The Walrus

Lonelier Than Thou

The social life of a minister’s wife

- 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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