Summer School

I learned about church as community from my hymn-singing Iowa aunts.



IT WAS ONLY an Iowa farmhouse filled with Lutherans. But to me, a Catholic kid from Minneapolis, it was an exotic destination.

Summers we would travel there, my five sisters and I, squeezed into the backseat of a two-toned Chevy station wagon, breathing down my father’s and mother’s necks. When we turned left at the grain silo, off the highway, and across the railroad tracks into tiny Duncombe, Iowa, we cheered. We were almost there—at my grandparents’ farm.

My father’s five sisters and his brother’s wife gave me seven aunts. Some still lived on the farm; some were married and visited when we did. They were all utterly glamorous.

They wore dramatic lavender eye shadow and crisp shirtwaist dresses all shades of the rainbow, and their high heels aerated the lawn.

Some of my aunts were secretaries and and worked “in town.” It might as well have been New York as Fort Dodge, Iowa. To me, they were Eve Arden and Katharine Hepburn and Claudette Colbert. To everyone else, they were Bonita and Karen, Janice and Patricia, Mary and Patty Ann and Mary Ellen. In Iowa, when the whole family gathered, the men retreated into the living room. There they sat, unmoving, mesmerized by Ed Sullivan.

My aunts were never lost in television. Even during Loretta Young, they talked and laughed, interrupted each other, and burst into song. They sang as they cooked and washed dishes, as we rode in the car. Their repertoire was Lutheran hymns and Broadway musicals. For years, I could not differentiate between the two. I would not have been surprised to hear “On the Street Where You Live” sung from the choir loft.

Those were the days when the gulf between Protestant and Roman Catholic was vast. At mass, our choir was all men, singing atonal Gregorian chants in Latin. At my aunts’ churches, not only were the hymns lyrical and in English, but the choir was where all the action was. At least it sounded that way to me, listening to my aunts come through the door for Sunday dinner trading all the news about the neighbors.

My aunts introduced me to the idea of church as a community. They never set out to do so, but their happy fluttering on the way to and from church and the way their lives revolved around another exotic concept—the church basement—taught me everything I needed to know. Church as a place to drink coffee, trade hot-dish recipes, and actually talk out loud wasn’t in my Catholic experience.

Lutheran came to mean singing, eating, talking, and knowing everyone else’s business, in the most generous sense. That stuff did not happen in my city-sized Catholic church, with the membership list was longer than the population of many Iowa towns.

The Irish Catholic tradition I grew up with was a rich one, and I claim that heritage proudly, too. But the glimpse my aunts gave me into their lives was like peeking through a keyhole into another country.

Being Lutheran seemed to be a particularly joyous existence, curiously bereft of guilt. My aunts were all churchgoing women with strong senses of right and wrong, but I never recall them disciplining me. They genuinely enjoyed each other.

My sisters and I are grown, now, and no one in the family lives in Duncombe anymore. When I drive my sons and daughters pass the old farmhouse, it looks impossibly small.

I can’t tell the stories well enough for my children to see that lawn the way I do, peopled with my aunts gathering for iced tea like brilliant butterflies, emerging from the living room, the kitchen, and the upstairs bedroom to sit in the lawn swing and rock to the music of ice cubes clinking in tall glasses.

To my children raised on cable television and video games, this is not a romantic destination. To my children, raised on Garrison Keillor in an ecumenical age, Lutherans are not creatures from a faraway, foreign land. Which is, almost certainly, a good thing. Still, they have missed an experience that I treasure: the adventure of being touched by a people faintly alien, and finding that touch a gentle one.


This appeared in The Lutheran, July 1996, pp. 28-30.

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