I meant well when I invited Melanie to our church’s Ladies’ Social Group. She and her husband Paul had moved in next door to us. He sold insurance which involved lots of travel. She worked online from home. Small-town rural life was alien to her, as she confided to me over the fence one day, and she was lonely.
“It’s not that people are unfriendly,” she said to me when I invited her for coffee. “It’s just that the conversations feel like an interrogation. How long have we been married? Do we have children? Did we find a church yet? The answers, in order, are two years, no and that’s a weird question.”
“Remember, you're in the Bible Belt now. They mean well. New folks are a subject of curiosity, especially if they come from the big city, like you. Many people have never traveled far,” I said, laughing. “The churches are about all we have for social life around here. I think a lot of people go out of habit as much as out of religious conviction. Joe and I go to the Methodist Church. Their sermons aren’t too long, they have a female pastor and they’re pretty laid back. You’d be welcome to come one Sunday with us. I promise no one will try to save you. No bible-thumping or snake handling involved. The Pentecostals might be a little too much for a beginner.”
“I’m the first to tell you I’ve never been a churchgoer. I’m not sure I even have anything to wear,” Melanie said. “However, I’m desperate enough to give it a try, if you don’t mind. Paul’s getting worried that I’m going to start talking to the plants soon if I don’t meet more people.”
The following Sunday she came with me to church. Heads did not exactly swivel as we entered, but thankfully Mel, as she had asked me to call her, seemed oblivious to the sidelong glances at her embroidered peasant dress and long earrings. At almost six feet, she loomed head and shoulders over most of the congregation like a very tall exotic bird. When we stood to sing the hymns, she sang well and her voice rang out clearly over our usual quavering. Unable to carry a tune in a bucket myself, I stuck to my normal lip-syncing.
Afterwards, we headed for the church hall where the Ladies' Social Group was meeting. There were six or seven ladies, with an average age of around seventy. They looked at Mel with expectant curiosity. I made introductions as people got settled with their Styrofoam coffee cups and cookies.
“So nice to meet you, dear,” said little Ms. Peterkin. “Welcome to our little town. I hope you and your husband will be very happy here. Do you have children? We have a wonderful children’s program here.”
Mel looked pointedly at me and smiled politely. I gazed at the floor to avoid meeting her eye, trying not to laugh.
“No children yet,” she said. “Not that we aren’t having fun trying.”
“Oh,” said Ms. Peterkin, looking flustered. Old Mrs. Holly snickered, then studiously looked away.
Mrs. Butterworth, the unofficial matriarch of the group, cleared her throat.
“I don’t believe you’re from around here, are you?” she said. “I’d know your people if you were. Not that I boast about it, but my family has been here for five generations. Who are your family?”
“Wow, five generations! That’s amazing,” Mel said. “My mother and stepfather are in Chicago. She’s been married five times. but that includes twice to my father. Does that count as one marriage or two? My father is in California with his third wife. I suppose she’s my stepmom, but she’s younger than me, so that felt awkward. I just call her Maggie and she’s okay with that. I like her a lot, but I’m afraid she might be getting tired of my father. He is getting cranky in his old age. I have one full brother, two half brothers and a half sister. That makes them sound like fractions, so I just call the halves my brothers and sister. My little sister, Maggie’s daughter is only five. It takes so much time to keep track of all of that that I don’t have time to worry about past generations. That might be TMI, but you did ask.”
The ladies looked confused.
“I’m sorry,” said Mel. “TMI stands for too much information.”
She smiled demurely and sipped her coffee. The others looked slightly stunned.
“Yes, well,” Mrs. Butterworth said, “Not to change the subject, but let’s discuss the upcoming bake sale.”
Mel perked up.
“A bake sale. Awesome! I can bake, if I do say so myself. What would you like me to make?”
There was an awkward pause as Mrs. Butterworth drew herself up. I hurriedly interjected.
“Mrs. Butterworth usually organizes the event. She allocates the tasks to the volunteers and decides what we’re going to make.”
“If you call it volunteering,” Mrs. Holly muttered. “More like being dragooned.”
“What was that?” said Mrs. Butterworth.
“Nothing,” said Mrs. Holly. A couple of the others hid smiles.
“Brownies are my forte,” said Mel. “I do a mean raisin rum cake as well.”
Mrs. Butterworth glared at Mel.
“Alcohol is the root of many an evil and would be most inappropriate for a church bake sale. My goodness, how the time has flown,” she said icily. “I will issue the lists next Sunday.”
She gathered her coat and purse and swept majestically out of the room.
“What did I say?” said Mel, looking bewildered.
“We don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but we have to be sure the baking is of the highest quality. Millie, I mean Mrs. Butterworth, has very exacting standards,” said Ms. Peterkin. “Our bake sale is a famous event locally.”
Mel flushed and bit her lip. She took a deep breath and smiled.
“I will bring some samples next Sunday and then you can decide if I may contribute,” she said.
“That sounds very reasonable,” said Mrs. Holly. “Thank you, dear.”
I approached Mel nervously on the way home.
“I’m sorry about that,” I said. “I’m so used to them that I forget how catty they can be. Please don’t take offense.”
“Mrs. Butterworth is quite the dragon lady,” she said. “She certainly does rule the roost.”
I shrugged helplessly.
“Her family is very well established here, and her husband is the mayor. Not many people dare cross her. She’s run the bake sale forever.”
“I like a challenge,” Mel said. “Next Sunday it is. By the way, my mother and father will have been married to each other for forty years next month and live in Springfield, Illinois. I have one brother.”
She winked and hurried off.
Next Sunday, Mel showed up in a shimmering caftan and waist long chain of chunky beads, ignoring the whispers and glances as she took a seat in her pew. Her voice rang out tunefully again. After the service, she proudly presented a beautiful tray of baked goods at coffee hour. There were brownies, macaroons, shortbread, muffins, and rich moist slices of raisin rum cake. There was almost a scrum around the coffee table. Mrs. Butterworth had a hard time assembling the ladies for the bake sale planning. She then had a hard time getting them to focus on her agenda as they were complimenting Mel on her baking prowess. She finally resorted to banging a spoon on the table, glaring at Ms. Peterkin and Mrs. Holly who were eagerly asking Mel for her recipes. When she had their attention, she adjusted her glasses and held out a sheet of paper as if she was about to read a proclamation.
“Ladies, here are the assignments. Mrs. Holly, will you please do your fruit scones? Ms. Peterkin, your coconut cake always sells really well.” She droned on through the list, then took off her glasses and folded up the paper. She turned to Mel who was looking at her expectantly.
“I am so sorry that your talents will not be required this time, Melanie. As you can see, we have quite a list of items, all proven best sellers. Now is not the time to venture into anything more exotic. I will make my famous fruit cake as usual.”
I felt a surge of anger. The others’ reactions ranged from disappointed to disbelieving.
“Her famous fruit cake indeed,” whispered Mrs. Holly to me. “It gets used as a doorstop if you ask me.”
Mel regarded them calmly.
“I do believe we live in a democracy, not a dictatorship,” she said to Mrs. Butterworth. “I think we should have a secret ballot to select the recipes.”
There was a murmuring of assent around the room.
“That’s a really good idea,” said Mrs. Holly. Ms. Peterkin nodded enthusiastically. Mrs. Butterworth pursed her lips.
“However, as the newcomer, I should not presume to tell you what to do,” Mel continued. “Just let me know what you decide.”
She picked up the tray of goodies and headed for the door, where she turned and looked back at Mrs. Butterworth.
“Millie, if I may,” she said. “I saw you in the liquor shop in town when I went to buy the rum for my cake, but you hurried out before I could greet you. Knowing how you feel about alcohol, I thought you must have been purchasing something for medicinal reasons. I do hope you are feeling better. Bye, ladies.”
She gave a little wave and smiled angelically as she left the room. Mrs. Butterworth was speechless for once. I managed to suppress my laughter until I caught up with her in the parking lot where we both guffawed hysterically.
“Thank you for inviting me,” Mel said, when she finally caught her breath. “This has been unexpected fun. Such a shame it can’t last but Paul is being transferred to New York. You’ll have to tell me how the bake sale goes.”
I hugged her.
“I will,” I said. “Give me your recipes. You never know how this secret ballot is going to turn out and I’d better be prepared!”