When Charles first set eyes on Grace one evening in Birkirkara, he was smitten. She looked so frail, still dressed in mourning after the untimely death of her mother just a few months before. He managed to get introduced to her through mutual friends and, before long, they were courting.
It was the start of winter, 1962. The two of them gradually built up a regular routine for their dates. After he picked her up from home, they would go off for their promenade, the Maltese traditional stroll known as a passigjata. They would start at the San Girgor church, in Zejtun, where they would have their confessions heard by the parish priest, and would then wander onto the church parvis.
Along the side of the church is a square with trees and benches surrounding a statue of St Gregory. In front of the church are the forbidding railing of the cemetery, broken only by an iron gate.
Charles and Grace sat On their favorite bench facing the impressive church. Their friends knew better than to disturb them as they sat there, forging the first bonds of new love. The Sun was just about gone and the light was fading fast, as it does at that time of year. It would Soon be time to take her home.
They were oblivious to the rest of the world going by, savoring the time together.
They were so wrapped up in each other that they hardly took any notice of the woman who came out of the cemetery.
She was dressed in black, with a veil hiding her hair, and she walked slowly, measuring each step. She had probably just visited a relative’s grave, they idly thought, if you could describe the fact that they had registered her presence at all as a thought.
She walked to the far side of the square, but the couple still paid little attention to her. At least, until she walked all the way up around the statue and came face to face with them. Grace’s face stiffened. Her voice trailed off and her fingers dug into Charles’ arm. She drew her breath in sharply.
Charles looked at the woman to see what had prompted his girlfriend’s reaction. But all he saw was an elderly woman in her 50s, with a friendly, calm face. He did not recognize her, but he too instinctively fell silent, aware of a strange atmosphere surrounding this woman that would have made their previous chatter seem frivolous and disrespectful.
She walked closer to the couple and still Grace clung to Charles, unable to say a word. Charles could feel her tremble and he looked at the woman again, startled to realize that there was something vaguely familiar about her, perhaps her eyes.
This time, the woman looked straight at Grace, and very, very slowly, nodded her head two or three times, not smiling or frowning, but very intense, as If reassuring her that everything was all right.
She then turned to face the gate from where she had just come and started to walk away.
It was only then that Grace spoke, in a small voice, thick with emotion.
“That’s my mother.”
Now Charles could understand his girlfriend’s sharp reaction. He had never met her mother but had seen photographs of her, when she had been younger and before her illness.
He looked again at the woman who had by then passed in front of them and was slowly making her way back to the cemetery door. They sat there on the bench still unable to move, still unable to utter a word.’ After what seemed an eternity, the woman reached the gate and just disappeared through it.
Grace was by now sobbing silently at his side, thoroughly shaken by the experience. Charles squeezed her arm and ran to the cemetery gate to see where the woman had gone.
The gate was bolted and there was. no one inside. Only the votive candles glowed with their flickering red lights throwing shadows onto the wilted bunches of flowers on the graves, including the one belonging to his girlfriend’s mother.
He looked· behind him but there was no one around, no one by the church or on the square. The woman had simply disappeared.
He ran back to Grace, who was still sitting on the bench, trying to comprehend what had happened. But her tears had by then changed into a more peaceful thoughtfulness.
“Why do you think she came?” she wondered.
“Do you think she was trying to ask us to pray for her?”
“Perhaps she was trying to tell you that she is out of pain and peaceful now,” suggested Charles.
The two looked at each other. Both were thinking the same thing. That they would probably have doubted their own senses had they been alone when they saw the woman.
After a brief discussion, they walked thoughtfully home and Summoned the rest of her family. The deeply religious family were at first incredulous about Grace’s story, but they soon accepted that it had in fact been her mother.
They all agreed to pray together, a family still in mourning, still deeply grieving their tragic loss, but reassured that she was now in good hands.
The woman was never seen again, although they went to the same bench regularly. But many times, they looked at the iron gate of the cemetery and wondered whether she was now lying peacefully.
Charles and Grace are now married. He still carries the memory of the woman who would have been his mother-in-law had she been alive. He never knew her then, but he feels that he did meet her, once, and that she had approved of him …
This post was written by Albert Saliba