I have a friend who is the minister of a church in a small town west of Fort Worth. For some reason that I cannot fathom, he has been practicing Bikram yoga for the past two years. Why anyone would voluntarily go into a room heated to 105 degrees and twist themselves into knots for 90 minutes is beyond me, but he likes it so much that he has gone to California to take a nine-week teacher training course. After the first week during which he suffered from dehydration, extreme nausea, and what I imagine as a steady diet of tofu and bean sprouts, he posted the following comment on Facebook:
So LA is supposed to be chic or cool or whatever…but I tell the truth: I’d love to see a Southern church woman in a flowerdy (yes, flowerdy) dress holding a Tupperware container of fried chicken and deviled eggs about now.
I laughed when I read it, but I knew exactly what he was talking about. I grew up as a Southern Baptist in a series of small Texas towns, and I’m very familiar with church ladies, ladies who looked a little like Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show. They wore longish, flowered dresses and sensible shoes, and their long hair was pulled up into a bun on the back of their head. And they could COOK!! They made yummy refreshments for Vacation Bible School and other children’s and youth activities, and potluck dinners were to die for, especially if you were counting calories and cholesterol. They knew that “nothin’ says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven” long before Madison Avenue did, and when word got around that someone was sick or there was a death in the community, they headed for the kitchen.
A lot has changed in the last several decades. Everybody has a television or three or four, machines of all kinds orbit the earth, cell phones and computers have made us all neighbors, old diseases have been conquered and new ones have arisen, but there are still church ladies. They look different now. Instead of floweredy dresses, they wear the latest fashions or jeans or sweats. Instead of sensible shoes they wear spike heels, sandals, or cross trainers. Instead of Tupperware, they use disposable containers. But they can still cook, and they still know how to offer love and comfort and encouragement along with their food.
In 2003 my dad spent several weeks in the hospital with some kind of mysterious brain infection that came and went without a definite diagnosis. It was a time of extra confusion and stress for all of us. I checked on Dad several times a day since I was the only one who could get him to eat, Mom required extra care because of her anxiety, and my job didn’t go away because of our crisis. My brother came from Arkansas to offer his help, and the day he arrived, my neighbor put on her church lady hat. She was a stylish para-legal during the week and a jeans-and-boots Harley rider on the weekends, but she knew her way around a crockpot. She arrived at dinner time with pot roast, salad, and peach pie, and the effect was the same as if she had worn flowerdy dress.
A couple of weeks ago, my cousin lost her husband of 40 years. The funeral service was at 2 PM, but family and close friends were invited to the church beforehand where a bunch of church ladies served lunch. The meat was catered, but there were lots of casseroles and homemade desserts, lots of comfort foods. There was not a flowerdy dress or a pair of sensible shoes to be seen, but there were lots of sympathetic smiles and warm hugs as we visited around the tables, sharing sweet memories.
We left the church in a long procession with a police escort, headed to a graveside service in a small town 25 miles away. After the last prayers were said and the flag was folded and presented to the widow, we gathered at the community center where more church ladies had prepared more food. I saw a few flowered shirts, but they were mostly paired with capris and sandals. I don’t know if the ladies were from a church, but the effect was the same. More time to gather with loved ones while others took care of the details.
Last week I was asked to be a church lady for an afternoon. I’ve prepared my share of casseroles, desserts, and salads over the years, but because of my work and caregiving schedules, I rarely had the opportunity to serve. It was very rewarding to stand on the other side of the counter, offering smiles and words of comfort and encouragement along with the barbecue and sweet tea. The dress code in our little town is pretty casual, so my uniform of the day was black slacks and a white sweater. As I assured one gentleman that there was plenty of fried chicken for a second helping, I thought of my yoga friend and wondered if his church ladies really wear flowerdy dresses.