The Changing of the Guard

Have you ever seen the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace? Not just on TV, but actually witnessed it? It’s amazing and beautiful, a majestic combination of pageantry and precision. Every soldier knows his or her part, they have drilled for this innumerable times and there is no guess-work. It is, to the viewing public, perfect, every single time.

Perfection, every time.
Perfection, every time.

If only human relationships were so well-rehearsed. For all our anticipation, expectation, or preparation, it can be hard to recognize the changing of the guard when it happens in one’s own life.

Mr. Peabody, his boy, Sherman, and the Wayback Machine.
Mr. Peabody, his boy, Sherman, and the Wayback Machine.

Setting my personal Way-Back Machine way, way back to the late 1980s, I see my late mother-in-law, Betty, sitting in my old kitchen, smoking a cigarette and looking a little lost. It is Thanksgiving Day and I am at the stove, all burners blazing.  I had assumed the family Thanksgiving dinner the year before and my sister-in-law, Lynda, had claimed Christmas. For the first time in perhaps 30 years, Betty was not the hostess of the family gathering, and never again would be. I could see it all over her: with the best possible intentions we had gracelessly taken from her that which made her feel useful and alive and motherly.

“Hey Mom, would you mind doing the gravy? Mine is never as good as yours, and I need to do this thing… over here…  .” It was only a tiny lie and next day I would end up scrubbing out a half-pint of gravy she slopped into the stove, but making it seemed to give her a boost, make her feel useful. And she was a terrific cook, who knew her way around gravy.

Two and a half decades later, I am wearing Mardi Gras beads and a Venetian mask while frying pancakes at St. Christopher’s Fat Tuesday Pancake Supper, pouring tidy, uniform circles of batter from a giant measuring cup onto an electric griddle. “Here’s a spoon to use for that,” says sweet, tiny Jenny, proffering a large kitchen spoon. “That’s okay,” I answer her, “I’m good.”

Moments later, as I’m pouring the next round of pancakes neatly on the griddle, “You might want to use a spoon for that.”

“No really, I’m okay.”

“Here’s a spoon, dear,” more insistently and just as I feel annoyance raising its head – I’ve fried a pancake or seven thousand in my time – I turn to Jenny, lovely, silver-gilt, bright-eyed Jenny, a pillar of the parish and always, always sweet to me, and I realize this has not one tiny thing to do with pancakes or sloppage and certainly not me or her assessment of my mad, pancake-frying skills. So I smile, say “thank you!” and take the spoon, which use results in far more little raindrop splatters of batter, but makes Jenny happy. She’s helped this new person in the kitchen, this usurper of the griddle.

While helping with a funeral reception at my new parish, St. Simon & St. Jude, the kitchen conversation turned to “Church Ladies,” those stalwart women almost always found in the parish kitchen, plating deviled eggs and finger sandwiches for receptions and events. Everyone wondered aloud how we had become them? When did that happen, exactly? A collective, rueful laugh went through the room, acknowledging that most of us are women of “a certain age.”

Time marches on; the guard will again change and other folks will be in the parish kitchen, preparing egg-salad sandwiches or Fat Tuesday pancakes, and I will be offering spoons and suggestions based on my experience and a need to feel useful. Will I be kind about it, like Betty and Jenny? Will I be as graciously accepting as they? Were they my practice drills, so I may support, rather than hinder a newcomer to the kitchen?

Will the new guard be kind to me, and take the spoon? Let me make the gravy? I sure hope so.

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