CHRIST IN WINTER: Stories of Faith and Life for the Years of Winter… BAD NEWS BEARER [Su, 5-20-18]
It was the first day of the new year when I had to go tell Evelyn that her husband was suddenly dead.
Arlyn had been cutting trees in the woods with a friend. A tree had fallen on him. The sheriff called me, told me to go tell Evelyn before somebody else found out about it and telephoned and told her while she was alone. He would get his wife and come as soon as possible, but he had to deal with some details first.
That was not an unusual request. I was often asked to break bad news to people. The sheriff assumed I was the proper person to break this bad news because Evelyn was my secretary.
But Evelyn was no longer my secretary. She was mad at me. Neither she nor Arlyn had spoken to me for several months. The sheriff didn’t give me a chance to explain, though. Just told me to go.
The high school band director had scheduled a “required” practice on Christmas day. Any student who failed to show would not be allowed to march in the big parade. Parents protested, not to the band director, of course, but to their pastors. The Ministerial Association passed a resolution protesting this misuse of Christmas.
I wasn’t personally opposed to a Christmas band practice as such, but I was opposed to making it required. Christmas is a family day for many. I did not think a kid should be penalized for going to see Grandma on Christmas.
I was not personally affected. Neither of my children were in band. We didn’t even go to band concerts. Mary Beth and Katie were in academics and drama and sports in school, plus church, so it was all we could do to keep up with those activities.
But I was the secretary of the ministerial association, so the letter of protest went out over my signature. The ministerial association did not have a letterhead, but I created one, and made it clear that this was not my resolution but that of all the preachers together. Didn’t make a bit of difference. It was my signature, so I got all the heat.
The band director himself came to see me. Since my children were not in band, we had never met before. He did not understand why I was upset. He was a hard worker, and if you’re a hard worker, you should not be criticized, and, besides, even though he was not a member of any church, he was “as religious as the next man.” [A direct quote] I didn’t see how that was relevant, but he seemed to think it closed the discussion with some sort of victory for him.
There are some parents in any community who become more invested in a particular school activity than their children are. For whatever reason, that was Evelyn and Arlyn on behalf of the band. A Christmas practice didn’t interfere with them; all their relatives lived several hundred miles away. Also, they had a son who played trumpet, and apparently they wanted him out of the house as much as possible.
Evelyn and Arlyn and their children belonged to my church, but none of them came to worship. They wanted to protest what they saw as me trying to destroy the band program, but they couldn’t boycott worship since they didn’t come anyway. So Evelyn quit as church secretary.
Church secretary is a demanding and underpaid job. It takes a rare combination of skills and temperament. Interestingly, I’ve rarely had a mediocre secretary. Either they were really good at the job, or very unsuited for it. Evelyn had adequate skills, but she had some emotional problems she tried to hide by being effusively and excessively sweet. It made folks mistrust her, wondering what she was hiding.
I think when she quit in a huff, she thought it would cause a stir, that perhaps the church would rise up and choose her over me, say we could not do without her and… well, we all have illusions of irreplaceability from time to time. That was a very healthy congregation, though. It was not into games or drama. The chairwoman of the staff-parish relations committee treated the whole thing as quite normal. She hosted a nice retirement party for Evelyn at her house and that was the end of it. Except then I got to hire her replacement.
Two, as it turned out. Frances wanted to work only in the mornings, and Rose wanted to work only in the afternoons, so they shared the job, and became best friends in the process. They were both in that “really good” category I was blessed with, along with Anne and Jeanne and Mary, who served as my secretary in other churches.
All that is irrelevant, though, when you have to go tell a woman that her husband has been killed.
When I appeared at her door, Evelyn became her overly sweet self, as though she had not quit in a huff, as though we had not seen each other in months. “Oh, how thoughtful of you to come see me on New Year’s Day.” Maybe she understood that I could only be the bearer of bad news and was trying to put it off.
Neither of her children was home. No one there but Evelyn and me. I wanted to stall, wait until the sheriff and his wife got there, but I knew I couldn’t. I told her. She cried in my arms for a very long time until the sheriff and his wife finally got there. I never saw her again.