We drive to Dickeyville in search of Jesus and find him entombed behind glass. My seven-year-old daughter Ellie marvels at the mystery. Of all the places Jesus might’ve called home, how did he choose a small town somewhere in southwestern Wisconsin?

Welcome to the Grotto, a sign reads, Gift Shop in Back.

We exit the car to stand before the shrine, a cave-like structure perhaps twenty feet tall and embossed with shells and stones. And pottery, and porcelain, and petrified wood. And starfish and sea urchins, too. And agates. And amber glass. And any old thing which, between 1918 and 1931, Father Matthias Wernerus believed might bring him closer to his God.

To his parishioners at the adjacent Holy Ghost Church, it seemed an odd way for a priest to spend his time. But Wernerus knew what he was doing. Daily, he’d deliver his morning Mass, then reach for his trowel and trinkets. Soon, the faithful began flocking his way, offering the priest any old curio in their possession: a broken tile, a shard of glass, the humbler the gift the better. What better way to praise God, they reasoned, than by performing their own miracle?

“Come on,” Ellie says, pulling me away from the marble cut Jesus and the Gallery of Saints until we complete our pilgrimage at the gift shop.

Which is the true wonder, as far as my daughter is concerned, because who wouldn’t want a fourteen-piece nativity scene whose figurines bear a striking resemblance to toys? Bypassing the Bibles and the rosaries, Ellie kneels before a basket of stones on sale for a quarter each.     

“What’s this?” she asks, holding one in her hand.

“A worry stone,” I say. “You’re supposed to hold it when you’re scared.”

And because we are scared—and have been since my father-in-law’s diagnosis the previous October—it seems like a quarter well spent.


Three weeks later, on my father-in-law’s last night of life, my daughter holds vigil beside him. Summoning her grace from some place we adults cannot fathom, she holds tight to his loose grip, tethering him to the earth. In her opposite hand, she rubs the worry stone to dust, her small palm a perfect fit.

In the background, Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” wafts from a speaker. On the table, slices of fresh watermelon fill the bowl. There are other artifacts, too: the half-eaten bag of potato chips, the sugar cream pie, the overdue library book. There is the last ripe tomato, the crumb-lined knife, the dishtowel left to dry in its rack.  

Later, I will forget all about the summer’s evening light streaming through the windows, and the blankets strewn atop my father-in-law’s bed.

All I will remember is how my daughter placed her faith in the tangible, gripping tight to the hand that could not return the grip. And the placidness of her face as she stared at her grandpa, with whom she shared a birthday.


In the morning, I put off delivering the news for as long as I can, wondering, instead, what on earth Jesus is doing holed up behind glass in some grotto when we could really use him here.

Ellie wakes at sunrise to find me seated on her bed.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hi,” she says.

“He died,” I say.

“I know.”

She scoots my way, wraps her small arms around me, as we both accept the sacrament of silence.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“I’m sorry, too,” she says.

Shuddering, I turn my attention to the worry stone.

“Can I borrow that?” I ask.

She nods and slips it into my hand.

Together, we rise from the bed and into the morning, holding tight to the bearable weight.


B.J.Hollars is the author of several books, most recently Go West Young Man: A Father and Son Rediscover America, Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians and the Weird in Flyover Country, and The Road South: Personal Stories of the Freedom Riders. His work has been featured in The Washington Post, Parents Magazine, NPR, and elsewhere. 

Photo by Dinty W. Moore