The last church lady of my childhood acquaintance died in May. She was 87 and still full of the mix of “Send the Light” mercy and sterner stuff that comedian Dana Carvey so brilliantly satirized on Saturday Night Live.
When I first met this brand of church lady, my family was returning from a couple decades spent in California to my mother’s Chicago-area hometown. So great was these women’s formidability, it was unimaginable then that their kind would one day disappear.
Formidability? Honestly, they were a bit scary. They really did wear polyester suits and have their hair “set” once a week at a “beauty shop.” My mother, a Californian by choice, was the opposite. She wore maxi dresses and knee high boots and reddish hair that she “tinted” herself. She was (and is) a believer, but never a “church lady.”
They mixed well enough, though. Likely because, as a pastor’s daughter, my mother had the bonafides to teach Sunday School and do the occasional stint as the church treasurer. But, the difference fascinated me, even then. I watched these church ladies like a hawk, trying to figure out their mysterious ways.
They weren’t nearly as simple (or as mean) as Carvey portrayed them, I realized quickly enough. One wrote poetry and was still somehow maintaining a figure like Sophia Loren when I last saw her. She would have been in her 70s then. Another refused to tell her age and was represented in every church circular that involved photos by an image taken in her 20s.
And, they could all cook like Martha Stewart. All of them. In quantities large enough to feed a platoon. Church potlucks came one Sunday a month. The tantalizing smells that drifted into the sanctuary made even grown men squirm through sermons that seemed to be without end. For children, it was torture, then bliss.
Once, when I was in my 20s and writing about food, I took a day off work to “help” with the annual nut roll fundraiser. It was a multi-thousand-dollar affair that involved working the church kitchen’s four ovens so hard the fellowship hall was literally smoking by the end of the day.
I was assigned to wrap cooled rolls in aluminum foil. About 15 minutes in, I managed to slice my thumb open on that terrifying serrated edge such foil boxes involve. The chief of the church ladies appeared with a box of Band-Aids and pointed me to the restroom without a word. When I returned, I was re-assigned to a safer job packaging orders.
That was the stern side. Yet, when I married, another church lady spent hours on her knees re-doing the flower beds outside the church’s front door. My childhood church ladies, who were were just beginning to die at that point, realized this wedding was special. Indeed, it was the last the little church would host. It, like the church ladies, is now gone.
Yes, the last church lady of my childhood acquaintance died in May. She will be missed.