The church pews are filled with country folk in their Sunday best, even though it’s a Friday.
Some of the old-timers wear clean coveralls, some their Sunday pants, belt, and suspenders, pulled up way too high, white tube socks revealing boots fresh from the barn, maybe a collared-shirt, tucked in tight like they just visited the restroom and no need to re-tuck for the rest of the day. Or at least until suppertime.
Some wear Korean War jackets and hats; some in FFA* jackets from over 50 years ago. Most have ties. The women in dresses, pantyhose (that’s still a thing), sensible shoes.
By church pews filled, I mean more than one or two rows on BOTH sides of the aisle having more than one or two people in them. I’m surprised, as we stand up front, waiting to greet the mournful; I hadn’t expected many to show up, most likely just the family.
It’s a small town. I’m from a small town, and even I think this is a small town.
On a regular Sunday, the total congregation might be eight or ten parishioners, maybe a dozen if a regular’s grands have come to visit. When that happens everyone cranes their necks to get a good look, smiling big smiles, guessing whose kids they are, anticipating the ‘hopes and prayers’ part of the service to find out who’s right, and learn maybe how old they are, and how long there are staying in town.
Extras at Sunday sermon causes a commotion, especially for the lay leader, I think that’s what it’s called, my father-in-law, the worker-bee of the church, marking the hymns on the boards in the sanctuary, lighting the candles, ringing the bells, passing out programs and most importantly, the offeratory gifts: the guilt-laden basket that is passed up and down the aisle asking for monetary donations. Like cash. Or coins. But preferably cash.
With newcomers, there might be an extra aisle to pass the collection basket, maybe a couple extra dollars this week. Exciting.
For the church ladies, there’s extra worry with extra guests: will there be enough sour cream twists for fellowship hour? Enough coffee? Enough toilet paper? Little kids eat so much, make such noise. Children are welcomed by most, but definitely not all.
This is internal dialogue, invented by me, imaging what my in-laws might think when there are new faces at a random Sunday Service. I’m making this up. They don’t talk much, not to me for sure, but in my very limited Sunday church non-funeral experience, this would be it. I’m not a churchgoer, I’m a non-believer, so if I got it wrong, I’m a little bit sorry.
Hours prior to the world shutting down, on March 6, 2020, we gathered in person, masks weren’t even suggested yet, for my father-in-law’s funeral.
A silver lining: we got to say goodbye.
Just days later and this wouldn’t have happened. I’m very grateful for this timing if, for nothing else, it allowed my mother-in-law to be surrounded by people who love her, and she did not have to be alone. Not yet.
It’s a country church in upstate New York, with a basement full of crock pots, coffee makers, and folding chairs and 8 ft tables, leaning up against the walls like soldiers, at the ready for the strawberry festival, rummage sale, anniversary party, or funeral – the latter happening all the time as the congregants die off and the strawberry festival runs out of worshippers to pick the berries.
Every Sunday phone call, still made after 7 pm when the rates are cheaper – still – my MIL would list who she’s had to scratch off her Christmas card list. She’d quietly name who’s in a nursing home, who’s dying, who’s dead. Jim, her husband, would often parrot from across the room, repeating what she said, feigning deafness, disinterest until she mentioned someone sick, and he’d bark out:
NOPE, he’s dead.
This has been going on Sunday after Sunday for decades, and now at almost 90, there are fewer names left to share, especially since adding her husband of 65 years to the roster a little over a year ago.
Another silver lining to COVID, zoom sermons on Sundays. I hope this social distancing helped ease the transition, not having to sit in that cold stone church every Sunday, without her husband, alone in her assigned aisle, no Jim by her side, no one to go early, to make the coffee, make sure the lights are on, ring the bell, pass the basket.
She’s not strong enough, not anymore, to set up the tables for the strawberry festival by herself, without her husband, one of the very few Future Farmers of America (FFAs) who aged with all his limbs and teeth intact.
At his funeral, the people just kept coming.
Their tiny town population doubled, maybe even tripled, as over 100 friends and family crowded the upstate church, filling the pews, spilling into the never-used overflow area, some leaning against walls, those strong enough to stand.
Before the service, we lined up in the front of the pulpit, receiving well-wishers. They’d make their way down the line, shaking hands with Jim’s sons with vice-grip, farmer strength that locked in hard and pulled the grown-ass adult sons down to their diminutive, bent and broken stature, so they could say it and mean it, their practiced mantras:
“Good man, that Jim.”
“Broke the mold, that one.”
“Your dad — a true hero.”
More than one glanced at me hesitantly, “Who you with? Which one’s yours?” A question I dodge the best I can, not knowing the answer myself, so I smile and nod, maybe crack a joke – “Maybe you? You single? “– then quickly introduce them to Jim’s grandkids, whichever spawn is closest, their size an immediate conversation starter.
Very few look me in the eyes; eye contact is tough for farmers. Must be the isolation; all those predawn hours alone in the barns. I can’t help but wonder if after years of looking into the eyes of their livestock and so much emotion and trust mirrored in the dark soulful saucers of a cow’s eyes, with each soul-searching slow blink, wordless conversation, perhaps farmers are disappointed in the lack of intimacy in humans. I know I am.
When the woman minister (old-timers still call her “that lady minister” or whisper, “she’s a woman”) asks for stories from the congregation, like broken jack-in-the-boxes, old men pop up and down, using pews to steady their shaking, broken bodies, some missing arms, hands, prosthetics abound – farming or hunting accidents, country life is tough – all missing teeth and buttons on their good shirts, but they still they share and pay respect to their friend, neighbor, teacher: a quiet man who lived a simple life in a country town.
______ was my AG* teacher – taught me everything I know.
Wouldn’t have made it through school without him.
He drove the ambulance when I had my accident.
Saved the church. Delivered my meals. Took care of my mom. Fed my dog.
He kept me in school.
He saved us from the FFA* bus accident, did he ever tell you?
He did God’s work.
I don’t know if you know this but …
Mowed my lawn. Mulched my garden. Cleared my lot. Took my leaves.
Strong as an ox. Quiet as a mouse.
Don’t make them like him anymore.
With voices strong and resolute, stories reverberated heartfelt tributes to a quiet man who lived a quiet life never wanting to stand out, only doing what needed to be done.
And by doing so, did indeed stand out. To hundreds. And changed and saved many lives in his simple, subtle ways, filling a church with people better for knowing him, and an abundance of stories proving without any doubt, the ripple effects of a simple life know no end.
That day, the collection basket overfloweth with gratitude. I too am overcome to bear witness to the neverending stories told with grace and gratitude, and only hope the stories escape those stone walls and seep into the ground to nurture endless gardens to come.
(*AG: agricultural; *FFA: Future Farmers of America)