I think I speak for many when I ask: What is a church lady? It is a genuine question, I read your recent column about church ladies, and while I understand the the two words, I do have a question. Is there a difference between a “lady who goes to church” and a “church lady?” Or are these the same thing? Is a church lady the one organizing the flowers or something? Please advise.
With everything going on in our turbulent world, I want to stop and personally thank you for bringing this matter to my attention. I’ve been getting a lot of unsavory emails lately from some people who seem upset about life in general. But your message took me back in time, it reminded me of matronly church folks in cat-eye glasses making coconut cream cake.
To answer your question: Yes, church ladies are their own breed. If you ask me, a proper church lady is not one who merely arranges flowers. A church lady has been chairwoman of the flower-arranging committee since 1938. She also prints the bulletins, runs the prayer emails, and manages to find time to change the oil in the pastor’s Chevy every 3,000 miles.
In my childhood, church ladies were the ones who hugged you so often that your shoulderblades hurt. They were dedicated affection rainmakers. They left lipstick traces on your cheeks. And after one hug, you’d smell like bath powder all week. They were church ladies.
And each day we lose a few more of them.
So earlier when I used the term, I’m sorry I didn’t pause to consider that some might not be familiar. I suppose this would especially be true if you were a fortunate kid who didn’t HAVE to go to church, but were allowed to stay home to watch cartoons, shoot craps, hijack cars, and rob liquor stores.
But for those of us who were forced into pews at gunpoint, a church lady was basically the mainstay of childhood. They were always there. They knew everything. Saw everything. Understood all. In essence, they were God, only with much taller beehive hairdos.
If your mama needed an emergency babysitter, she called Miss Lydia, who made tomato soup with the same pH content as hydrochloric acid and told great bedtime stories.
If your family caught the flu, you called Miss Beva, who delivered homemade chicken and dumplings to your home with an industrial tanker truck.
If your family lost a loved one, Miss Mel would deliver coconut cream cake. And if you were a boy whose cat, Rusty, had died, a coconut cream cake would magically appear on your porch along with a handwritten note.
At Christmastime, church ladies practically ran the church. And, in fact, it wasn’t “church” in the sense that you might think of church.
Because when I say the word “church,” many non-church people are already wincing. They’re thinking of a clapboard building where dozens of quiet, uptight people, with tucked-in shirts sit around weeping and speaking in tongues while singing “Amazing Grace” and dancing on the pews. This is flat out incorrect. We also took communion.
Although for many of us, church itself was less about religious stuff and more like a community center. In fact, church was the ONLY community center in some parts. If it weren’t for the tiny fellowship halls of my youth, I would’ve had nothing to do but sit on my thumbs and whistle. It was the church ladies who made sure that I had a life.
Without them there would have been no community plays; no all-night singings; no potlucks; no youth trips to Pigeon Forge; no fundraisers for new baptismals; no Fourth of July picnics featuring gospel quartets wearing enough hairspray to deflect small caliber bullets; no nothing.
What I’m getting at is that the church ladies are what made the whole thing possible. Our little world was manned (or “womanned,” rather) by their tender hands.
They brewed our iced tea, organized every major event in our lives, from christenings to weddings. They decorated the altar for my father’s funeral. They made sure I had no lint on my shoulders on the day of my wedding.
They took care of other people’s families. And when the day was through, they took care of their own families. They ran our nurseries, changed our diapers, brushed our hair, taught us the words to “Father Abraham,” and how to remove our hats indoors. A practice I cannot be broken of.
I know one church lady who adopted a 3-year-old girl whose mother didn’t want her. I know another who runs a foster institution where she teaches kids to cook. I know one who runs a free daycare in her house for single parents.
And the irony here is that to those of us who know these women, there is nothing unordinary about all this whatsoever. Because it’s who she is. I don’t know how else to define her except to say that she is human being who gives a dang about other human beings.
I realize I might have made the issue even more complicated by trying to describe these precious ladies in only a few sentences. But the truth is there is no way I could describe the uniqueness found within softhearted souls who were sent to touch a troubled and angry world.
Millions of columns could be written about them. And I firmly believe the stories deserve to be told often. Not just because this world is a mess, and not just because we could all use some kind words right now, but above all, because I could really use some coconut cream cake.