The Last of the Easter Ham I: Low Sunday
Your favorite Low Sunday splurge is back.
[Back in the days before Substack, I would share this short story annually on Low Sunday (the Sunday after Easter) and the Sundays following. I wrote it some years ago, and I cannot vouch for how well it has aged, but in the spirit of resurrection, I feel an urge to bring Maureen back to life for a new platform, and for all the new readers who have joined the Substack Followship since the last time Maureen made her characteristically dramatic entrance. “The Last of the Easter Ham” is now the first part of an unpublished novella entitled The Spirit Version, which I would love to share with you all some day. I hope you enjoy the Ham.]
Listen to me read:
LOW SUNDAY I
In an unprecedented break with tradition, Maureen decided that the Low Sunday picnic this year would be a catered affair instead of the usual bring-your-own-lunch, on account of the fact that she did not want to be subjected yet again to anyone dangling their moral superiority in her face with their freshly-cut carrots and their environmentally-sound glass containers. I know you don’t eat like that at home, she thought, picturing those holy grazers stuffing their fat faces with cheese puffs and ranch dip and Mountain Dew. A catered lunch would be a much-needed check upon such wanton Pharisaism, so unfitting at any time of year but especially in Eastertide, which is no time for vegetarianism.
It wasn’t just the conspicuous display of raw broccoli and gluten-free rice chips that bugged her; it was the act of presumption they implied. We will not be told what to feed our children, Maureen imagined them thinking, and how wrong they were going to be this year. They were no different than the poor fools who stopped off at Subway on the way to the picnic last year. I mean, how difficult is it really, she thought, to whip up a decent and unpretentious sandwich at home, you lazy jerks? But at last year’s Low Sunday picnic, at least the Subway crowd weren’t doing as the hypocrites did, who loved to stand around with their hummus and bell peppers, so as to be seen by men. Oh, they have received their reward in full, oh yes. Their reward this year was going to be a little taste of preordained cuisine, an opportunity for them to think of something more wholesome and edifying to do than parade around the picnic grounds with their industrial steel water bottles.
This year the first Sunday after Easter fell, unfortunately, on the same day as Earth Day. Maureen feared this might encourage an escalation of these worryingly sanctimonious trends, but decided that the coincidence would be to the spiritual benefit of the crypto-pagans in the parish. She congratulated herself to what she was confident was not a self-indulgent or prideful degree for the foresight with which her planning of the picnic this year took this fact into consideration. We can allow no space for the inordinate exercise of dubious passions, not at a church picnic for Christ’s sake, and certainly no hint of devotion to foreign gods. Earth Day was most definitely one of these, a high holy day for the self-righteous recyclers from the four corners of the globe, and the Low Sunday Lunch would be a subtle and delicious opportunity for the idolaters to repent of their sins.
The Low Sunday lunch was, of course, Maureen’s own creation, and in her mind it would be her enduring contribution to what was left of Christendom—a meager one, to be sure, but Jesus had said to use your talents and not put them in the ground. Or something like that, she thought. Inattention to textual detail was common in her recollection of important biblical passages, which she justified under the equally Jesus-ish principle that the letter kills but the spirit gives life or something. But biblical knowledge was, she admitted, not her particular forte, her own spiritual charism being a command of the picnic so effortless that it could only be regarded as a divine gift. It’s given to some to teach, to others prophecy and so on (the tongues part having always been a bit of an embarrassing overreach on the Apostle’s part), but not just anyone could pull off a potluck. It wasn’t clear to which of St. Paul’s gifts of the Spirit her dexterity with the commission, preparation, and arrangement of covered dishes specifically belonged, but she figured it had something to do with the gift of service. But no matter. These technicalities of interpretation were beyond her ken and interest. What was important was the singular contribution to the Christian communion that was her annual parish lunch.
The choice of Low Sunday was a strategic one, it being the one day of the year in which parishioners were noticeable by their absence, when attendance took a drab downturn from the seersuckered splendor of Easter Sunday the week before. The picnic was originally proposed in St. Eugene’s parish council meetings as an attempt at “outreach,” to provide additional reasons to the spiritually indigent for coming to church on a day when it might seem permissible to stay in bed. By most accounts it had proven a success, and a source of small pride for the parish council, whose numbers for attendance on Low Sunday set diocesan records.
It had been carefully designed as a bring-your-own lunch in keeping with the low-key nature of the day. The one exception was the centerpiece of the affair, by unspoken decree one of Maureen’s lovingly slow-roasted meats. She found the process of repeatedly basting a roast a wholesome reminder of the sacrament of baptism. It recalled the fact that, like roast pork, we all need to be basted with the waters of baptism regularly to keep our faith succulent and juicy. Not re-baptized, mind you. Maureen regarded the picnic as a wholly altruistic act in service of the gospel, despite the murmurs, in some unsavory quarters in the parish, that it was really just an opportunity for the display of Maureen’s own superior piety. Such suspicions, when they arose, were quietly pushed to one side of her mind, where there reigned a serene confidence in the entirely unselfish use of her singular gifts as a hostess.
The former vicar had not failed to notice those gifts, and had recommended that she become a greeter on Sunday mornings, which she was for many years and even still on occasion that someone failed to show up. But in Maureen’s mind, being a greeter was the lowest of the lay ministries, since it required no special knowledge or skill apart from punctuality and an ability to say “good morning” convincingly. The idea of exercising her social gifts in this way was exciting at first, but before long she felt it was a waste of her talents. She sensed a vocation to higher forms of laywomanhood.
When the old vicar retired, the bishop sent the parish an interim priest called Cotton who was retired himself, and should have stayed that way, she thought, but being a priest was not something you ever really retire from, like being a mother or being good at making biscuits. If the Lord had blessed you with the ability to make biscuits or smoke hams then it was meet, right, and your bounden duty so to do. Sometimes, though, it seemed to Maureen like some people didn’t have the ability but God just blessed them with the duty anyway. Like Cotton, whose name reminded Maureen of the sack that he couldn’t preach his way out of. His job was basically to keep the place afloat while they found a permanent replacement, sort of like the way you patch a leaky tire with Fix-a-Flat. It’ll hold you off for a few months, but eventually you’re going to need a new one. Conventional wisdom held that an interim period was never a good time to try out new things, but the problem was often that the scabs they brought in for the time being were not familiar with all the ways things were done in the parishes where they filled in for a while. Cotton, for example, did not know that St Eugene’s did not have a children’s sermon, or enough children at all to warrant giving them a sermon of their own. So when he ambled down to the steps beneath the rood screen and called all the little children of God to gather round, he stood alone in awkward silence, staring out at the befuddled congregation, wearing a red foam clown’s nose in the middle of his face.
Nice try, Maureen said to herself, but all she could think about was maraschino cherries, and therefore whiskey sours. Hollis turned a dumbfounded face to her. At that very moment she conceived of the Low Sunday Lunch. The obvious vacuum in leadership in the parish struck her as an unambiguous invitation to make use of her gifts in a bolder, more ambitious fashion. She took the clown priest as a sign that the hour had come for the humble potluck to be glorified.
Hollis was sold on the idea from the beginning. They often sat together in church now—not right up front with the eager beavers, nor all the way in the back like the recovering Presbyterians did and families with small children should—but more or less in the middle, and not always in the exact same pew. Maureen’s late husband, Harold, passed into glory one Trinity Sunday well before the clown priest, thank God, since the sight of such a being would surely have done him in for good.
Hollis never married. He retired early, and lived with his hunting dog, Bulltown (also retired), and his now-unfashionable ideas about the dignity of the old Prayer Book and the depravity of modern hymnody. His ideas about these things endeared him to Maureen and Harold both, although Harold’s opinions on these and all other matters were not firm and generally left to Maureen, whom Harold regarded as the more gifted one in the opinions department. Hollis and Harold hunted duck together back in the day, and when Hollis held her hand during the offertory hymn one Trinity Sunday, Maureen thought maybe he missed Harold as much as she did.
They had been standing next to each other as the clown priest censed the altar. He had come from one of those folksy churches with folksy guitars and a folksy view of “The Lord’s Supper.” He was unsteady and clearly uncomfortable with the thurible, and as he swung the thing around in dangerously wide circles, Maureen reached out a hand to Hollis as if to stabilize her body. They both imagined the thurible going astray, lit altar candles falling like dominoes and sending the whole place up in flames. A collective sigh of relief was audible as Cotton handed the thurible off to one of the acolytes, who began censing the congregation. He bowed politely, and everyone else did too in response, less out of piety than in gratitude for not being burned alive.
But when Maureen bent from the waist, she let out an ungodly fart that sounded wet and fleshy at first but then turned to a whispery whoosh. As an odious stench rose heavenward, Hollis glared at her to see if she smelled it too, this thing foul and wretched and abominable, like the rotten fumes of some demon from the very crotch of Hell itself squirreling up through the floorboards and entwining itself around Maureen’s swollen ankles. When she squeezed his hand more tightly, his look of reproach turned to one of pity. Closing her eyes, she thanked the Lord who, in his infinite mercy, had the wisdom to bless the church with incense.
But this Low Sunday, Hollis wasn’t holding her hand at the gospel lesson. He was sitting three or four rows back. The deacon came out to read from the book held in front of him by the less handsome of the two acolytes, and the congregation all turned towards the middle of the nave. He was singing the passage about Doubting Thomas poking his finger in the Lord’s side, but Maureen was looking around at the people sitting behind her. It was uncouth to turn around and look behind you at other times, but the gospel reading gave her a chance to canvas the crowd for just who might be attending the picnic. There were fewer people today than last week, but that was the way it was. One or two people she didn’t recognize. She saw Hollis’s face in profile, facing the deacon. The Subway crowd and the hypocrites were in the back row where they belonged, so that no one would have to be distracted from worship by their kids squirming around and chattering for snacks or crayons. She began to tense up at the thought of making the announcement after the peace about the catered nature of the lunch this year. Surely Father will remember to say something, she thought.
The boy clapped the book shut and the ministers walked back up towards the altar. Maureen remained facing sideways, and caught Hollis’s eye as he turned forward again. He gave her a half-smile and looked down into his bulletin.
She didn’t pay much attention to the sermon. It was all about the physicality of the resurrection, the “embodiedness” of it or something, but there was too much talk about touching for her to be really edified by any of it. Fortunately Father—only Maureen referred to him as simply “Father”—did remember to make a brief announcement about the picnic, sparing Maureen the indignity of calling attention to herself. She had forgotten about the announcement anyway. She was thinking about lunch.
The mechanics of a church picnic were highly complicated, a fact that Maureen knew well, perhaps better than anyone else she could think of. Logistics required her to leave immediately after the dismissal, it being highly inappropriate in her view to exit the service before that point. She had always made a point of glaring at the ladies who left right after communion in order to make their lunch dates at the country club, but it did not seem to have the desired effect. To ready a church picnic, she had to make it to the park in time to meet the catering van and show them where everything went, assemble the chafing dishes, light the Sternos, lay out the linens and flatware. For the linens she had solicited the help of one of the ladies from the Altar Guild. Gladys possessed an uncommon and exquisite knowledge of and dexterity with the handling of woven objects. Maureen had always admired her ability to manage creases in linens so sharp that you could cut cold lard with them. Gladys had slipped out of the church shortly after the peace, but Maureen was willing to overlook this in deference to Gladys’ linen expertise, which she couldn’t do without. Besides, at least Gladys had been discreet about it.
There is a fine line between being tastefully refined and tacky, she thought to herself. She had especially in mind the miserable offenders from two years ago, whose contribution to the lunch was a gallon Ziploc bag full of chopped iceberg lettuce. “Lord have mercy,” she said then, “it’s a small thing.” But, for Maureen, attention to small things promised the only hope of resistance against the encroaching decadence of the age. The Low Sunday lunch itself had not proven any more impervious to that decay than anything else, and a catered lunch would leave less room for unwelcome surprises. But concessions had to be made to human frailty, and Maureen was proudly neither a fundamentalist nor a latitudinarian: she was quite willing to grant that Tupperware was fine as far as it went, but that was only as far as the kitchen. It had no place in the serving-room or, God forbid, on the dinner table. That people were now openly eating out of it she could not help but regard as the work of the Devil.
The tables all set, Maureen smoothed the front of her dress as members of the congregation began to trickle in just before noon-thirty. Maureen felt a slight tickle in her bowels as the first of them—Mary and Ansley Heard—emerged from their automobile. The latter, a 1966 Mercedes Benz 220 bought new off the lot, was one example of the way the Heards were always terribly fashionable about everything—everything but their customary arrival time at social functions. They had an unfailing habit of arriving two minutes before the advertised starting time of every event they ever attended. Maureen had always tried to attribute this to Ansley’s bum leg rather than something sneakier, like a desire to get to the deviled eggs before anyone else. Even with a two-minute head start it still typically took Ansley as much time to get to the deviled eggs as the younger and more sprightly folk who arrived on time. But it was annoying nonetheless, a fact which Maureen concealed behind the breadth of her open arms and an almost empathetic smile.
“So good to see you, Mary. You look fabulous.” She gently kissed the air just next to Mary’s cheek, and as if she were talking to a puppy, said to Ansley over Mary’s shoulder, “Anze.”
Ansley doffed his straw fedora and ambled up to his hostess, “Ah ah ah Maureen, so wonderful of you to put this on, ah ah ah ah.” Ansley wore a perpetual grin on his unnaturally youthful face and had an endearing tendency to sound like his face looked, radiant and exuberant about even the most trifling of details. His speech was frequently punctuated with a series of sharp, laugh-like ejaculations.
“Mary and I ah ah ah,” he said as though he wanted those just arriving yards away to hear, “went to a LIT-uh-ay festival at the BO-tanicuh GAWH-dens yestuhday!” He had little use for the letter ‘r’, which made its presence audible only when absolutely necessary. Maureen herself found this a charming epitome of dignified speech that her people shared with English royalty. If only the young people still spoke like Ansley, she thought, maybe they wouldn’t be eating out of Tupperware.
As the rest of the congregation arrived, she was invigorated by the effusion of praise for the location of the lunch this year, despite the fact that it was exactly the same place as last year. Maureen’s unchallenged status as queen of the church picnic appeared to remain intact, if not spiked somewhat by the first reports back from the bar, where Maureen had contributed her one homemade concoction to the affair: her trademark Bloody Marys, prepared the night before. This step was not only a practicality—few of Maureen’s personal touches were simply pragmatic, without some additional justification that verged on the mythological—but gave the mixture time to steep. Her horseradish was, as a rule, always fresh and hand-grated, an act of circumspection that not only communicated to the cocktail a superior robustness over the jarred variety but which, she hoped, would inspire similar acts of devout and patient attention in its consumers—a virtue foreign to an age in which the Devil preyed upon the lazy through conveniences like pre-made Bloody Mary mix. It was a few short steps from there to more insidious forms of moral depravity, she was convinced, but this was the way the Deceiver operated.
Like a marine sergeant inspecting her charge, Gladys encircled the dinner table, hands clasped behind her back. A white linen cloth, worn to translucence from years of dedicated use, followed her like a bridal train. At home she had whole stacks of these deconsecrated altar linens, which she procured from an anonymous source. And while Maureen found the prospect of a black market for used liturgical goods distastefully utilitarian, it was for this singular devotion to her craft that Maureen had conscripted Gladys in the first place. Gladys was rarely to be found without one of these linens in her purse or in her hand. To her, this accessory was as vital to her daily comportment as a pair of clean undergarments had been to Maureen’s mother. Neither of these women allowed themselves to leave the house without their respective linens, lest they wound up dead. To Gladys this habit was a merely personal affectation, but to Maureen it represented an admirable improvement upon her own mother’s inordinate concern for bodily hygiene: what mattered was the state of one’s soul, not the state of one’s underpants, and she even entertained the idea of her corpse being discovered in a ditch somewhere, her cold hand clutching a Eucharistic purificator. That’s the way to go, she thought.
One of the larger ladies from the choir came up to Maureen and gently squeezed her forearm. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
Maureen looked at her oddly. “Sorry for what, my dear?” she asked.
The choir lady froze like a squirrel darting in front of a car, unsure whether to go forward or turn back.
My God, she thought. She doesn’t know.