Being Martha Ramis

being-martha-ramis-180At Bible Mission Church in Springer, South Dakota, the church secretary, Martha Ramis, lay yesterday’s mail on the corner of the pastor’s desk as usual, then turned away.

Was that a draft?

She turned back to glance toward the window.

No, the blinds were down and the window closed. Probably just her imagination from having recently come in from the cold.

She reached up to clasp her heavy brown coat near the collar as she turned to move through the door, then pulled it closed behind her.

Back in her own office—the pastor’s outer office—she removed her coat hung it on the free-standing coat rack next to the pastor’s door. She took off her matching hat and hung it over the hook that held the coat, then crossed to the chair behind her double-pedestal cherrywood desk.

Once she sat down, she swiveled the chair to face at right angles to her desk and leaned forward slightly over her laptop. It was balanced on a pull-out typing platform. Above it, at eye level if she were standing up, a print of Christ on the crucifix gazed balefully down at her. The bulk of her ancient desk lay to her left.

She glanced up and smiled pleasantly. Quietly, she said, “Now Lord, at least you’re already in Heaven. Why the stare?”

The print was canted slightly, not hanging straight as it should. Well, she would remember to straighten it the next time she got up. She nodded at the figure on the cross. “I’ll fix it next time I get up.”

Then she leaned forward again, her index fingers poised over the keyboard as she read to refresh her memory.

Ah yes. She’d left off right after the paragraph about the Ladies’ Auxiliary breakfast. She still had to add the introduction about the Bazaar and then the sections about the bake sale and the silent auction. And then, of course, the very special keynote address.

She frowned at the keyboard.

The hardest thing to learn about this newfangled machine was not to hit the Return key. She glanced at it and scowled. Well, the Enter key, when she reached the end of a line of type. The pastor had reminded her to hit that only when she reached the end of a paragraph.

Using this thing was a little like magic, but it wasn’t good magic. When she used a typewriter, the little ding at the end of each line and paragraph seemed like a reward. This thing was silent, even when the sound was turned on, even when she hit the Return—no, Enter—key at the end of a paragraph.

And the whole process resembled typing only in that it managed, somehow, to put letters and words on the fake page on the screen. There was no paper to touch or feed, no ink to smell, and no ding. No clacking of the risers striking paper. The whole thing was cold and impersonal. How did anyone ever put part of themselves into what they wrote on one of these things?

She thought again of the canted print on the wall above her and smiled. “Well,” she muttered, “we all have our crosses to bear.”

She leaned forward slightly, put her index fingers in the appropriate position on the keyboard, and typed the heading: Ladies’ Auxiliary Breakfast and Annual Fall Bazaar.

She leaned back in her chair again.

Oh, it would be quite the spectacle this year. Between Mrs. Ramis’ own special apple-tort, peach-premium and pineapple-upside-down pancakes and the other possibly less-desirable items the other ladies pitched in, it would be quite a breakfast.

And the Bazaar itself would be truly spectacular this year too.

There would be the usual smattering of baked goods. Of course, most of them would be a bit disappointing after Mrs. Ramis’ secret-recipe pancakes from the morning. But they would be adequate. And the silent auction probably would go at least as well as it had the past several years.

But this year—this year, the reverend himself would deliver a keystone speech.

She leaned forward again and, with renewed vigor, went back to tapping out the draft of the church newsletter.

After a few minutes she finished the introduction to the Bazaar section.


The bake sale and the silent auction would run concurrently. Which to type first?

Food leads to food. She could bridge the Bazaar introduction by going from the pancake breakfast before it to the bake sale afterward.

After all, the silent auction would lead to a veritable climax, a culmination during which winners were announced. And then what would surely be a heavenly keynote. Was there any possibility the pastor might bomb? None.

But no time now to get sidetracked with all that.

Food leads to food. Yes, that was the way to do it. That’s what she would do.

Again she poised her index fingers just so, then hunted, pecked and tapped until she got through the segment on the bake sale. Finally she sat back to read over it.

There was one paragraph reminding likely contributors which items were perennial best sellers. Cookies packaged three to a bag sold best. Cake was a close second when it was pre-sliced and when small paper plates and plastic forks were provided.

A second paragraph discussed best practices in pricing. The lower the price, the lesser the implied quality. Especially if the prices were lower than the customer might pay at the IGA for a similar product. Even though those mass-produced cakes and cookies were little more than poison repositories and collections of preservatives.

A third paragraph suggested what to do with the inevitable leftovers. There were always leftovers, most notably at the far end of the table. But the Food Pantry was only a few blocks down the street. Not that she’d ever seen the inside of it. All of her baked goods always went quickly.

She sat back and looked at the screen with a sense of satisfaction. There. Less than two hours after she’d begun, two thirds of the Ladies’ Auxiliary Breakfast and Annual Fall Bazaar segment of the newsletter was behind her.

She looked to the left to glance at the clock on the wall. Almost 9 a.m. She stood an excellent chance of finishing the entire segment before the pastor arrived for the day.

She leaned over the laptop again, index fingers poised for action.

But when she was only a few lines into the first paragraph about the silent auction, the front door to the rectory blew opened. A blast of chilly air swirled in past it.

Mrs. Ramis started at the sound, then spun left in her chair.

Just as the door slammed behind the Reverend Joseph McGinty.

He strode across the room and past the opposite end of her desk on his way into his office.

She turned farther in her chair, following him with her gaze, and smiled. “Morning, Reverend.”

But he held up his left hand like a running back stiff-arming an astute free safety. “Not now, Mrs. Ramis.”

And he flashed past her.

In the next instant, his right shoulder flexed beneath his coat as he turned door knob to his office. Then that door slammed behind him too.

The smile still on her face, Mrs. Ramis shrugged, then turned back around in her chair to face her laptop.

She quietly hummed the tune to “Bringing in the Sheaves” as she redirected her attention to the newsletter. She had to finish at least the current paragraph. This was an important issue.

The Ladies’ Auxiliary Breakfast and Annual Fall Bazaar was a great deal more than the sum of its parts. It was also the focal point of the church membership drive. And this year, the membership drive was even more important than supporting the Ladies’ Auxiliary.

Everyone who attended the breakfast, everyone who bought a baked good, and everyone who bid on the items in the silent auction would be asked their name, email address and telephone number. They would be entered in a special drawing to win an as-yet unspecified prize. And that list would form the basis of the church recruitment roll.

Membership had flagged in recent months. Well, membership growth had flagged. They hadn’t lost members, except the three who had gone on to their heavenly reward. A few of the elders had tied the seeming decline to the good reverend himself. All because growth had been more or less steady at a rate of one new member or two every month before he had accepted the call of the Springer Bible Mission Church.

But really, was it his fault three people had grown old and died? There was simply no excuse for it. Certainly it wasn’t owing to any disrespect or dislike in the community of the reverend himself. Nor was he to blame in any other way for the decline in new membership. He certainly wasn’t off putting. Not with those looks and that voice.

Though she couldn’t say the same about that wife of his.

Oh, she looked fine in that superficially pretty way all young women do. And her voice was pleasant enough, if curt the few times Mrs. Ramis heard it. But Marianne McGinty rode into town on a high horse, it seemed, and thus far she had refused to climb down. If she would only help her poor husband more, probably the church wouldn’t be in this bind.

Marianne McGinty seemed stand-offish, especially for a pastor’s wife. She was in church every Sunday of course, but she most often came in late and took a seat in a back pew. Not up front, as would a more supportive wife.

At first, Mrs. Ramis thought maybe she was remaining at the back so she could more easily take her place alongside her husband near the exit after the service to speak with the members of the congregation on their way out. That was one of the usual roles of a pastor’s wife. But more often than not, when services let out she was nowhere to be seen.

Not that Mrs. Ramis would ever make a point of checking up on the pastor’s wife. That was neither her business nor her proper place. But on more than one occasion, strictly by coincidence as she glanced around from her own seat in the front pew, she had noticed that Marianne McGinty was up and gone long before the final Amen had a chance to echo.

And outside of church, the other ladies seldom even saw her, much less had a chance to speak with her.

Mrs. Weatherby had spotted her once in her front yard, or so she said, tending to flowers. The story was subject to suspicion, of course, because Mrs. Weatherby was getting along in years. Besides, Mrs. Ramis could hardly imagine Marianne McGinty tending to anything other than her own image in a mirror. And Heaven itself knows looks aren’t everything.

In any case, before Mrs. Weatherby had been able to make a u-turn at the end of the block and drive back to the pastor’s house to say hello, Marianne McGinty already had ducked into the house.

Even setting aside Mrs. Weatherby’s age and probable lack of mental acuity, that certainly sounded par for the course for Marianne McGinty. Why, Mrs. Ramis herself had run into the pastor’s wife on one occasion at the local IGA. Being the friendly, outgoing person she was, even aside from the fact she was the church secretary and doubled as the reverend’s personal secretary, she made a point to smile and say hello. Strictly as an act of friendship, of course.

But Marianne McGinty had visibly straightened as if startled. Then she nodded stiffly and muttered “Hello” in response without the faintest hint of a smile before hurriedly—and pointedly—turning away to inspect a bin of Idaho russet potatoes. And anyone with any sense could plainly see those potatoes were fresh and all but perfect. There was nothing to inspect.

No, Marianne McGinty wasn’t friendly at all. Nor supportive of her husband in his role as pastor.

And that was part of the role of any wife—to be supportive. Wasn’t it? Even the bible itself said as much.

Not that Mrs. Ramis always agreed with biblical precepts, especially that bit about men being the heads of everything and the women filling less-important roles. She had a mind of her own, after all.

But she had spent a great deal of time in prayer on the matter and she was comforted to learn that God had His reasons. He had even seen fit to divulge them to her, at least enough to ease her social conscience.

Eventually He led her to understand that gender roles make perfect sense. After all, it was a given that it was the women’s task to blend one generation into the next and ensure the continuation of God’s plan. There was absolutely no arguing that point, and who would want to? Women were the link to the future from the past.

Men were more useful in dealing with the immediate, more utilitarian matters of the present, whether fighting wars or delivering sermons or protecting and safeguarding their women. Which is to say, their future. So again, it all came back to the women.

Likewise, men were tasked with both letting go of the past and not looking too closely at the future. Privately, Mrs. Ramis thought they probably couldn’t handle it, but she didn’t ask about that in her prayers.

And besides, those gender roles seemed perfectly natural to Martha. They were everywhere repeated in nature in the lesser creatures of the earth too, weren’t they?

So women’s lib or no women’s lib, women couldn’t realistically bridge the past to the future and dabble in the bland, day to day matters of the present, could they? Of course not.

But they could be supportive of their men. They could provide comfort and ease of mind. As surely as women bridged one generation to the next, so could they smooth the rough spots their men encountered in their day to day struggles as they dealt with matters of the present.

And that’s where Marianne McGinty fell down. Hard. It all fit together very snugly in God’s plan, but that was a plan Marianne McGinty apparently didn’t know much about. The same plan her husband, the Reverend McGinty, was following as if he were on rails. It was all very sad.

Why, the Reverend McGinty himself was a perfect example of the man fulfilling his role in dealing with the more mundane life things. His task, his immediate life calling and utility role, was to spread the Word of God.

Not that spreading the Word of the Lord was a mundane thing, but compared with ensuring the continuation of the species—well.

And the reverend not only served his role, he did so with aplomb. He was an excellent messenger in both form and deed.

In form, at a strapping six feet three inches and probably around two hundred very trim pounds, he was an impressive man. Not that looks counted for a lot. But his flock was composed of human beings, and human beings are an impressionable lot.

He was trim from his size-eleven feet—they must be at least size eleven—all the way up. He had broad shoulders, practically no hips to speak of and a flat profile from the lower part of his torso all the way down past—well, all the way down.

And the way he walked! His confident, center-of-attention stride forced all eyes to him when he entered a room. And there, those eyes would encounter a feast.

With dark, conservatively cut hair, those Pacific Ocean blue eyes and that chiseled, strong jawline and chin—a chin that even had a little dimple in the center of it—he inspired confidence in everyone around him. And of course it was all topped off with a smile that could easily land him a job doing commercials for dental services.

She stared for a moment at the screen of her laptop. What was she doing again?

Oh yes. The newsletter. This one was important. Second only in importance to the newsletter for next month. That one would announce the Christmas program. But she would get it done. In her long tenure as the church secretary, never once had she missed turning out a newsletter on time.

She sat back in her chair and imagined the pastor’s long strides. How he would look as he came through the double doors at the front of the auditorium to present the keynote address.

The way he walked, with insistent perfection.

The heel of the first shoe that struck the floor would announce his arrival. Then, with that perfect form, he would weave his way through the press of sinners and past the myriad tables to the podium at the front of the room.

But his form was only the appetizer.

And the man really was perfect in form and deed. The pastor. As a pastor, he was perfect in form and deed.

In deed—well, simply put, he would deliver the perfect keynote address. He would say the perfect words in the perfect order to grow their membership.

And how could he fail? His throbbing, smooth, deep baritone carried the Word of the Lord every Sunday with undeniable authority. And with a timbre that—well, as if it were being delivered by the archangel Gabriel himself.

She shifted in her chair.

When the multitude of heathens at the Bazaar heard him speak, most of them probably would sign up for a church membership on the spot. If for no other reason than to guarantee a place in the pews come the following Sunday.

There you have it. The man could as easily be a model, appearance or voice. He would undoubtedly be in high demand even at the top agencies. Yet he was humbled—and with just the right amount of humility—by his calling to spread the word of the Lord. Oh, the Reverend Joe McGinty was a man to be reckoned with. One who commanded the attention of others.

And a man like that should have a more supportive woman at his side.

One who cooked and served his supper.

One who commiserated and strived to allay his problems, not add to them.

One who rubbed his tired size-eleven feet and gladly did whatever else she could to soothe his journey.

But instead, he had Marianne. More’s the pity.

The woman couldn’t even be counted on to support him by so small an inconvenience as arriving a little early for a church service and sitting in the front pew. Even when her own husband was delivering the message! There was no telling how she treated him in private.

Mrs. Ramis sighed as she considered her poor pastor.

His must truly be a heroic struggle, and even more so at home than out in the world. Very sad.

And today, of all days, he obviously had something far out of the ordinary on his mind. Today, with the Ladies’ Auxiliary Breakfast and Annual Fall Bazaar and Membership Drive—she hastily retitled the lead story for the newsletter—a scant two weeks away, he was troubled with some terrible external matters.

But far be it from Mrs. Ramis to poke her nose in where it didn’t belong. She had quite enough to deal with in getting this newsletter out early enough to have a positive effect.

She straightened in her chair and poised her index fingers over the keyboard.

Whatever it was must be an external matter, for everything within the church ran like a well-oiled clockwork with a tightly wound spring. Besides, if it was something to do with the church, he would have talked with her about it.

Wouldn’t he?

Again, she sat back in her chair.

And whatever it was must be terrible because he always had a moment or two to chat on his way into his office. Occasionally she thought he might be a bit taken with her. Even a pastor is only a man first, after all. And he was well aware Mrs. Ramis was a young widow at only 42, which made her only seven years his senior.

Why, often he would stop to say hello even when he could plainly see Mrs. Ramis was busy. Of course, she always allowed the interruption. That was her job as the church secretary and her role as a woman. But this was the first time he’d ever simply flashed past with hardly a nod.

There definitely was something going on. Something external, and very probably something terrible.

And as usual his wife was nowhere to be seen.

Still, she had her duties.

She straightened again in the chair, then reached up to touch her hair.

But when she finished the newsletter, perhaps she would tap on the door and see whether he might want to release part of his burden. It was the least she could do.

A mental image flashed through her mind. She flushed pink and raised the fingertips of her right hand to her mouth. Quietly, she said, “Oh!” She shook her head slightly, then blinked and giggled.

Listening. Listening, of course, was what she meant. Allowing him to release part of his burden through the simple act of listening. That was the least she could do.

But not until she finished the newsletter. First things first.

She leaned forward again and put her fingers on the keyboard.

Now, where was she?

The door to the pastor’s office clicked and swung open. “Uh, Mrs. Ramis, do you have a moment?”

She swiveled around in her chair, her eyebrows arched. She was flush for some reason. “What? Oh, I mean, yes.” She touched her hair. “Yes, of course.” She put the heels of her hands on the seat of her chair and started to rise.

He held up one hand. “No, that’s fine. I just wanted to say, about the door.” He jerked one thumb over his shoulder. “The uh—the wind. It came in through my window and slammed it.” He forced his best smile. “Just wanted you to know nothing’s wrong.”

Her shoulders sagged the tiniest bit. “Oh. All right.” Then she smiled, raised one hand and giggled. “Well, the Lord be praised.”

He canted his head slightly, then nodded. “All right.” He closed the door. Gently.

She turned back to the keyboard.

Definitely something external to the church. And definitely something terrible.

Probably that Marianne McGinty.

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