In northeastern Pennsylvania, there are many charming churches representing various stripes of Protestantism. Personally, we don’t care for any organized religion, but in the past few decades my wife and I have willingly entered a number of these churches and joined in social gatherings with the congregants.
Why? Because they’ve lured us in.
At almost any time of the year, a rural drive in NEPA will take you past at least one church signboard announcing a ham dinner, a roast beef dinner, a pancake breakfast or something similar. This in itself is a pleasant break from the smug warnings about hell that the signboards usually carry.
The meals cost about $6 a person, and they provide a chance to meet the locals. I recall a dinner during which a farmer described how one of his cows got her head stuck in the fork of a double-trunked tree, and what he, his sons and a neighbor had to do to extricate her.
So one autumn back near the turn of the millenium, we were on a rambling, late afternoon drive when we came upon a nearly full church parking lot. The sidedoor of the church was open and we could see that a lively dinner was in full swing. It had been a while since we’d last gone to one, so we pulled in.
It was really crowded. The folding tables on either side of the open door were still decked out with the anticipated fare — thick slabs of smoked ham, punchbowl-sized heaps of mashed potatoes, green beans, steaming carrots. A nice lady behind one of the tables assured us that we were not too late.
The church interior was full of more folding tables, set in parallel rows, with people sitting on both sides, talking and eating. This meant facing and sitting next to strangers, which is part of the fun. As we looked for two available seats, people from near the center of it all were standing up, moving a couple of folding chairs and then motioning and calling to us: “Here! Two seats here!”
In a few moments, Sandy and I were in the thick of this intense, festive event. We put our jackets on our chairbacks, went and got some food and came back.
Most of our tablemates were related to each other. The man next to me was an insurance salesman, his brother and his sister-in-law were opposite us, their cousins from Virginia next to them. Conversation began to envelop us, but I was a little distracted. I pointed to our plates, and said to Mr. Insurance Man:
“We haven’t paid for our dinners yet.”
He looked uncomfortable. “Oh, you don’t have to pay for them,” he said.
Now I felt uncomfortable. I protested, “Sure we do. Every other time we’ve attended a church dinner, we’ve paid. You pay a few dollars and get a ticket, and then you hand over that ticket when you fill your plate.”
“But this isn’t a church dinner…” he replied gently.
“No? What is it?”
“It’s Uncle Milt’s funeral.”
Now if this were a simple joke, it would end there. That was certainly the punch line. I knew that immediately, since I felt as if I’d been punched in the solar plexus.
But it wasn’t a joke. It was a real situation, and we were in it. In terms of the passage of time, we were far from out of it, in fact. But knowing that the critical point has been reached, I’ll fast-forward through the denouement of the evening, like shuffling quickly through a boring slide lecture. Among the slides you must now imagine passing quickly before your eyes are these:
- Sandy’s heaping plate of food, which she was now too mortified, even miltified, to eat
- me eating Sandy’s food, after having eaten my own
- Milt’s widow, embracing each of us and thanking us for coming
- Mr. Insurance’s brother saying, “The Uninvited Guests! Milt would have loved it! He loved meeting new people!”
- Sandy taking my arm when we did leave, and murmuring through a smile as stiff as a ventriloquist’s, “We go to the parking lot, we get into our car and you drive as fast as hell away from here. I don’t care in which direction.”