A short story by Rev. Michael Lindvall, The Good News from North Haven: A Year in the Life of a Small Town, 1991, page 102-109
…It was hot this past Sunday in church. Attendance was thin, as it usually is in the heat… The building is not air-conditioned, but we have woven wicker hand fans donated and placed in the pew racks by the Howe Funeral Home some forty years ago. As the congregation fans itself through the sermon, they look like troubled water—restless, agitated, and eager to go.
Sitting with Angus and Minnie MacDowell in the third pew, on the pulpit side was their son, Larry, from Spokane. On either side of Larry sat his four-year-old and his three-year-old. They were all fanning vigorously. Not sitting or fanning anywhere was their wife and mother, Sherry…
Sherry’s absence ached for an explanation, but something about the family mood induced congregational discretion. All through coffee hour, nobody asked what everybody was thinking: “Well, where is Sherry, anyway?”
As everybody drifted to the parking lot and that sweet taste of air-conditioning on the ride home, Minnie sneaked up on me, tugged at my sleeve, and said in a near-whisper: “Pastor, could I see you in your study?”
Minnie sat on the front six inches of the vinyl chair in my office, her back straight as she held the bulletin from the worship service, which she had managed to roll up into a tight little tube. As she talked, she worked at rolling it even tighter. She and Angus were just back from Spokane, she said, where they had gone to visit Larry and Sherry and the grandchildren. They had planned on staying for two and a half weeks, but came home after one. “You see, Pastor,” she said, “there was a problem.”
The bulletin in her hands was now about the diameter of a pencil. These, I knew, were very large words for Minnie MacDowell, who, in general, had simply not permitted problems in her family. And if there were problems, they were certainly not called such and were never talked about to others… The problem, of course, was that Sherry, seven months pregnant, and mother of two, had not been in the third pew on the pulpit side that morning. Sherry was, Minnie revealed in a cathartic burst, “in Mankato, staying with her folks.”
“Could you talk to her, Pastor? Ask her to call Larry.” And then, looking at her bulletin-tube, she went on, “Tell her I’m sorry if I said anything.”
Words had been spoken, and Minnie had spoken them. “What happened?” I asked. “Well,” Minnie said, “it was really hot in Spokane, too, and Angus and I were there only five days when the baby got the chicken pox. Angus and Larry thought that it would be helpful if they just sort of got out of the way, so they went bowling on Thursday, and while they were gone the water heater quit and when they got back Larry went to fix it and we were watching him go into the crawl space to look at it, and we were talking about how good Larry has always been with mechanical matters, and I think I said something that may have hurt Sherry’s feelings a little. Well, when Larry emerged from the crawl space, she handed him the baby, went upstairs to the bedroom, locked the door, called the airlines, and bought a one-way ticket to Mankato. All she said to Larry was ‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you.'”
“What was it you said, Minnie?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t remember exactly,” she answered. “Something about fixing the water heater.” The failure of her, memory at this point stood in intriguing contrast to her precise memory of Sherry’s last words.
“I’ve got to go to Mankato on Tuesday,” I said. “I’ll stop and see Sherry.”
She was happy to see me. Seven months pregnant, she negotiated her way onto the plastic-covered couch in her parents’ living room, took a sip of iced tea, and asked if I had seen Larry and the kids and how were they? How was Jered’s chicken pox? Had the pox crusted over yet? Was he sleeping through the night?
“How are you?” I asked. There were a few tears as she told her tale, which was commonplace enough: how she stopped working when Jessica was born, not because she had to but because she really wanted to be home with the kids whom she loved as life itself. “But there are days when I think I might forget how to talk in complete sentences. Diapers, ear infections, reading The Cat in the Hat fourteen times in one afternoon, who hit whom first. You don’t even get to go to the bathroom alone. I love them so, but I can hardly wait till they go to sleep at night, and then I’m so tired I can’t move.”
She pulled her pregnant self up a bit. “And now number three. I don’t know if I’ll make it.” She paused for a second, took another sip of iced tea, and went on: “What I didn’t need was two weeks with Larry’s folks. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They’re so, well, THERE! No salt in the food. Angus patrols the house with a screwdriver and a hammer fixing things. The kids get to them. And then Minnie!”
With that she looked away and her eyes reddened. “Oh, I don’t know, maybe I’m overreacting. No sooner does their plane land than Jered gets the chicken pox. He’s up all night. I’m up all night. Larry sleeps like a brick. Has to work the next morning, you know. Things were edgy by Thursday. Larry says that it might help if he got Dad out of the house, so they go bowling— in air-conditioning. Did I tell you how hot it was? Anyway, I go to give the baby another oatmeal bath and the water comes out like ice. The hot-water heater picks this particular moment to die. I’m ready to call the plumber, but Minnie says, ‘Wait till Larry gets back, I’m sure he’ll be able to repair it without such an expense. You know what a talent he has for these things.’
“So no oatmeal bath and we wait for Larry and Angus to finish a third game. Larry comes home and says, ‘If I’d known that the thing was going to bust, we would have never gone, honey.’ Somehow that didn’t help. The hot-water heater is in a crawl space under the kitchen. It’s hard to get to. You have to go in about twenty feet on your hands and knees. Anyway, Angus and Minnie and I are watching Larry’s rear end as he makes his way to the water heater. Jered is in my arms whining and Jessica is wiping Oreo off her face with my skirt. There’s a moment of quiet as Larry gets up to the hot-water, heater, and then Minnie says to me— I still can’t believe she said it, she says, ‘Sherry, it’s really a good thing that you didn’t lose that weight, or Larry might have had you crawl in there.’
“Something snapped, Dave. It had never crossed my mind to walk out on them. Family deserters are scum you read about in the Star. But it was just too much.”
We talked another hour. I didn’t have to talk her into coming down to North Haven to make peace. She had already called Larry that afternoon. Nothing I said was needed to persuade her to go home with them to Spokane. That was always what she was going to do.
I think Minnie’s tongue was tamed in all of this, which it needed. I think Larry and maybe even Angus have seen something of Sherry’s world from her vantage point, which they needed. And of course, Sherry got a break, which she needed.
Life together is hard. There are no perfect husbands, no perfect wives, no perfect children, no perfect mothers-in-law. Life in family—life in any community—is both our sorest test and our sweetest joy. Life together stretches us, pulls us, strains us, but in it we are nourished by the struggle itself.
It is the best chance God gives most of us to grow out of ourselves and into something more like what we were meant to be. Life together is the welcome tether that kindly but relentlessly binds our ravenous egos. Life together is where most people get their only chance to be heroes. Families can breed heroes—local heroes, yes, but giants of spirit nevertheless: courageous and well-tempered souls who return again and again to brave the rigors and savor the delicacies of loving the same people for a long time. For the only thing harder than getting along with other people is getting along without them.
Galatians 6:2 — Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Galatians 5:13b — …Serve one another humbly in love.
I Thessalonians 5:11 — Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.