all this way, from our home an hour outside of New York City to walk the Alps.

I wanted Mark, 10, and Sandy, 7, to see my birthplace in all its rugged, breathtaking, snow-capped glory, to run through alpine meadows and dip their feet in ice-cold streams. But in the mountains storms can quickly turn deadly. No adventure was worth putting the kids in danger.

So that morning, when the sun burst over the horizon, it was like a gift from God. Right after breakfast, my friend Wolfgang knocked on the door. “C’mon, what are we waiting for?” he said. “It's a perfect day to touch the sky.”

“Really?” Sandy said, her eyes wide with wonder. This was the moment— the magic—I’d been waiting for.

“We’ll take the chairlift up,” Wolfgang said. “Then have a picnic at the top and a leisurely hike back down.” His wife and two children would come too. I could already see us dancing through a field of wildflowers, just like the von Trapps.

“I can’t wait to hear all about it,” Tante Helga said. We hugged her good-bye and set off on our excursion. The chairlift swayed gently, carrying us over the treetops, higher and higher, above the timberline.

“Look,” I said to Sandy beside me. Below us blue gentians and alpine laurel bloomed among the rocks. Above us, almost close enough to touch, was a powder blue sky and in the distance snow-capped peaks stood guard.

“Cool,” said Sandy. I agreed.

Near the summit we feasted on a lunch of black bread, cheese and cold cuts, then drank our fill from a clear, pure mountain spring. The boys chased after each other, while the girls picked bouquets of wildflowers. Far below us birds circled lazily over the valley.

In a meadow we spied some brown cows, their eyes large and gentle, their colorful bells serenading us as they grazed. No one seemed to be watching them but I knew that milk cows were often let loose on the high alpine pastures where they could eat their fill of meadow grasses.

“High on a hill was a lonely goatherd,” I sang out.

“Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo,” the kids answered.

I looked to Wolfgang to join in, but he was staring at the sky. “A storm’s moving in,” he said. “We need to find the trail and head down.”

I glanced upward. Black clouds blotted out the sun. In the distance we heard the rumble of thunder. “Let’s hurry,” I said.

We quickly reached the trailhead, Wolfgang in the lead, his long legs stretching farther with every step. Fat raindrops splattered on my arms.

We reached the forest, hoping for safety, but under the canopy it was nearly as dark as night, broken only by jagged flashes of lightning above our heads. We could barely find our way.

Wind lashed the treetops, branches bent and swayed madly. The rain fell in sheets, pelting us as we zigzagged down the switchback. My feet stumbled against rocks, yet there was no choice but to press on. Every minute we were outside increased the danger of a lightning strike.

“I’m scared,” Sandy cried. “My feet can’t go this fast.”

“I’ll carry you,” Wolfgang shouted above the din. He lifted her, holding her tight against his waist. “But we need to go faster. The storm’s getting worse. Our best chance is to go straight down—to the road at the bottom. Follow me.”

With Sandy in his arms, he turned and crashed through the undergrowth. We scrambled after him. I struggled to keep my balance. Branches clawed at our arms and faces. My hair and clothes were drenched. Water streamed down my back. I felt helpless.

A flash of lightning, followed immediately by a deafening thunderclap exploding in the nearby trees made us realize that the storm was now directly overhead. Trembling with fear, I grabbed a branch to steady myself.

“Angel of God,” I pleaded, “please protect us.” Could God even hear my pleas over the storm? Heaven had never seemed farther away.

I stumbled after Wolfgang and the others. The trees seemed to be thinning. I stepped into a clearing, though the rain was falling so hard it was difficult to see more than a few yards in front of me.

“Look,” Mark said. “I see a light. There must be a house.”

I saw it too. I could just barely make out a cottage. “Let’s run for it,” I said. I took Mark’s hand, our feet slipping and sliding on the grass.

What if no one’s home? But just before Wolfgang reached the door it swung open. As if we were expected.

An old man wearing the faded lumber jacket of a woodcutter stood inside the doorway. “Grüss Gott,” he greeted us, a gracious smile spreading across his face.

He motioned us to a fire that filled every corner of the room with a golden glow. There he handed each of us a blanket and helped us spread our soggy clothes on the hearth. The fire's radiance and the old man's kindness made the room more than warm and cozy.

The Austrians have a word for it: Gemütlich. And that's exactly what the cottage felt like—Gemütlich. In a heavenly sort of way.

I soaked up the warmth of the blaze, barely noticing that our host had stepped away. He returned carrying a tray with a plate of cookies and mugs of piping hot chocolate, topped off with puffs of whipped cream. “This will make you feel better,” he said.

“Mmmmmmmm,” said the kids, licking the cream from their lips. It was delicious. But puzzling. Would he have made all this for himself or was he expecting company?

“Thank you,” Wolfgang said. “I don’t know how much farther we could have made it. I feel bad. I should have been watching the weather more closely.”

“No need to explain,” the old woodcutter said. “I know exactly what happened. You were having fun.”

His voice was gentle and soothing, almost like music. The stress of the storm had melted away. I felt completely at ease, as if we were spending the afternoon with a dear friend. We barely noticed that the rain had ended and the thunder had wandered off, grumbling to itself.

I looked out the window. The late afternoon sun shone brightly through the curtains. Tante Helga! She’d be worried about us if we were late.

“Your clothes are dry,” our host said, as if he’d read my mind. “You’ll be fine going home. Just follow the path to the bridge, then turn left and it will take you to a road that goes right past your aunt’s house.”

Perfect. We said our good-byes and set off down the trail. It wasn’t until we reached the bridge that I wondered: How had he known where we were staying? Tante Helga knows everyone around here, I reminded myself. She must have told him about us.

I turned around for one last wave but saw no one. No house. Not even the clearing. The trees are probably blocking my view, I thought, but funny, I hadn't even noticed that we were back in the forest.

We found the road and soon were back at Tante Helga’s, just like the woodcutter had said. “You’re totally dry,” she said. “How did you miss the storm?”

We told her about the house in the woods. Her face grew more puzzled with every word.

“I know the cottage you’re talking about,” she said, “but it burned down fifty years ago.”

“But the old woodcutter,” Sandy said. “Was he a ghost?”

Tante Helga shook her head. “Nein,” she said. “Not a ghost. An angel. Sent to watch over you.”

I thought of the prayer I’d said, lost in the crashing of the thunder. God had heard every word. He’d given us shelter even in the midst of the storm.


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