Lone­lier Than Thou

The so­cial life of a min­is­ter’s wife

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Karen Stiller

On va­ca­tion in Cuba, my hus­band and I met two other cou­ples and made fast friends, as you do if you’re the least bit friendly at an allinclu­sive re­sort. For a few fun days, we sat on the beach and rented crappy bi­cy­cles, laugh­ing as we forced them up the rut­ted roads. We even shared a ta­ble at the res­tau­rant.

One night, I left to go to the buf­fet, and when I re­turned, my plate piled high, I found that the ta­ble had be­come quiet, sub­dued. I knew what had hap­pened. “They fi­nally asked what I do for a liv­ing,” my hus­band said.

He’s a min­is­ter. A man of the cloth and the Word. My heart sank. And we had been hav­ing such a good time.

Brent’s call­ing crept up on us twen­ty­five years ago — up the stairs and into our stu­dent apart­ment at Dal­housie. It stuck around un­til he felt he must fol­low it to the sem­i­nary, and then into the church. The re­li­gious call­ing, like writ­ing, is of­ten de­scribed as a “de­ci­sion” that makes it­self for you: no other choice seems right. And so Brent be­came a min­is­ter, a vo­ca­tion that re­quires all of you — it seeps through all of your life, for bet­ter or for worse. And I be­came a min­is­ter’s wife, for bet­ter or for worse.

If you are a min­is­ter, or are mar­ried to one, peo­ple make as­sump­tions about you. They think an evening with you will be as ex­cit­ing as watch­ing paint dry or read­ing a hym­nal out loud. They ex­pect you to be self-right­eous and judg­men­tal — just landed on a mis­sion from Planet No Fun for Any­one. They as­sume you have reached a level of spir­i­tual aware­ness and con­tent­ment that means you have no ques­tions, doubts, or prob­lems of your own. They think your kids are pi­ous lit­tle peo­ple who don’t rou­tinely tear out your heart and smash it to pieces on the din­ing-room ta­ble.

None of that is the case with us. But we have dis­cov­ered an abil­ity to make peo­ple aw­fully un­com­fort­able; even my own fam­ily stiff­ens up around us. My cousins’ hus­bands apologize and turn red when they swear in front of us. Poor guys — I wish they could just re­lax. But be­cause of the role, peo­ple think they have to act bet­ter, nicer, less sweary around you.

My favourite min­is­ter- wreck­ing-ev­ery­thing story comes from a fu­neral. Our min­is­ter friend spent about a week com­fort­ing the fam­ily, visit­ing, plan­ning the fu­neral, do­ing all the stuff you do, and then of­fi­ci­at­ing at the ac­tual ser­vice: preach­ing, pray­ing, and so on.

Af­ter­wards, there were piles of sand­wiches and sweets left over — “fu­neral food,” my kids call it. (We used to bring left­overs home, un­til we dis­cov­ered it creeped them out). But that day, my friend and his wife thought it would be a kind ges­ture to pack up the food and drive over to the home of the be­reaved. As they walked up the drive­way, arms laden with the in­evitable egg-salad sand­wiches on white bread, a voice came drift­ing out an open win­dow: “Oh, fuck. Here comes the min­is­ter.”

Yes, we are the life of the fu­neral and the death of the party.

And yet, this is a beau­ti­ful life. It’s true that we spend more time at church-base­ment potlucks than at beach par­ties. It can be lonely. It can be tough to fig­ure out how to be a min­is­ter’s wife in an age when very few women iden­tify them­selves in terms of their spouses’ ca­reers. Even the phrase “I’m a min­is­ter’s wife” sounds like some­thing some­one’s grammy would say.

My hus­band and I have prob­a­bly missed some fun, but we have wit­nessed some mir­a­cles. We have seen mar­riages ripped apart and then sewn back up again one ex­cru­ci­at­ing stitch at a time. I have come to view deep for­give­ness within a fam­ily as some­thing just as ex­tra­or­di­nary as a sea part­ing or wa­ter turn­ing into wine.

This year, we moved to Ot­tawa, and to a new parish, and I planted a garden for the first time. My friend told me to put in se­dum or leaf suc­cu­lents, forms of ground­cover that stretch out and spread nour­ish­ment and beauty. But you have to keep them in check. A call­ing such as my hus­band’s can be like that, too. It’s very beau­ti­ful, but it spreads and can take up the whole garden. Space needs to be pre­served for other liv­ing, grow­ing things.

I pro­tect my space, but ul­ti­mately I am grate­ful, be­cause this life is a green and lovely thing.

My hus­band re­cently came into the house af­ter a drive­way chat with our new neigh­bour. “They’ve in­vited us for sup­per on Fri­day night,” he said. I sighed and said, “Poor things.” “They know what I do,” he an­swered. “They al­ready asked, and they want us to come.” An­other mir­a­cle un­fold­ing. This time, on a side­walk in Ot­tawa.

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