In Which I Am a Church Lady
I was twelve when I first knew I would grow up to be a Church Lady.
Church Ladies wear heels and a nice apron, and politely putter around the kitchen and church social hall during funeral suppers and wedding receptions. They murmur soft greetings, and do magic tricks, invisibly restocking the butter dish when the pat-to-roll ratio is unbalanced. They know how to get that first piece of cake out of the pan without mushing it.
Church Ladies know where the punch bowls are kept, how to wash the forks faster than any machine, and why using the cloth table coverings is Important and Civilized.
Church Ladies have a small stack of buffet recipes that can be called into action at a moment’s notice. They know how to whip together a tasty meal to bring in to a family with a new baby, or a new loss, or just the need of a gastronomic hug that day.
I knew I wanted to be one.
I’ve had good Church Lady mentors:
Sister Drinkwater, who was about a million years old when I was little, and then spent the first three decades of my life growing smaller and smaller and smaller. She was everything delicate and fine in the world, silver hair and a feeling of lavender all around her.
She was the Church Lady with the best homemade chicken and noodles, and a chocolate-frosted chocolate cake that could probably resurrect a few people, provided they’d only passed a day or two before. It was so good, Dad once said he didn’t know if we had so many kids because he and Mom really liked each other, or if he was just trying to qualify for more of Sister Drinkwater’s cake.
Sister Drinkwater’s Church Lady Mojo moved beyond food. When I left home, headed to the Big City and university life, she helped keep me firmly planted in my nourishing native soils. Now and then, whenever I most needed it, but least expected it, an envelope would arrive, addressed in her delicate, spiky handwriting. Inside, I’d find a short encouraging note, perhaps telling me what the mountain looked like that day, or that the apple tree had blossomed out, or that she’d been reading a favorite book, and thought I’d like this particular bit of poetry. She’d end by telling me to study hard, and be good, and to come visit when I got home.
Sister Carpenter was another Church Lady mentor. She introduced me to the joys of serving a meal: setting even the most humble table with care, making sure the salt and pepper were handy, passing along a smile with the bowl of green beans. Over the years, she’s been in charge of several hundred teenage girls, bringing us in to serve lunches at the Senior Center in town. She taught us to be invisible, but approachable, to be brave if asked to sing a bit of a song or ask a blessing, to speak up clearly when leading the Pledge of Allegiance, because the Veterans who couldn’t hear so well now had pride, and didn’t want to come in late on something so important. It was rare that we’d clear out quickly at the end of a service meal. We had too much fun visiting with those we served, and weren’t ready for that time to end.
Sister Carpenter marshaled the gangly, the awkward, the rebellious, and the flawed, wrapped us in aprons, and taught us to be the Immovable Force in the church kitchen. She also taught us to walk properly in high heels, a skill for which I can never fully repay her.
My own Auntie is a Church Lady, and she’s raised my favorite cousin to be a Church Lady, too. We recognized one another as Junior Church Ladies at the family reunion, when we found ourselves puttering in the kitchen, setting out buffet dishes, washing up the prep dishes, sweeping.
She looked at me. I looked at her. “I think we’ve grown up to be Church Ladies,” quoth she, with a smile.
In my own church congregation, I have a good dozen Church Lady mentors. These are the women who show up on your doorstep with a loaf of bread, just because. They declare some random Tuesday to be Cookie Day, and take a half-dozen to every child in the entire congregation. They feel free to tell quietly funny stories in the kitchen during funeral luncheons, and set aside a particular piece of cake even before the blessing, planning to delight one of the shut-in brothers or sisters later.
They can activate the phone tree and put together music for a funeral with an hour’s notice, and they encouraged me to quit sluffing my God-given gifts, get over myself, and Go Sing for the Family, For Goodness’ Sake.
And do you know: the patent-pending Church Lady Getting Over Myself method has done more to alleviate a crippling level of stage fright than anything else I’ve tried, up to and including sedatives.
I love these Church Ladies. To be asked into their circle, three and four and five decades their junior, is a privilege I do not take lightly.
My formal induction as a Church Lady started gently: the call to sing at a funeral in a group, then to borrow my oven to heat extra pans (living directly across from the church, it only makes sense to say yes). Then, perhaps I wouldn’t mind helping serve at the supper? (Thank you, Sister Carpenter! I already know how!) Could I bring a pan of rolls, or funeral potatoes, or a cake?
One afternoon a call came from one of the Church Ladies I admire the most–she was unable to attend an old family friend’s funeral that weekend, but the family had asked about a particular song. She knew I *could* sing it… but would I? Solo? Outdoors? For strangers?
Well, yes. I could.
You see, I’m Getting Over Myself.
I’m a Church Lady.
It’s what we do.
Let’s chat: have you found mentors within the church who inspire you to be something when you grow up? Have you had a Getting Over Myself moment that led to good things?