Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Quiet, Lovely Giant

A quiet giant has moved gracefully out among the stars and I bid her the fondest adieu!
by Charlie Leck

The kind, quiet, sweet and gentle cleric who married Anne and me has gone to her rest and slipped out among the stars of heaven to enjoy the bliss of eternity. What a sweetheart she was and I know of no kinder person who has ever entered my life’s realm. Adieu, dear Elaine, adieu!

“Prenez avec vous notre plus tender pensées et remerciements les plus sincères!”

Elaine Marsh was one of the ministers at Plymouth Congregational Church when Anne and I met and began dating back in 1977. A few of those early dates, before we got serious and moved beyond an elementary friendship, were simply going to Church together. It was a tremendous opportunity to measure our friendship. We enjoyed the fantastic music of the Plymouth Choir and the enormous and challenging thinking that came from that liberal pulpit. It was during that time that the two of us got to know Elaine and we eventually asked her to marry us.

She was not a great preacher. Her voice was soft, gentle and calm. It took some commitment to listen to her. When one did, one realized the thoughtfulness of her mind. She had important and meaningful things to say, but she wasn’t going to shove it down your throat. You could take it in if you wanted, or leave it unsampled and untested.

I was startled into a strange quietness and calm when I opened the paper over lunch yesterday and saw her obituary. I never really go the death notices in the paper, but, because of murmurs about bad weather moving in, I was really looking for the forecast, which is only one simple page away from the obituaries, when I saw the headline: ELAINE MARSH, AESTHETIC, FEMINIST MINISTER.

It wasn’t particularly surprising. Elaine was 92. She and her “significant other,” Alice Huston, had moved to England in the mid-80s, going into semi-retirement. Elaine accepted an invitation to serve as the interim pastor of a small, but very old and historic Congregational Church in Chulmleigh, Devon. She remained there, as the pastor, for nine years. She liked the way the English did things. She and Alice were very happy there. Alice, we heard, died a few years ago.

Elaine was a progressive, liberal thinker. Her faith was huge, but it wasn’t simple and cuddly. She believed deeply that churches were community institutions and ought to be active and working for the improvement and good health of their communities. She was a vigorous proponent of women’s rights long before it became popular. She believed that women could test themselves and prepare themselves for community and business leadership within the policy-making structure of the church. She worked to make liturgical language gender neutral. She founded a Woman’s Coffee House at Plymouth Church and made it into a gathering place for women who were working through a variety of issues in their lives. It was an idea, I am proud to say, that she said she took from my community organization work in a neighborhood just south of the one in which she worked. There is a simple, but extremely beautiful stained glass window at Plymouth Church that is called “Women in the Ministry.” It was dedicated to Elaine. Our church library is also named for her. She left a huge imprint on that congregation and its work.

I remember attending an Adult Learning Class that Elaine led about the expatriate writer, Gertrude Stein. I had carefully read a good deal of Stein’s work and thought I understood her. Elaine opened windows upon windows for me that looked out on to things I never, never understood about Stein.

Back in ’78, Anne and I decided to get married like a thunderbolt had struck us. Suddenly aware that we were going to be life-long friends and partners, we couldn’t wait to make the contract and utter the promises. We sent out telegrams to our friends, giving them only a two-week notice. We called Elaine and asked her for an appointment at which we told her we would be pleased if she married us. She wanted to know if she should do something contemporary.

“No,” we told her, “we’d like the very traditional language, pledging our troths and all that.”

My guy-friends began calling in a frenzy because our chosen Sunday wedding date was the day when the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers were meeting on the gridiron. We’d set our wedding time for three o’clock and surely the game would be over by then. I promised them all that the TV would be on and that they could come early and the wedding would NOT begin until the end of the game. Whoever dreamed there would be a tie and a play-off period and that no one would score in the extra quarter and the game would run on until well after 3:30. The string trio we’d hired played on and on while the guys, and some of the women, were all gathered around the TV out on the porch, screaming and cheering like crazy.

Elaine wasn’t amused, but she understood about my promise. She thought it was such a waste to leave these incredible musicians unattended. She closed her ears to the screams and groans coming from the other room and concentrated on the music.

It was a crazy wedding that also featured a wedding cake that was dropped on its top by the delivery boy. Elaine laughed hysterically when it was brought out following the ceremony, somehow recreated by my sister with flowers she took from various bouquets around the house. It seemed some strange counterpoint to our bizarre wedding to hear the very traditional language of the aged wedding ceremony… “Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife, to love and cherish her? In sickness and in health? For better or for worse? Until death do you part?”

“Indeed! And I also pledge to her my troth!”

We were sad when Elaine decided to leave our church and also that she would leave our community. Yet, we were excited for her and the new adventure that she and Alice were embarking upon.

Elaine was born in West Virginia. Her father was an oil worker who soon moved the family to Oklahoma and then to Kansas. Elaine attended a Quaker college and went on to Hartford Theological School and then got a master’s degree from Berkeley Baptist Divinity School. It was at this latter school that she met the love of her life, Alice Huston. She and Alice lived in Montana and Iowa before they ended up at Plymouth Church in 1960.

She’s not famous. She wouldn’t want to be. Nonetheless, she’s a giant of person in my life and I’m so grateful that I knew her. I went outside this morning, while it was still dark, so that I could look up into the stars and, perhaps, see one twinkling especially bright because of its new visitor. However, the snow was falling hard and beautifully and there were no stars to be seen. It was so quiet and so peaceful. I blew a kiss up toward the heavens.

Rest sweetly, dear Elaine – rest sweetly!


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