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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Remembering Ruth


My friend, Bob Renewick, took these pictures of the Pillsbury Memorial Window in the Lady Chapel of The Episcopal Cathedral of St. Luke in Portland, Maine. Bob sang in the choir for my diaconal ordination there and continues to be a member of that impressive chorus.

If you look closely at the Lilies of the Field, her favorite gospel story, you’ll see two of her favorite things: an olive from her favorite libation: a martini and . . . .

. . . . .a tobacco leaf from her other favorite: cigarettes.

Ruth Pillsbury was ‘Directress” of the Altar Guild, some say, since before Christ wore sandals. I don’t know this to be true but the mythology I remember was that she had a military background. She certainly ran the Altar Guild like a drill sergeant.

All corporals and purificators were to be washed using a specific laundry detergent (Octagon Powder, as I recall) which she measured out in the precise amount she considered sufficient to accomplish the task and distributed to new members of the Altar Guild at the beginning of the month in paper bags, the top folded in two crisp folds and stapled, lest their be any accidental mess. You considered yourself off probation when you no longer got a bag of Ms. Pillsbury’s ‘soap powder’.

She expected the corporal and purificators to be washed, starched, folded and ironed with the same precision. If not, she had absolutely no problem returning them to you to be redone. She never spoke a word. She would simply inspect them silently and hand them back to you. You understood immediately.

She hated waste in any form and was especially distressed if the clergy had consecrated too much wine for communion at the Eucharist, insisting that we consume any leftovers in the sacristy after mass as part of our duties.

One day, in a bit of a flummox because I was doing double-duty – chalice bearer and altar guild – the sleeve of my alb caught the rim of one of the beautiful, large, ornate silver chalices, spilling the consecrated wine all over me. I gasped as the wine soaked through my white alb, through my clothes and even onto my skin. A heavy silence filled the room. Miss Pillsbury pulled herself around to look at me, growling in complete horror, “That’s the consecrated blood of our Lord!”

Everyone seemed frozen in place. Even the two young acolytes, two tow-headed boys who normally stood together with goofy smiles like Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee were turned into pillars of salt. One gasped and the other said under his breath, “Uh-oh!” Even the Dean, John Beaven, a man for whom the word ‘affable’ was surely created, stood silent and pale, silently wishing himself to dissolve into the corner he had pressed himself.

I was instantly reduced to tears – not an easy task, then or now. Miss. Pillsbury, who had put her hands on the counter, her head bowed as if in silent prayer, now turned her head slightly sideways to look at my tear-stained face. My voice cracked as I sobbed, “What am I to do, now, Miss Pillsbury?” It was more a plea than a question.

Then, a miracle. If I hadn’t seen it myself, I might not have believed it, but it was there, on the stony face of Miss Pillsbury, just as surely as there was the stain of consecrated wine on my alb. It was a hint, a glimmer, a mere shadow of a smile that slowly crossed her face, ever so slightly lifting the corners of her mouth and brightening her eyes.

She looked away again and then back at me, sideways, cleared her throat and then said, “I suppose we’ll have to burn you.”

The Dean began to giggle, which signaled Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee to guffaw. I felt my initial confusion melt into relief and managed to smile through my tears. That would be enough of that. Miss Pillsbury cleared her throat again, and we all snapped back into work-mode, smiling secretly behind her back. Now and again, someone would walk by and poke my back or put their hand on my shoulder in a silent gesture of sympathy.

The story went forth and it was said that this was the one and only time Miss Pillsbury actually smiled while ‘on duty’ in the sacristy.

You know, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

I suspect she has a new title now. She is Directress of the Heavenly Banquet, where her martini glass is never empty, there is no short supply of olives or cigarettes, and everything is done to absolute perfection.

Yes, of this there is no doubt: Miss Pillsbury is in heaven.

2 comments:

fr craig said...

E - what a marvelous tale! Brought tears (laughter and warmth) to my eyes. I've never done worse than badly slop the chalice onto the fair linen - that alone was enough to stop my heat. But, the beloveds were most patient with me, God bless them. Someday I want to do a book that compiles 'liturgical disasters.' Small market for it, but think of the laughs we clergy would have! And, we have the same view of that forthcoming banquet!!

ozziet said...

enestI have always doubted that I would be allowed into heaven,knowing my inner soul as I do so well, but the prospect of eternity without meeting Ruth Douglas Pillsbury might be what it takes to get me to straighten up and fly right, as the words to an old swing tune say. Thanks for a wonderful story about a personal heroine of mine!