The one person who impacted me the most in my life died six months before my 28th birthday. She was brilliant, talented, hilarious, normal, mean and rotten, loving, straightforward, practical … Mom was terrific. She met Dad and fell in love with him despite the fact that he was graduating from seminary. She had three children, even though the idea of babies was abhorrent to her. She moved to small-town Iowa with Dad even though all she’d ever known was upscale big city life.
Mom wrote this article in 1972 and I remember the glee she had in poking at expectations for minister’s wives. If she could destroy a stereotype, she took the opportunity. Some things have changed since this article – others haven’t. We still need love, forgiveness, and understanding. But, her writing continues to makes me laugh.
As I read the first paragraph, I did discover where I got two of my favorite words. We love to laugh in our family. Snorting and giggling are just two ways to describe it. Enjoy … and laugh a little. She loved laughing at herself.
My Second Skin
by Margaret Greenwood
Originally published in Arise! Magazine, A Magazine for Christian Laity
March – April 1972
I have just finished reading a 1969 report entitled “An Insight Into the Role of a Minister’s Wife” compiled from 23 questionnaires sent to various ministers’ wives and also to a number of presidents of local Women’s Missionary Societies of the Baptist Church in Southwest Iowa. I cringed, giggled and snorted through most of it, but I realized again the terrible gap between the parsonage family and the church people when one is allowed free expression without fear of identification.
It is quite obvious to me now that no one will ever offer my name for beatification. However, I shall have to live with this disappointment along with many others. The report was not a scientifically prepared job, but if the Methodists have the same viewpoint expressed in the report as the southwest Iowa Baptists, I am in deep trouble! One lady said: “A minister’s wife because of his many callers should keep their home and herself presentable at all times because there is a reflection on the church if she does not.” Now the grammar may not be quite up to snuff, but the thought literally explodes! Right there, I’ve failed! My house almost always looks like a gaggle of geese has been driven through it, followed by my husband, three children, a dog and various numbers of gerbils at various times. I am one of those poor benighted souls who always snatches frantically at a nightgown on the wing chair (the dog is lonely when I am out of the house and always drags filmy stuff downstairs to her favorite chair to lie on), kicks the shoes under the sofa, stuffs socks in my pockets and throws magazines into the closet when the doorbell rings. As soon as my caller leaves, I clean the house in a frenzy of guilt. Before the next person arrives, those crazy geese have gone through again!
Another individual commented in the report, “Be clean. Be neat. Wear make-up in good taste so you’ll look warm and alive and not like something the cat dragged in. A good thing to re-evaluate every now and then is your hair style…This goes for shoe styles.” Well, I am warm; touch me and I’ll giggle. I am alive. See … I’m breathing. However, I seldom wear shoes, a fact which all of my friends have accepted with good grace even though my mother hasn’t. She insisted I soak my feet in Clorox for twenty minutes before I went to the hospital to deliver my first child. By the third baby, I barely had time to even find my shoes! As for hair styles, I can wear it only one way: short and curly! If I let it grow, I look like George Washington without the powder. When I am painting, walls or pictures, or throwing pots on my potter’s wheel or even trying to cope with goose feathers, I look more like the wrath of God than a cat’s plaything.
The questionnaire pointed one thing out to me in particular. The minister’s wife is judged actually on the image one has already formed of a position, not of a person. She should be, but usually is not, the epitome of womanhood, an Eve gone straight! She should also do everything and be everything that the women of the church do not want to do or cannot do. My husband really lucked out! I can’t play the piano and my typing is lousy, so no church organist job or choir directorship for me; I can’t even be an unpaid secretary. I do direct a mean Christmas program, however!
Several weeks ago, I had a very special experience. I was at a friend’s house having coffee when another woman dropped in, a stranger to me. Debbie, my hostess, introduced me:
“Sally, I’d like you to meet Margie Greenwood.”
So what’s special about that? Well, I was practically wriggling with joy! Sally stared at me, perplexed. Then recognition dawned upon her.
“Oh yes, you’re the new minister’s wife.”
I stopped my happy squirming, but for a precious moment I had been an individual in my own right, free of my tight second skin.
This second skin, like any girdle which is too small for its wearer, constricts only a part of one. The rest bulges out uncontrollably. So, too, with ministers’ wives. Resentments, hostility, and anger spill over despite our determination to shove it back under the unforgiving garment. Have you ever seen a woman suffer when her girdle hurts? The metaphor is most appropriate!
The first half of the survey was devoted to ministers’ wives’ reactions, their joys and their frustrations. The Baptist girls sound remarkably like the Methodists with whom I have talked. In fact, they sound quite human. Most of them felt their greatest joy was in being a wife to their husband, and in this I heartily concur! Few of them had any desire to be “Mrs. Minister,” although this slipped through with a couple of them. I’ll never forget a Christmas card my husband and I received addressed to “Rev. Frank and Mrs. Pastor Greenwood.” The greatest frustration of these gals was almost unanimous; it was the inability to make close friends within their congregations and to be held at a distance by them. What a congregation as a whole expects of its minister’s wife is unbelievable! When they suddenly discover that her feet are clay (even when washed), occasionally they’ll smack her right in the solar plexus. This is why we have so many gasping ministers’ wives.
I discovered this fact early in my married life. There was a small group of self-appointed watchdogs in our first church who checked on me twice a week. They didn’t even bother to knock on the door. After a year’s residence, I installed locks. You should have seen me once when I was trying to iron my dress in the kitchen and I caught sight of one of the ladies as she stepped onto the front porch. I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled to the front door. I held it tightly against her as she tried to push it open, but my twenty years of strength more than matched her seventy odd years of determination. Knowing she would also try the back door, I snaked along the walls, still on my hands and knees, and held that door against her, too. My husband arrived a few minutes later and found me lying on the linoleum floor of the kitchen too weak with laughter to get up! Ah, the dignity of such encounters with the good ladies of the parish.
This kind of problem gave me food for thought, so I devised my own system to beat it. I hid. I hid behind my Eastern debutante background, my education, anything that would suffice. I hid behind my wonderful sister-in-law who lived nearby. Without her, I never would have survived. She took most of my problems, many of which I created myself, onto her own back. There was a period of three months when all three churches on the circuit owed us my husband’s salary, $995. I finally went home to visit my parents and took the baby with me. My husband ate one good meal a day at his sister’s house. When the churches finally paid up, I could return. However, one cannot hide forever. So, in our next church, I tried a different attack. I was so busy with three children, one of whom was always sick, that I don’t think anyone even realized my husband was married. In our third parish I resolved, since I had been seen on moving day, that I would try to be myself, and it worked to my great surprise! In all the responses in the aforementioned questionnaire, only one dear soul, bless her forever, suggested that the greatest asset of a minister’s wife’s personality is “being herself.” I’ll say one thing for this approach; it’s a whole lot easier on a person even if it is sometimes embarrassing.
In one small town where we lived, the church had built us a beautiful new parsonage. I loved it and everyone in town was proud of it. One day, true to the directions in the minister’s wife handbook, which I was rereading for the twentieth time, I decided to bake bread for someone who was sick. I also decided to plant petunias around the foundation of the house. I left our baby inside asleep in her crib, feeling guilty because maybe the house would blow up or catch on fire or some other such dire calamity would happen, but I traipsed outside with my trowel and flowers anyway. Some time later I decided I’d better check on her. I opened the kitchen door and nearly fainted. The house was full of smoke! I grabbed the baby, took my older daughter by the hand and ran to my husband’s study in the church shouting, “The house is on fire! The house is on fire!” (One has to shout at him, he only responds to frightening sounds!) He told me to call the fire department and he raced over to the house. A word of explanation is appropriate here. In small Iowa towns, the fire department is a voluntary deal. Any man who is in town responds to the fire whistle and usually everyone else does, too. this was no exception, and besides, the parsonage was the newest house in town. Those men went through the house with a fine-toothed comb. Finally, one gentleman lifted the lid on a pot on the stove and discovered the charred, burned potatoes for my bread! A friendly woman comforted me with the words: “Don’t feel badly, Margie. Now we know you’re human.”
I do try not to take myself too seriously, and I am trying to be myself. I even allow my parents to be themselves although that was not always the case. A year after we were married, my mother visited us. She had snatched a quick cigarette while I stood sentinel at the window. I saw one of my dear watchdogs coming up the walk and I yelled at Mother to run upstairs and take her ashtray with her. Thus, when I opened the door I stood innocently alone, wreathed in a thick gray cloud of cigarette smoke!
It’s difficult to find the Holy Spirit in such an atmosphere, but after nine years of searching, I finally found him. I had seldom attended church before my marriage, and had no background on which to build. I only saw the marvelous faith of my husband and that of several of the fine people in our various churches. I wanted this assurance, but I didn’t know how to go about finding it. I had been thrust into a wildly different life, from the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Boston to an Iowa town of 250 people which looked like a set for a bad John Wayne western. A “modern” house back East was one with unusual architectural characteristics. In rural southwest Iowa thirteen years ago, it was one with an indoor toilet! It was indeed a radically different way of life. I didn’t understand the people and many of them never did figure me out. It was when I finally made the decision to be the human being that God had created originally, not a paper doll image raggedly drawn by a mythological congregation, that I really learned to love. When one’s eyes are always checking on one’s image, one can’t see past one’s nose.
I had to make some spiritual giant steps, after hundreds of baby steps and innumerable “go back three paces” even to come within sight of my goal. An understanding, forgiving and patient husband and a loving group of friends in our church (I refuse to call them our “congregation.” They are my friends and it is our church.) have supported and helped me tremendously in my spiritual growth. I had a dramatic encounter with God during an early morning prayer vigil which cemented my relationship with him. I don’t have any astounding answers to life’s problems, but together as loving children of God, we all can struggle, supported and helped by each other. It’s a lot easier to climb a barbed wire fence with someone to hold the wires for you.
The role of the “Minister’s Wife” exists in capital letters. I can’t deny it and it would be foolish to try to do so. However, I can re-define it in human terms. For me it is the role of a searching woman attempting to discover joy of her own humanity and the love of God and trying to relate this love to her very existence. This makes me no better or worse than any of my friends. If my house is messy and my feet bare, I shall hope that my callers will be more interested in our relationship as children of God than they will be in that last goose disappearing around the corner. We haven’t time to play around with non-essentials when there is such a desperate need for love, forgiveness and understanding in the Christian community and the world.
Please examine your image of your minister’s wife. Let her be human and love her despite it. It’s quite possible that as a child of God, she is having just as hard a struggle trying to love your human failings, too. God loves you, and I love you, too.