Church Ladies

Humility isn’t Miss Lola’s only affliction. She has rheumatoid arthritis. Her condition prevents her from doing things she loves. Like cutting chicken, or manning skillets. It has not, however, affected her delicate tastes.

Miss Lola places casserole dishes on the table. She forms neat rows. The table is full. There is enough Southern fare here to sink the U.S.S. Humdinger.

Close your eyes and imagine heaven’s own Golden Corral franchise. That’s what this fellowship hall is.

There are old women everywhere. They are buzzing through the room making sure things happen.

Miss Lola walks with a hunched back and resembles the late Kathryn Tucker Windham. She makes coffee in the Baptist Bunn machine.

The church roof has just been replaced. The fellowship hall was supposed to be renovated, but they ran out of money.

“New roof is expensive,” remarks Miss Lola. “The other ladies wanted new appliances and new floors, but all we could afford was the new roof and refrigerator.”

For supper, Miss Lola sits beside me. She eats slower than it takes to read the unabridged version of Gone With the Wind.

“Who fried this chicken?” someone asks.

“Ruth,” Miss Lola says. “But hers ain’t as good as mine.”

Humility isn’t Miss Lola’s only affliction. She has rheumatoid arthritis. Her condition prevents her from doing things she loves. Like cutting chicken, or manning skillets. It has not, however, affected her delicate tastes.

“This chicken’s too soggy,” she adds. “Mine was never soggy.”

The macaroni and cheese is equally as magnificent. It comes from Miss Lola’s niece, who just turned fifteen.

The kid used her grandmama’s recipe.

When Miss Lola finishes eating, she hobbles between tables. She wears a blue apron. She gathers used paper plates and silverware. Some servants never quit.

After supper, the room empties. People leave for the sanctuary. Save for a few women. Those who stay behind are mostly gray and white.

I stay, too. I collect trash and fold chairs. Miss Lola and I fold tables and nearly amputate my fingers. This makes her laugh very hard.

Later, she stands at at the three-compartment sink, scrubbing. Well, that is, she’s TRYING to scrub. Her knobby hands can’t quite cut the mustard.

Her granddaughter says, “Lemme do it, Grandmama.”

Miss Lola is too old to put up a fuss. She steps aside.

She takes a seat. She is out of breath, but it doesn’t stop her from making pleasant conversation. To sophisticated ladies like Miss Lola, dead air is a sin. But she knows how to save it.

She’s from the old world. And she knows things. She’s been attending this church since childhood, frequenting covered-dish suppers since before grade school.

She got married here, dedicated babies here. She buried one husband and a son here.

And one day, she tells me, they will lay her to rest in the same plot.

She is among the last of her generation. She is a church lady. And she shares her staple recipes with her granddaughter so that she will live forever in the form of a casserole.

She stares at her granddaughter with eyes that practically sing.

“I’m sorta glad they didn’t renovate this old fellowship hall,” she says. “Old things are more special, don’t you think?”

Yes I do, Miss Lola.

And so are women like you.

38 comments

  1. Marisa Franca @ All Our Way - June 15, 2017 1:04 pm

    I really love your stories. You are such an inspiration for getting into your characters. I’m still trying to find my “voice”. I like the present tense because it makes me feel like I’m right there with you experiencing everything with you.

    Reply
  2. Sharon - June 15, 2017 1:08 pm

    I think most country churches have a Miss Lola. The small church that I attend has had a few Miss Lola’s. May we graying ladies hope to be remembered as they are.

    Reply
  3. Rebecca - June 15, 2017 1:11 pm

    She takes a seat. She is out of breath, but it doesn’t stop her from making pleasant conversation. To sophisticated ladies like Miss Lola, dead air is a sin. But she knows how to save it.

    I love this! The ladies at the Marion United Methodist Church have got it under control. 😍

    Reply
  4. Judy Miller - June 15, 2017 1:30 pm

    It’s a good thing we have the Old Church Ladies, because without them, we’d have no funeral dinners, or Fund Raiser dinners or just Thursday night Soup and Salad dinners. They have to do it because the younger ladies are just “too busy”.

    Reply
    • Maxine - June 26, 2017 7:17 pm

      There is something wonderful to be said for the “Food Ministry.” It is a beautiful thing!

      Reply
  5. Laura Young - June 15, 2017 1:35 pm

    This so reminds me of churches where I grew up. Loved Wednesday night church suppers – Mother had bragging rights for her chicken and dumplings. (Everybody would ask her on Sunday- “You bringing dumplins to the supper?”) On one occasion as stuff was being warmed for the supper which would happen after services, Mother walked into the kitchen as someone was stirring her dumplings. She about stroked – “Quit stirring my dumplins!” she said. “You don’t ever stir my dumplins”. My grandmother was just as particular about her food. She was a great cook and passed it on to Mother and Mother to me, I hope..  Grandmother always thought her cooking was best in the state and she would say things like Miss Lola. (“Mine is better than…”) Better atmosphere for kids than the plague of cell phones and video games.

    Reply
  6. Martha - June 15, 2017 1:52 pm

    Love it, as always. I know this lady and so many more like her. There would be no Baptist church without them.

    Reply
  7. Madeline - June 15, 2017 1:59 pm

    Thank you Sean. You have penned a perfect description of my dear departed mother-in-love, Virginia Pearl.

    Reply
  8. Marie wilson - June 15, 2017 2:25 pm

    Only met you a few days ago but you have blessed me with your stories. I thank you!!

    Reply
  9. Brian - June 15, 2017 3:02 pm

    So many times we miss the beauty in wisdom of those in the church that serve rather than receive. Thank you

    Reply
    • Brian - June 15, 2017 9:11 pm

      This has been waiting all day hope I said nothing improper?

      Reply
  10. B.D. Thrasher , Orange Beach, Al. - June 15, 2017 3:29 pm

    Sean, why do Southern women cook as if the entire Macedonian Army is camped out in the back yard?

    Reply
    • Melinda - August 2, 2017 11:46 am

      Better to have too much than not enough.

      Reply
  11. Harriet - June 15, 2017 3:29 pm

    Your comment about eating slowly and Gone with the Wind describes my 96-year-old mother who worries about her teeth being hurt. (She still has all her originals.) And nobody in her assisted living home can cook chicken to her satisfaction. This writing settles in my Baptist soul…so vivid.

    Reply
  12. Perri Geaux Tigers Williamson - June 15, 2017 3:37 pm

    “To sophisticated ladies like Miss Lola, dead air is a sin.” Ha, ha, ha. My momma taught me ( in deed) that this is the case. “And she shares her staple recipes with her granddaughter so that she will live forever in the form of a casserole.” I can’t think of a better way to become immortal!

    Thank you. You are a genius.

    Reply
  13. Sam Hunneman - June 15, 2017 4:41 pm

    Change the latitude and the names… OK, and maybe the contents of the casserole… and you have the Chebeague Island Ladies Aid. I believe my Aunt Gladys is living on in the form of her biscuits and my Nanna Rete in the form of her yeast rolls. Long may they wave! Thanks for this, Sean.

    Reply
  14. Jim Cameron - June 15, 2017 5:49 pm

    Wonderful. Brings me back to my childhood church in northern Minnesota. We are all not so different after all. God made us that way.

    Reply
  15. Bobbie - June 15, 2017 6:50 pm

    Amen!

    Reply
  16. Sandi - June 15, 2017 6:50 pm

    Aaaah, such a delightful story. In the Baptist Church in Vidalia, GA. where I was a member for many years, Miss Lola was Miss Humphrey. Her pineapple casserole would make a grown man beg for more. She sang in the choir every Sunday, too.

    Reply
    • Janet Mary Lee - June 16, 2017 1:53 am

      Sandi, I would love that pineapple recipe! The one I have is not nearly as good!! LOL!
      Thanks Sean- recipes (?) and the Best Columns!

      Reply
      • Sandi - June 20, 2017 8:10 pm

        Hi Janet Mary Lee,
        Just happened to see/read your comment. I will gladly give you that easy pineapple casserole recipe. It is yum-o. Please e-mail me at sandifla4@earthlink.net so we don’t take up too much room on Sean’s blog here.

        Reply
        • Janet Mary Lee - June 20, 2017 8:16 pm

          How sweet! Thank you!!

          Reply
  17. Nancy Chapman - June 15, 2017 7:15 pm

    And when we Old Ladies pass on, who will make the fried chicken, the baklava, perogis, and all the other home made goodies. I once did an article for a newspaper about the local Greek ladies making baclava for their annual festival. it struck me that this project would soon be a dying art. These dedicated women were all well into their senior years. Who will take over when they are gone?

    Reply
  18. Jack Quanstrum - June 15, 2017 10:38 pm

    What a precious lady! What a descriptive writing! I felt like I was right there with you, Sean and the church lady. I am enthralled with your writing style Sean. It is captivating, and it , as result takes me to a place of peace, and authenticity that’s absolutely freeing to my spirit.

    Reply
  19. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - June 16, 2017 1:04 am

    Another winner!

    Reply
  20. Janet Mary Lee - June 16, 2017 1:49 am

    We are Blessed at our church here in Prattville Alabama to have several of these ladies also! They cook better than most anybody’s Mama, and clean, and kiss, and hug, and talk! They are filled with goodies, both culinary and spiritually. If you come our way, stop at Hunter Hills Church of Christ! We are a little progressive for our bunch, but we love the Lord and people. Period. And we would love you! Well, gosh, we already do….! I would even baby sit Ellie!

    Reply
  21. heather Braziel - June 16, 2017 12:40 pm

    You speak to my heart. I grew up a PK in the loving bosom of a wonderful church family. I know the characters you write of because they exist in every church if your lucky. My son grew up without a father but had a few men step in and fill the gap. A gap you have helped me see thru a young boys eyes. Thank you for sharing you always speak to my heart. And I hope your insight has made me a better mother.

    Reply
  22. Rosemary Wright - June 16, 2017 7:08 pm

    Loved the church lady story!

    Reply
  23. Suzanne - June 16, 2017 9:52 pm

    I needed this. I am driving to lay to rest my dear 92 year old stepmom. She was a church lady extraordinaire, now in the Church Triumphant. And, she was a WWII patriot who worked in a tire factory and Oak Ridge. I am comforted that my daughters and granddaughters will continue the tradition of church service and casseroles. Thanks, Sean, for the sentiment.

    Reply
  24. Jenny Young - June 17, 2017 1:18 am

    Love this! And she isn’t the last of the church ladies. I know some pretty amazing ones much younger than Miss Lola as well as some millennial church ladies in the making.

    Reply
  25. Susan in Georgia - June 17, 2017 7:13 am

    Luv your well-told story, Sean…it’s a classic.
    You’ve heard the saying, “so good, it makes you wanta slap yo’ Momma.”
    Well, I’m imagining Miss Lola’s fried chicken was such an offering. I, too, have known half a dozen Church Ladies ~ all loved Jesus, had silver-blue permed hair, and ruled the First Presbyterian Church kitchen with a firm hand, always moving about and talking!

    Reply
  26. Ben smith - June 21, 2017 1:18 am

    Awesome

    Reply
  27. Becky - June 21, 2017 1:54 pm

    Damn you Sean, you make me laugh and cry at the same time! Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  28. Deanna J - August 2, 2017 12:53 pm

    Love this, Mama was a church lady! Thanks for the memories!

    Reply
  29. Linda - August 2, 2017 3:12 pm

    My Aunt Jo will always live on – her no bake ( the lime juice kills anything in the eggs, according to her and I have not killed anyone with it yet ) Key Lime pie is the best. She owned her restaurant many years ago in Saint Petersburg, Florida. The Boca Ciega Restaurant …..
    I think we all live in the hope of being remembered……

    Reply
  30. Dena - August 2, 2017 4:58 pm

    I went to a church where they called themselves the “Widows”- some had remarried, but stayed part of the group. They were the backbone of the congregation. They organized all the eating events, but also vacationed together, had slumber parties, and generally had a ball together. All of us younger women aspired to be like them -without losing a husband in the process! You captured their spirit perfectly here, Sean.

    Reply
  31. Sam Seetin - August 2, 2017 10:26 pm

    Well done.

    Reply
  32. Annette Bailey - August 4, 2017 9:08 am

    Dear Sean…I have just found out you will be visiting the city of Greenville, Alabama in September. I missed seeing you in Andalusia, Alabama….where I live because my Mom had just died and I was a little behind on the news of your coming. It will be a few weeks come this Monday when she passed. This story reminded me of her as I read it at 3 in the morning. I’ve not been able to sleep since Mom died and I read or watch old movies on TCM to stop crying so much. Mother was 91 and attended her church when there was sawdust on the floor and iron cast stoves were used to warm the room. When the doors were open, she was there. Along with her two brothers and most of our family. Youve heard of small Baptist churches where only a few come but God is still there. Mom sat on the back pew for as long as Ive been around and that’s 58 years. Seventy-two if you go by my oldest brother. Her favorite hymnal was always in front of her. She lived to see her church prosper and has given anywhere from $1.00 to $100 over the years. She never spoke out because she believed the women were to be silent in church. But Mom was a quiet, shy lady of the south anyway. It would take her a year but she read her big Bible every morning. Just a week or so before she died, I found you on FB and began reading your stories to her. Sometimes, she was able to stay awake but some because the cancer made her so weak. She never took strong meds because she had no pain. I’m thankful to the Lord she wasn’t in pain like many cancer patients are. My husband is a retired pharmacist and we had a Mom and Pop drugstore where folks would come and talk until their meds were filled. Some folks who had cancer were in so much pain and they HAD to take a lot of pain pills. But Mom was spared the pain…my husband says that some people do t have pain like others. But one thing she loved most of all was the fact that after all the years of taking her 6 kids to church, one of her three sons became the pastor. She beamed so proudly on the back pew while listening to her son each Sunday and Wednesday. All six of us were saved and Baptized at the same church and we have her to thank! Dad was saved too but didn’t attend as much as the rest of us! Lol I’m looking forward to seeing you in Greenville,Al. I’ve invited so many people to come. I recently saw you sing and play the acoustic guitar. I do too. I taught myself at the age of 14 from a John Denver and Jim Croce book. Then I took music in college. I hope to have several of your books soon and I’d love an autograph if possible. You have so many admirers. Looking forward to hearing you sing. Take care sir….and God bless.

    Reply

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