Chapter 17 – The Value of a Good Wife
One week after Lily Cloudee battled for Billy Greeter’s reputation on her exhausting round of visits, Willina Hipp was busy with her seminary duties. Today was the last session of her most important seminary work: “Strong Women,” the required course for all seminary wives. For this purpose, Mrs. Hipp had co-opted the use of the seminary president’s office with its adjacent meeting room and sixteen-foot long conference table. Twenty-one wives of graduating seniors dragged themselves wearily from the meeting room doors, thankful to be done with the arduous task of learning the lessons Mrs. Hipp assigned. They’d mastered setting a formal dinner for the church session and its wives. They’d twisted and fluffed linen napkins into half a dozen elegant shapes, polished silver and nervously handled the seminary stemware. They knew their Mikasa from their Villeroy-and-Boch. Every woman among them could sew a neat hem, thread a Singer sewing machine, paint French nails, make perfect strawberry jam, give herself a perm, carry on endless light conversation, drive a fifteen-passenger van, and run a household of seven on a shoestring budget. According to Mrs. Hipp, they were prepared for ministry.
The wives were happy to be done, and wobbled back to their apartments, babies, and sinks of dirty Tupperware.
While Mrs. Hipp and Miss Jones anticipated the effect of their missive to the Mt. Moriah session, which they thought had traveled speedily via the postal service, Athena Shepherd was whispering quietly to her husband of Billy’s plight. She’d waited until after his Sunday preaching to tell him.
Sam looked angrily at his wife.
“Who’s spreading such despicable stuff?” he demanded.
“I don’t know! She didn’t say,” Athena replied. Her eyes were wet. “But I imagine it’s Aunt Hipp. This is right up her line.”
“But why?” Sam paced around their bedroom. “What does she have against Billy?”
Athena sighed. “She doesn’t have to have anything against him, Sam. She’s just this way! When she spots a sin in somebody, she jumps on it.”
“But --” Sam began. “But, it’s not even somebody in the enemy camp!” He looked beseechingly at her. “You know what I mean.”
Athena ran her hands over her face. “I think she’s worse when it’s somebody on her own side. She feels compelled to purge the evil from her own camp, or something.”
“Well, she’s not using the church session for her ends, I’ll say that!” Sam nearly shouted.
“Shh, Sam!” She stood, and put her hands on his shoulders. “Don’t do anything foolish. You’re right that she shouldn’t be influencing the session. And you can prevent that. But carefully, dear.” She looked into his eyes. “Carefully. If she thinks you’re covering something up, she’ll be after you too.”
“She doesn’t have as much recourse as she used to,” Sam replied. “With the new denominational situation, she doesn’t have all the strings to pull on committees. She doesn’t even know these men from SNACK.”
“She knows Dr. Cloudee.”
Sam laughed. “They’re arch enemies, Athena! He’d never help her.” He paced the room again, shaking his head. “No, I’ll talk with Billy, and then with the session, and assure them of his innocence in this matter.”
“That means Dr. Greeter will have to know.”
“Billy’s gonna have to deal with his dad, in the end,” he said, and his jaw clenched. “He should have done that a month ago.” He turned again to his wife, and held her hands. “That’s the best I can do.” He smiled. “You and Uncle Horace will have to manage Hippy between you.”
Athena sighed. “Easier said than done.”
Lily Cloudee placed the final baby blanket on her neat pile of folded wares. Fourteen blankets, all pieced and trimmed! Each one had a tiny corner tag telling both baby and mother that she had made the blanket, and wishing God’s blessings on the little one. Each one was a work of love. As Lily smoothed their folds and smiled, she hummed “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb.”
The side door slammed. James was twenty minutes late. She could tell by his labored breathing and heavy step that it had been a bad afternoon.
“It’s either Deacon Helph’s colon, Hilda’s vacation plans, or that darned committee!” she thought.
James Cloudee collapsed into his leather armchair. “Ahhhh!” he exhaled loudly. “Those men will be the death of me!”
“The committee it is!” Lily thought.
“Coffee, James?” she paused. “Or is this a night for a glass of wine?”
“Lily! I’m not an Episcopalian yet!” He slumped further in his chair and kicked off his shoes. “What a day! I tell you, sometimes I wish I didn’t live in Greenfield.”
“Well? Honestly, the rummage sale is this Saturday. Graduation is the following week. And I have the Committee on Institutional Institutions coming to tour the campuses with a prospective buyer – “
“Yes! And a group from the SNARKS coming with some of their men, trying to lure me into recommending one of them for the president’s spot.”
“I wish it would all go away. Why am I the one left to choose a candidate?” He stood creakily and leaned on the wing of the chair. “But Lily, they’ll sell the campuses outright if we don’t come up with a solution. They will!”
Lily had learned from many years of such conversations that it is often best to listen and refrain from speaking, even when one’s name is invoked as hers had been. Usually she turned her eyes quietly down to her sewing, but all the blankets were finished. Instead she reached to retrieve the decaf coffee from the cabinet and hummed very quietly, “I Am Not Skilled To Understand.”
Her husband perched himself on a counter stool and began to fiddle with the condiment jars. “I think,” he began, “I think I must begin to work more aggressively on Ernest Greeter to accept the post.”
“Hmmm,” Lily replied.
“Of the options, he is clearly the best. At least then this business would be over.” And he tipped the salt over and scattered a little pile of miniature snow on the countertop.
“Hmmm,” Lily consoled.
“Yes, I think it must be Greeter,” he finished.
“Hmmm,” Lily mused, knowing that he did not want her opinion on the matter.
“I’ll see him tomorrow,” James said, and sighed deeply.
“Coffee, dear?” she inquired.