I always tried to avoid contact with the Evening Guild ladies. They were ferocious. I had been in the same Anglican parish for 25 years and these women terrified me. They were Always Right. I didn’t match the cups and saucers properly because I couldn’t see why it mattered if one had a gold rim and the other didn’t. That meant I wasn’t suitable material for the Altar Guild either (there was much overlap of membership between the Guilds), and it wasn’t that I wanted to be; it was that I was pointedly and in reality told I was not the stuff of which the Altar Guild was made. It wasn’t just me they terrified either: Mrs. Wright and Mrs. Milton found a man in the hallway one day who had no good reason to be there, and they trapped him in the Ladies’ Room until the cops arrived.
It didn’t help that I was One of Them, who wanted to hear music and prayers that had been written in the 20th Century once in a while. And not to hear over-loud organ music non-stop or have the depressing Moaning Prayer service from the BCP three times a month. We were, I was being told at higher levels of the church, an Easter people, a Eucharistic people. Well, it didn’t feel like it, in our parish.
After 25 years or so, my marriage was falling apart. Had fallen apart. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I longed for adult human touch, affection, love, and how to get it. As I was thinking about not being married for the rest of my life, I started seeing the Ladies. Most of them were widows, and had been for a long time, except for one who might as well have been. Her husband had had a very bad stroke and he was alive, but not present. Most of their children were older than me. Marjorie’s only son, only child, had just died, very suddenly, of drinking. I wondered how they managed for so long, without touch. I wondered if they did manage. As I was wondering, Marjorie walked into the Narthex. She was one of the least terrifying Ladies, and I hugged her, tentatively, hello. She turned pink.
At the end of the service, she came to say good-bye to me, and I hugged her again.
That was how it started. In a week or two, I hugged TWO of the Ladies as I said hello before church. And good-bye. Always Marjorie and then others. After a few weeks, I started taking my tea over to the table where they sat after church, to sit with them and chat. I’d ask them how they were. They’d tell me, and I’d listen. One day, when I hugged one of the Ladies good-bye, I was bold enough to kiss her cheek. I was feeling welcomed in a whole different way, every week, before the service and after.
The Evening Guild Ladies had aged. I was in my early 50’s and younger than most of their children. Some of them didn’t drive at all any more; most of the others didn’t like to drive at night. So they’d become the Afternoon Guild instead, meeting one Tuesday afternoon per month. The ones who still could drive would pick up the ones who couldn’t, if they were well enough to come. They’d have a speaker sometimes, or play card games and board games. At Christmas they collected gifts for one of the women’s shelters, and had a little gift exchange of their own. They had, in their ferocious days, run a semi-annual Rummage Sale, and also a pre-Christmas bridge party, selling tickets for several dozen tables. They’d serve coffee and tea and ask the parish to bring desserts. I made them sour cream cheesecakes a few time, with raspberries on top to cover the cracks. Before Christmas, they’d take over the parish kitchen for a day or two and make large batches of Doris Washington’s mincemeat recipe, bottle it in pint or quart Mason jars, and sell them at the bridge and after church. They weren’t hosting the big events any more, but they had funds left in the bank from the days they did. When the red carpet down the centre aisle of the church and in the sanctuary had to be replaced, they bought a beautiful blue carpet.
I was the parish secretary. We’d been in a time of transition and turmoil, and the Ladies had been inviting the new staff to come and tell them about their jobs – new Rector, new organist. To get to know them, I think. Not all of them could get out to church any more. I was invited one month too. I told them about being a parish secretary, what I did week in and week out, what kind of surprises there could be in the course of a week. We were only a few blocks from a teaching hospital with a neo-nates unit, and although they didn’t come often, there were far too many calls from someone whose baby was going to die, and could I please send a minister to baptize the baby first? Heartbreaking. After the program, there was social time. The Ladies took turns bring treats to go with tea and coffee. One was not allowed to walk into the kitchen and fill one’s own cup. Someone came and took your cup and saucer to the kitchen and brought it back full. And the cups and saucers matched. I’d grown up enough to appreciate that. The social time was lovely, and they were very glad to have me there. So the next month I went back and played Scrabble with Kay and Elsa, while the others played bridge or Chinese checkers. In 45 years you can forget how much fun Chinese checkers is! I kept going and started paying my dues, but they never let me bring the sweets, except at Christmas when it was pot luck. And as soon as I arrived at the meeting room, the first thing I had to do after hanging up my jacket was work my way around the table, hugging and kissing every one of those formerly formidable Ladies. And the same, when it was time to go home.
As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been taught over the last six or seven years: I will receive everything I want in life if I learn to live the St. Francis of Assisi prayer, the one that starts, “Lord, make me a channel of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love …” And finishes up with, “May I seek more to comfort than to be comforted, to love than to be loved …” I’d wanted something that I didn’t know how to get, not until I started to think that maybe I wasn’t the only one who wanted that. Needed it. That maybe there was someone else whose need was as great as mine. That maybe, I could risk a little for someone else. So I did, little by little, and I received what I wanted all along.