Cows and Grandmothers With Perfect Pitches

"Indeed I do!" I made reply to the person who had asked. "I remember Mindelheim well! It's where we bought the cowbells."

In Germany, where we were visiting by VW, no gentleman ever has anything to do with a cow, that being ladies' duty. We had seen numerous women, hard-faced and hard-handed, doing this in the fields. Brown Swiss cattle, mostly, beautiful beasts.

We had made an early start that morning, and the late-summer mist hadn't dissolved yet with the rising sun. We met some ladies returning from the fields after pasturing the milkers. We waved and they waved, and then we heard the bells.

Every cow has her own bell, whereas back in Maine we bell one cow, because where one is they'll all be. And the bells in Germany are not cheap clunkers such as we use in Maine, but are cast beauties with mystic symbols, each a musical mote that blends into the herd and makes a fairyland musicale for the fortunate tourist who arises early from the goose down.

The wife said, "We must pick up some of those bells!" I supposed they were family heirlooms, passed down and cherished, and would be had only by cajoling some tight-fisted German farm-wife to part with a treasure.

Not at all. The first lady I asked told me to apply to any hardware store. And this we did in Mindelheim that afternoon, and got a dozen German cowbells, with mystic symbols, for some of our friends back home.

Our inn at Mindelheim was owned by a stern grandmother sort whose son and daughter-in-law were next in line but by no means yet in command. She welcomed us in the usual style and handed us a room key on a blob. Evening meal would be at 18 hours.

We were on time, the only guests.

The son prepared supper, the daughter-in-law served it, and Grandmother hovered to make sure we were happy. She told us while we were in Mindelheim we must go to the next village, Apfeltrach, and see the paintings in the old church there. People pass, she lamented, and never go to see the paintings, and thus nobody knows about them. The church, she assured us, is always open.

We did go that afternoon to see the paintings in the Apfeltrach church, and it remains a most beautiful experience of that visit to Europe. Apfeltrach wasn't much of a village; a few farmhouses with animal stables, but the fields all out of town. On a knoll that includes the village cemetery, the church looks down on the homes. We found the door open, and the Putzfrau inside with mop and pail of soapy water, just finishing the weekly scrub before Sunday. She bobbed a Guten Tag and stepped aside so we could come in. Shortly she left.

The town had been silent. The church was more so. It was not one of those awesome European monsters with towers, steeples, naves, and sacristies, but a friendly little cluster of pews, an altar in keeping, and a high dome that was quartered for four magnificent paintings of holy moments. The lower walls of the church were laid out in sections, also painted. I do not know if any of this was a fresco. But it was all lovely, and completely unexpected.

Probably we dishonored the temple, but we were alone. We simply reclined on our backs and stared up from two pews, lingering long to inspect those dome paintings, one brush stroke at a time. The afternoon waned. There was peace and satisfaction, and we had seen the paintings at Apfeltrach.

Back at Mindelheim, we told Frau Grandmother that we were happy she had told us to go, and she thanked us for going! She said, "So many people don't take the time!"

We were not alone in the dining room that evening. We had just been served and the daughter-in-law had made her last "Bitte," when the portal opened from the street, and in came a student club that was on some kind of traditional ceremony only German students seem to admire. All of an age, with the insistent purpose of "having a good time if it kills me," they had come in to get the hotel's rubber stamp on their little white sailor caps.

Spanking-new for this ceremony, each cap had already been stamped by several proprietors. We had not, but Grandmother Proprietress seemingly had anticipated this intrusion, for she had her rubber stamp ready in her apron pocket.

EVERYBODY in Germany has a rubber stamp. If you ask a clerk in a store to sign your purchase slip, he whips out his rubber stamp and ink pad and obliges. So each cap would have a record of places visited that evening, and the boys began laying their caps on the table and Grossmutti began thumping with her stamp.

But one boy was more obnoxious, and he asked her to stamp it while it was on his head. He was a wise guy. He stuck forward his head, pointed at his cap, and told her to go ahead.

She knew an advantage when she saw one. She wound up, like Christy Mathewson about to deliver a high fast one, and she hit that poor boob in dead center with a wallop that sent him reeling. All the other club members, and we, approved. I shook Great-Mother's hand in the customary German manner and told her I enjoyed that as much as seeing the paintings at Apfeltrach.

So I remember Mindelheim in particular. But mostly for Grandmother's explanation about the artist. Nobody knows who he was. She said monks came up from Rome to adorn churches in the Middle Ages and one had come to Apfeltrach. "Nobody remembers his name," she told me, "but of course, he was a very famous painter."

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