Looking back on my years as “a child of the Manse,” as people sometimes call ministers’ children, I am frequently amazed by how my mother, Lorna – the minister’s wife – was able to accomplish all that she did.
Were it not enough to be raising four children all two years apart – so that in 1966, for example, she had a newborn, a 2-year-old, a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old – and manage the general care, feeding, cleaning and maintenance of the family and the big old Manse, she also did all the things The Minister’s Wife is supposed to do:
- Attend, and sometimes lead, and sometimes host, United Church Women meetings;
- Host many other church-committee meetings at the Manse, with refreshments always to be served afterward;
- Unfailingly be at all church services with all children in tow (with their collection-plate quarters in hand, generally to be loudly dropped onto the church floor multiple times before the collection plate came around);
- Make sure those same children made it to Sunday School (which, unlike in most churches today, was held before or after the service, the perfectly reasonable assumption being that children shouldn’t be excluded from the service proper);
- Deal with any manner of church-related situation that might happen to come through the front door of the Manse, ranging from transients asking for money to parishioners in crisis needing to see the minister;
- Help out at all church dinners and other functions;
- Keep the Manse in a state of tidiness and repair such that parishioners (and especially Manse Committee members) who came through would not look down their nose at her housekeeping skills;
- Iron the minister’s suit and shirt every Saturday night and before any other time it was needed;
- And on and on and on and on.
On top of all that, my father was away working at the farm up in Haliburton County most Mondays and Tuesdays, which meant that Mum was on her own with us children those days.
I often wonder how she survived it. You may not be surprised to know that she does too.
It seems incredible that somewhere around 1970 my mum took on still more, resuming her pre-arrival-of-children career as a high-school teacher of French (and sometimes German and English) at Centre Hastings Secondary School in Madoc. It began with supply teaching, but she eventually worked full-time. On top of everything else! But it’s not as surprising as it seems; in later years she has said that going back to teaching saved her life. It got her out of the house and the never-ending responsibilities there, and it gave her a chance to use her education and training again. A feminist tale, really, and I’m very proud of her for that.
But even once she started teaching – and even though those of us kids who were old enough to do so were pressed into service doing quite a few household chores – she was still The Minister’s Wife, and expected to continue carrying out all the duties that came with the title.
Which included Sunday Dinner.
In the 11 years that we lived at the Manse, I am certain that we had every single family from the four churches at which Dad was minister for dinner on at least one Sunday night. (There were some repeat visitors.) That meant preparing and serving up a sit-down dinner, ensuring engaging conversation before, during and after, and doing the cleanup at the end of the night – with no dishwasher, it seems almost unneccessary to add.
While I suspect (based on my own much more limited experiences as a hostess) that the cooking and cleanup part were far surpassed in stress-inducement by the hard work of carrying on sparkling conversation with people she may or may not have had all that much in common with, the cooking and cleanup part can’t be underestimated.
In what I am absolutely certain was a coping mechanism, Mum would turn out exactly the same meal Sunday after Sunday, week after week, month after month, year after year. It was:
- Roast beef (cooked to the point where “well done” would have been putting it mildly; let’s just say there were not the slightest traces of pink when those roasts were carved).
- Mashed potatoes and gravy (the latter being made by Dad; that was his specialty, and he made it really well. He knew the secret ingredient of gravy: salt. By the handful.)
- A vegetable of some sort, bought frozen: peas, or peas and carrots, or mixed vegetables.
- A jellied salad. This, people, was the 1960s, the Golden Era of Jellied Salads, when they reached their pinnacle of ubiquitousness and social acceptability, especially in church circles. Later, in my early teens, I drew a line in the sand on that front and announced that henceforth no jellied salad would touch my lips. But I have to say that the one my Mum used to serve at the Manse was not all that bad, mainly because it wasn’t as Jello-y or as sweet as those things generally were. I believe the main ingredients were lime Jell-O, cottage cheese and pineapple chunks; the cottage cheese went a long way toward de-sweetening the thing. I think Mum still has the shallow glass bowl with the silver ring at the top (probably a wedding or shower gift) in which she served approximately 45,000 such salads, which her children uncharitably dubbed “Green Junk” (even as we hoovered it up).
- Rolls (not homemade; my mother did not make bread) and butter.
- A divided smoked-glass dish (another wedding gift I think) of celery and/or radishes, sweet pickles, and pimiento-stuffed olives. (A story about the latter in a soon-to-come post.)
And dessert, which tended to be the one variable in the mix. In the very early years it was always a meringuey, very sweet thing called “Angel Pie.” Here is a recipe that I found just now online, and here’s another one for good measure, and they sound not unlike what I remember, though heavier on the lemon than I think my Mum’s can have been. For one thing, there was never an actual lemon in our kitchen. Ever. ReaLemon, yes. Not lemons, though. (Which is funny to me, because lemons are one thing I always have to have in my kitchen.) But anyway, later Mum started to mix it up with the pies: one of her specialties was raisin pie (secret ingredient: sugar) and, in season, rhubarb (ditto). She made a mean raspberry pie (you can guess what the secret ingredient was), but because she doesn’t like raspberries we unfortunately didn’t get that too often. And there would be vanilla ice cream with the pie. And weak tea to wash it down.
So that was the menu. It was repetitive for us – though we kids didn’t mind, because we liked roast beef and mashed potatoes, and besides, who were we to complain?
And the guests on any given Sunday night had no way of knowing that the people whose bums the previous Sunday, and the Sunday before that, and so on back through the years, had been in the same chairs that theirs now occupied, had eaten and enjoyed precisely the same meal that they were eating and enjoying now.
So absolutely no harm done. Quite the opposite, in fact: those dinners were nice, and it was enjoyable getting to know the guests. But oh, my mother: surely there is a very starry crown awaiting her in heaven. And the inscription below one of the brightest of the stars will read: “For Sunday Dinner.”