Every Sunday morning, the church ladies dress up. Their faces are powdered, their short hair (silver and sometime blue-rinsed) curled and neatly brushed. They wear wool, or cotton, or (if slightly daring) printed polyester dresses, short-sleeved and collared, or long-sleeved with a button at the cuff. And a hat: a church lady always wears a hat. In summer their shoes–polished pumps with sturdy block heels–are white; in winter black. Their gloves are chosen to match.
Their handbags–wicker or leather, always short-strapped and clutched at the crook of an arm–carry Kleenex and a change purse with money for the collection plate, and a few hard candies in a twist of plastic. The candies crinkle, and disturb the sermon, but are useful to stave off boredom, or to soothe a cough–or a restive child in an adjacent pew.
The church ladies walk along the street and cross carefully at the corner, waiting for the light. They board the streetcar at College or Queen or St. Clair, exact change or a printed ticket in hand. If it rains, a translucent plastic rain hood–printed with daisies or rain-drops– will be pulled from a small vinyl case and pulled over loose grey curls. There is no use ruining a wave.
The church ladies are always old, even though their actual ages are wholly indeterminate. They are widows, their children grown, their grandchildren infrequent visitors. Because they have the time, and because their culture requires it, they are volunteers. On Saturday nights they make crustless sandwiches, of cucumber or ham or egg salad and sometimes all three, trimmed into quarters, and on Sunday they preside over the social hour after the service. They set out baked goods–store bought cookies, or digestive biscuits– alongside the sandwiches and supervise the pouring of metallic coffee, orange pekoe tea, and Freshie into waxed paper cups.
They attend every funeral, evaluate every wedding, and applaud each Christening. No hospitalization is complete without a visit from a church lady, bearing an improving magazine or a small potted plant. They collect outworn glasses for international charities, and crochet booties for unwed mothers, and knit raveled yarn mittens for the annual bazaar.
Their names are Mabel and Marion and Ethel, and occasionally Edna and Irma.
They have raised this culture, and carried it in their arms. They have survived the Depression, both Wars, social upheaval (with disapproval and, in the case of their children, gradual and grudging understanding), the raising and lowering and raising of skirts, the deaths of their husbands, the diminishment of their own lives due to age and illness.
And eventually, over time, the church ladies change.
The new church ladies are named Precious and Louella and Octavia and Grace. Their hair is straightened and clipped back, and held down by a beautiful hat. Their dresses, alternately black or batik, are their armament and shield. They are big, these church ladies, and they steer their congregations like ships, cossetting the children, praying for the family man who has lost his job, and pursing their lips at the young women who dress smartly but too loosely and who have not yet realized that one day, decades from now, they too will be church ladies.
They carry bibles, and read them on the Weston Road bus, a declarative finger pointing at each verse. They make food, great vats of it, for church suppers and praise celebrations. They nod at the pastor’s words, and sing hymns in their lustrous or tremulous voices.They sway, in sorrow and joy, at the certainty that suffering in this life will be rewarded with a ticket to heaven in the next.
They carry the culture, the church ladies, with their church hats and hand bags.