People of the Books: Parson Place by Joan Walters Mathison

md986014574I think an associate pastor gave this to me when I was in sixth grade or something like that because he knew I wrote poetry:  it’s a collection of poems by a Methodist pastor’s wife published in 1980 with some pencil illustrations by John Crawford (whoever he is).  It got enough press that there’s a one-page forward by UMC Bishop Carl Sanders in the front (yet it doesn’t seem to have an ISBN—fail, Pioneer Press).  And it is cute in a folksy, homesy sort of way; very much about day-to-day life raising a family and keeping house and being a pastor’s wife.

But DAMN is it painful to a 21st century feminist.  Nearly every poem is about the ways Mathison curtails herself to the raising of a family and the caretaking of her husband the absent-minded pastor son of eight billion generations of pastors.  This…this is kind of what’s wrong with the Church,  which I know is super harsh, but man.  There’s a poem called “Somebody’s Knocking” about a late-night call that wakes her and her husband when a woman calls him to a domestic violence dispute:

“She begged my husband to come and help–
(Neighbor’s [sic] think a preacher makes a grand referee!).”

So the wife waits up in worry for her husband, but then MAKES A JOKE ABOUT IT when he asks why she’s still up:

“I said, ‘Just waiting–
I THOUGHT you’d bring me a souvenir!'”

No.  Domestic violence isn’t funny, and it isn’t cute, and I don’t really care what fluffy note she was trying to hit with that or how common it was when that was written; it falls flat.

I do appreciate her understanding of her role:

“Being a preacher’s wife isn’t something you are born as, it’s what you become when you marry that neat guy in a volkswagen [sic] who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  You are like everybody else until you say ‘yes’ at the alter [sic], and then people start looking at you like you’re something different.  You take on a new image, and if you don’t watch out, you just might start thinking that you’re different too.  When you go to a shower with your old running buddies you catch them introducing you as a preacher’s wife.  People immediately think that they had better watch what they say around you, and the next thing you know you’re feeling different.  The way to lick that feeling is to be yourself and let them know that you’re still a fun person despite your label.  To do so, you may catch yourself talking a lot which is really okay, but talking about something you’re not suppose [sic] to talk about is something else.”

That kid-glove treatment of pastors and their spouses is most definitely still a thing and I’m glad to see her taking apart the effect it has on her.  But then she goes off the rails:

“It usually takes the preacher to get his wife’s mouth under control.  If he doesn’t do it in those early years there’s trouble ahead.  He surely doesn’t want his image changed.”  (31)

ARG.

All poems are ABAB CDCD etc stanzas, but the rhythm is all over the place.  Sometimes there are four feet, sometimes six, sometimes it shifts within a single stanza—while I appreciate her ability to find that many rhymes, her poetry is sloppy in scansion.  And, as you can see, the editing is…subpar.

As someone who has literally never wanted to be a housewife, I can see that perhaps I’m not the best one to give a compassionate reading to this.  And as someone a few decades removed from this, I can see that we’re going to differ.  But just everything about this makes me sad for the generations of women we’ve told had to be shadows of their husbands in the Church and how we’re still doing that in so many ways, even within the denominations that speak of full involvement of women.  And the ways that the husband is expected to be so many things here, both super pious and always a leader and definitely connected to God—yeesh, no wonder the guy was absent-minded.  May my eventual spouse never expect such constant strength and direction from me; I’m human as all get-out.

And the fact that a pastor felt like he needed to give this to me as an elementary-schooler as an example of how Christian women write poetry

One and a half stars.  Good for her to write and publish a thing, but ugh.  My United Methodist self, my feminist self, my English major self, and my poet self are all quite sad we carried this around for so long.

 

 

1-5-stars

 

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