Proverbs

by Ellen J. Perry

“You know it sure is hard to leave here, but it’s really not my home.”
                                                                – Joni Mitchell, “Carey” (1971)

I am a wife, mother of two, and the faithful pianist at our church. For nearly thirty years I’ve gone just about every Wednesday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday night to play my heart out for the Lord and rebuke the Devil. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Sometimes I’m at church even more, like during practice for Easter and Christmas services. To put it plain, the choir depends on me. “Where’s Peggy?” they ask if I’m doing something else, like helping the Communion staff pour grape juice in little cups. “We can’t start without Peggy,” they say. What an honor to serve in this way. Plus, it’s like second nature now. The preacher only has to give me a slight nod at 11:55 and I know it’s invitation hymn time. Slowly, slowly, the poor sinners walk up to the altar; slowly I play, and quickly they repent. Oh, they dismiss the Devil right quick—praise God!—before he can dig those claws in too deep.

“The wise woman builds her house,” the Bible says, “but the foolish woman tears it down with her own hands.” My Sunday school class is called The Wise Women, and it’s mostly us fifty-somethings, at the tail end of child-rearing, on the brink of something new. In an empty nest there will be challenges, our teacher says, and The Wise Women are up to the task. Grandchildren will come, and young mothers need Godly mentors. Church enrollment is dwindling, so we can rally the troops for Pack the Pew week. The book of Proverbs tells all about it, tells what good women are and what they do, in every stage of life.

My daughter Beth is twenty-five years old and refuses to read the Bible, even Proverbs. Instead, she went to college where she got way off track, works in an office, listens to Joni Mitchell, argues with her daddy about politics, and shows me how to look things up on the computer. Today I found a website the preacher told us about and a little box popped up while I was reading. It said, “We’d like to send you notifications to encourage your relationship with God.” The choices were “ALLOW” and “NO THANKS.” I thought hard about these options. Then I remembered one of the Joni songs that Beth played when I helped hang pictures at her apartment, the one where she thinks about going to Amsterdam or Rome, renting a grand piano and putting out flowers. Beth said, “Mama, don’t you want to travel?” I said, “I may as well go to the moon as those places. It’d be like going to the moon.” Beth said, “A Matala moon, maybe.” That’s a line in the song and I wonder where in the world Matala is. “Forget Proverbs,” Beth also told me, pointing to the Bible I’d brought over hoping she’d read some in it. “Joni knows everything.”

“Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she smiles at the future.” I need to be reminded of this because lately I’ve not smiled at all. I hate to admit I’ve been angry, thinking about what’s to come. More of the same is the future, more piano playing not in a faraway land but in the small Southern town where I grew up; more of the same until I’m “more precious than jewels,” finally, in the eyes of God, the preacher, and my husband, Eddie. Someday I’ll be that prized, if I can just keep going. Surely they’ll appreciate the sacrifices I’ve made for my family and the church. Maybe even our son will start to call more often just to talk instead of asking for money. “Her lamp does not go out at night.”

I hate Eddie and I despise the preacher. These days I even hate God for not helping us, being so far away he may as well live on the moon. We pray and pray and whatever happens we have to say, “It’s God’s will,” but up in the sky he doesn’t seem to notice one way or the other. Hazel’s son died of leukemia even after we prayed without ceasing, and Wanda’s granddaughter drowned in a kiddie pool. God was on the moon and missed it all, or else he saw it and doesn’t care.

“She is boisterous and rebellious,” one Proverb says. “Her feet do not remain at home.”

Some nights I slip out while Eddie is asleep snoring and walk the moonlit path from home to the church cemetery, where I think about what will happen when I’m dead and free from all this. If Eddie is still alive I’ll haunt him, for one thing. He’ll hear a big ghostly laugh when he’s trying to fix supper by himself and it will be me. I’ll pull the sheets off him at night so he’s cold and lonely, like I’ve been for so long. I’ll torment him with noise and clattering cutlery and no telling what else I’ll think up to do, with the Devil’s help. Then I’ll float on over to the parsonage and every one of the deacons’ houses and do the same thing. As a grand finale I’ll scare that baby-faced youth pastor so bad he’ll wet the bed.

“She girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong.”

I want to keep living. I want to go to Amsterdam and Rome and the moon, so this dying and haunting isn’t a good idea. Instead, I’ll kill Eddie. I’ll gird myself with strength and he’ll never know what hit him. I could do it at night. Instead of a puff of ghoulish smoke laughing and pulling off sheets, I’ll be a real live human woman with a firm grip on my son’s old baseball bat. I’ll smash the holy smirk off Eddie’s face and watch what little brains he has spatter on the headboard. “An excellent wife is the crown of her husband.” The Bright Red Devil will help me do it and then my feet will leave home to see what else is out there. NO THANKS, God. I won’t ALLOW any more of this.

Turns out Beth was right: Joni knows everything. You’re a mean old daddy, Devil, but you’re outta sight.

Of course, I will do none of these things. I will pull myself together like I’ve done for thirty years, ask God to forgive me for having such horrible thoughts, and pray without ceasing that I’ll find the strength to keep moving forward. Reading Proverbs every day will help. I’ll play the piano with extra gusto at church to make up for my failings, and no one there will ever know that God is really living it up with hippies beneath a Matala moon, wherever in the world that is.

Ellen J. Perry is a native of Western North Carolina whose academic interests include 17th- and 18th-century British life and literature, Restoration drama, and Southern culture. She has taught Literature and Humanities at the college level for twenty-two years. Ellen enjoys traveling, reading, and playing with her stylish cat, Mlle. Coco Chanel.

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