Holidays in Retirement Acres are no laughing matter. Indeed, the police have been called multiple times to settle arguments about Halloween or Christmas decorations that disturbed one neighbor or another by crossing property lines. Nobody ever considers the line of good taste, but that’s a different story for a different day.
“You have to speak to Mrs. PastorInTraining,” Mrs. Preacher announced with no fanfare and also no context.
As their duly and enthusiastically elected leader (literally nobody else would do it again), I was trying to organize the Ladies’ Aid dinner by having the assignments written out in advance of the meeting wherein the dinner would be argued about discussed. I need not have bothered. They just swapped around until they got the assignments they wanted, and then complained mightily about what those assignments entailed. Look, if you swap with six people in order to make mashed potatoes and then your sister says she’s allergic to the kind that come out of a box, that’s now your problem. I asked you to bring breadsticks and a salad. Get to mashin’.
“I…I do? Why do I need to speak to her?” For reasons that are perfectly clear, Mrs. PastorInTraining is not a member of the Ladies’ Aid. Just at the moment, I envied her.
“You have to speak to her about the Ash Wednesday service,” Mrs. Preacher declared. Imperiously. “Specifically about the ashes.”
Maybe this is a brain tumor and not a headache. Maybe that’s not my life flashing in front of mine eyes. Because Mrs. PastorInTraining is very devout in her faith and has studied and worked a great deal to get where she is, while Mrs. Preacher is more like a steam locomotive with a very large handbag.
“Why isn’t this a job for Mr. Preacher?” He does, after all, get paid to deal with all of this. “It seems like this is exactly the sort of counsel he’d be great at providing.”
“She likes you better anyway,” Mrs. Preacher pointed out. This may or may not be true, but that’s not the topic of debate right now. “And there is not a chance I’m bringing turkey to the Ladies’ Aid dinner, so you might as well assign me something else. I’ll bring a fruitcake.”
These jokes write themselves.
Mrs. Preacher chugged away, leaving to me the task of finding out the specific problem with Mrs. PastorInTraining and the Ash Wednesday Ashes. This would be the worst Nancy Drew novel ever.
I knocked on Mrs. PreacherInTraining’s door. Her office was in the library. Due to a recent unforecasted and unforeseen event in the community, the office is stacked high with boxes full of books. Had Mrs. PreacherInTraining been asked, she would have politely asked that her office not be crammed full of frankly irrelevant material. For this reason and many others, the Committee on Putting Things Where They Don’t Belong waited until she was gone for the night to spirit them in. Since then, none of those committee members have been locatable on this mortal plane.
“Hi! I thought you were making futile assignments for the Ladies’ Aid dinner. Did you give up? And did Mrs. Preacher tell you she wasn’t going to cook a turkey?” There are some questions that are easier to ignore than others.
“I have been asked,” I started, “nay, commanded, to speak to you about the ashes.”
“Good Lord,” Mrs. PreacherInTraining sighed.
“You have no idea. Anyway, Mrs. Preacher has a burr under her saddle about it, and for some reason now I have to deal with it, which doesn’t even make sense.”
“I was afraid of this.”
“So what’s in the ashes? Asbestos? The remains from Urbane Downtown church?” An historic church, it burned to the ground last year because paying an electrician is silly when a parishioner will do it for free.
“The remains of the palm leaves from Palm Sunday last year,” Mrs. PastorInTraining assured me. “That’s all. I burned them with the leaves this fall and put them in a container.”
“What on earth does she think is in them?”
“Just remember, grasshopper: if you ask, you’ll know.”
I abandoned the Ladies’ Aid project, drove out to Starbucks, then back to the church. It never hurts to come bearing coffee if you want to beard Mr. Preacher in his den. He retired from active preaching twenty years ago, only to be pressed back into service as the congregation in Retirement Acres grew. Preachers in semi-retirement are only asked to work 2-3 days per week, and not more than five hours a day. Mr. Preacher easily clocked in 50 hours a week, most of them in his office ignoring his email, which does not deter Mrs. Preacher in any noticeable way.
“Coffee?” I asked. “They made two by mistake.”
He has two daughters older than me, and thinks I shouldn’t be spending my money on things like Starbucks coffee, especially if I’m going to give it away. It’s pretty clear he has no idea what passing gas all day pays.
“I believe I will,” he answered happily. There are few things he loves more than coffee, except for free coffee. “What’s on your mind?”
“Mrs. Preacher,” I answered. He immediately checked his watch.
“I think I have a–“
“You don’t,” I stopped him. “I already asked Mrs. PastorInTraining about your calendar for today.”
“She needs something else to do.”
“Good thing she has all those books Mrs. Bob brought down that she can deal with.”
“I imagine you’ll be dealing with that problem too. Mrs. PreacherInTraining thinks they don’t belong if they aren’t religious books.”
“She’s probably right.”
“But I like a good mystery.”
“Great! Let’s get to the bottom of what Mrs. Preacher thinks you’re going to be smearing on us at the Ash Wednesday service.”
“You know that’s not actually what that ritual is called?”
“Quit stalling, old man.”
“You know Mrs. PreacherInTraining’s cat died?” he asked, almost casually, sitting back in his chair to sip his sinfully over-priced coffee. He propped one long leg up on the desk.
“The one from last year? I mean, yeah, I remember her kids talking about it and–Oh. Oh my. She didn’t…”
“She didn’t,” he promised. “Never crossed her mind, and I’m pretty sure she’d be able to find a chapter and verse that say you shouldn’t smear a deceased kitty cat on the congregation.”
“But Mrs. Preacher seems adamant–“
“Lord, don’t I know it.”
“If this comes up Wednesday?”
“Just tell them the truth: it’s the palms from last year. And tell them we’re not doing that again this year because I’m tired of the kids sword-fighting with them during the message.”
“What will we use for ashes next year?”
For an old preacher man, he has a pretty wicked grin.
“It’s palm leaves,” I reiterated, for about the 19th time. “I’m not sure she could even…anyway, there’s nothing to worry about.”
“I suppose she wouldn’t lie to you,” Mrs. Preacher sniffed, leaving open the possibility that I might. “See you Wednesday.”
I was late to the service, and last in line that night. I approached the altar as Mrs. PastorInTraining held a small porcelain bowl with ashes as she stood next to Mr. Preacher, who held the baptismal with holy water.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” he intoned. “Go with God.”
“Meow,” Mrs. PreacherInTraining agreed solemnly.