The strange and wondrous Mrs. Baggs
When I arrived at St. Paul's in New Haven, the search committee had briefed me in great detail about most things. But they hadn't mentioned the pilgrimage I would have to make to visit Mrs. Baggs.
Mrs. Baggs was the last 'rich person' in the parish. Like many city churches, St. Paul's had been founded by the wealthy. Standing on the steps of the church, it was possible to see the property of Trinity Church on the Green, three blocks away. St. Paul's had been founded as a 'chapel of ease' for the wealthy who lived in the Wooster Square area. Back in the day, the Episcopal Church was the church of the privileged and well-born. That was true when St. John's was founded 275 years ago in Waterbury—the names on the plaques around the building were the names of streets and buildings as well. It was like that to a lesser degree at St. Paul's in New Haven. Over the years and the migration out of the city by the well-to-do, the rich folks who built grand edifices to their own distinguished importance either moved away or died off. Mrs. Baggs was the last of her kind.
I was never sure where the Baggs money came from, but it was 'old money' indeed, going back to the early days of the city. Manufacturing of some kind was involved as well as importing and other ways of making lots of money. Gun running to the Tories wouldn't surprise me—but what do I know. But I'm just being bitter about what I was asked to do and that I agreed.
The deal was this—Mrs. Baggs and her two daughters, both unmarried and living together in the house next to the old family home—didn't pledge to the support of the parish even though they were the richest three members ('old money' has a way of spreading out over generations). The two daughters did come to church on occasion, but they were quite shy and left after receiving communion. But the three of them had a deal with the parish. At the end of the year the Rector would call on Mrs. Baggs and she would write a check for the annual deficit. Not a bad deal if you weren't the one to go, hat in hand, to ask for the money. It was all worked out—I was to slide a piece of paper across to Mrs. Baggs at the end of our visit and she would have her housekeeper bring her a check, make it out for the amount, and then Mrs. Baggs would sign it. Very civilized in some ways.
Over my 30+ years of parish ministry, I have encountered this phenomena over and over again in different guises. People are remarkably generous when they know exactly where their money is going. But very few folks feel comfortable pledging to the parish budget to the extent they are able. A few are comfortable with that and 'do' give to the extent they are able. And those folks usually object to fund raising projects. They are quite clear that if everyone simply gave what they could give, there would be no need for bake sales. And they are right—that's the frustrating thing about dealing with people who truly tithe: they're 'walking the walk' and have no patience with those who merely 'talk the talk'. That tiny minority of folks are dogmatic about pledging and very generous. The generosity of most folks, however, is tied to 'tell me what I'm paying for and I'll pay it' thinking. Because they are generous to a fault themselves, they have no patience with those who tithe, give proportionately. Why is anyone surprised that Stewardship is so difficult?
So I arranged my visit to Mrs. Baggs—much against my better judgment—with her housekeeper and showed up at the appointed time. She welcomed me into a rather modest home, considering the Baggs' fortune. Usually, it seems to me in my limited understanding, that 'old money' is seldom ostentatious. It is the newly rich who lust after square footage and 'obviously' expensive things. I'm sure the furniture I passed, led by Mrs. Grant, the middle-aged, very patient, black housekeeper, was mostly antique and quite valuable, but it didn't scream out “Money!”
Mrs. Baggs was waiting on a little room that was most likely an office at some point in time. There were two easy chairs, a fireplace not burning, a table between the chairs and not much else in the room besides a large portrait of Abraham Lincoln. The painting was in oil and I wondered if it were from Lincoln's time. She was a tall woman for someone her age, with piercing blue eyes, thick white hair pulled back and dressed in black slacks and a white blouse and inexplicable Keds red tennis shoes.
Doris, Mrs. Baggs housekeeper, brought us Ritz crackers with slices of Velveta cheese and some extremely dry, extremely cheap sherry. I knew the sherry was cheap because the price tag hadn't been removed but it took a sip to tell me it was really bad. I wondered if one of the richest people in the city didn't want to waste the good stuff on the Rector. Doris must have read my mind.
“This is Mrs. Baggs favorite snack,” she said, “she insists on it for guests.”
Mrs. Baggs asked about my education and when she found out I had an MTS from Harvard, she pursed her face.
“All the Baggs men were Yale men,” she said, “but I suppose Harvard isn't bad if you can't get into Yale.” She made no comment at all about West Virginia University or Virginia Seminary. Which I guess actually was a comment of sorts.
Then she asked about a couple of people at the church. One she called a gossip and the other an asshole. I almost gagged on my bad sherry when she said 'asshole' but decided people who have lived to great ages deserve to speak their mind. She told me of her admiration of my predecessor, who had been elected bishop. I imagined he was more at ease asking for money than I was and nodded in agreement with her praise of him.
The weather, which was mild for late November came up and she asked me if I knew her daughters. I told her I did and commented that they didn't stay around long enough on Sundays to have a real conversation with.
“They're not much for talking,” she said, “Beth and Ruth are very interior people.”
I nodded some more, wondering when the slide the piece of paper with a figure on it across the table. To pass the time I commented on the painting of Lincoln.
“You must admire President Lincoln,” I said.
She went on a while about Lincoln's attributes and accomplishments. Then she leaned forward and, in a whisper, said, “They killed him you know....”
I was nodding. I did remember that President Lincoln has been assassinated.
“It was John Wil....” I began.
She shook her head vigorously and touched my hand. “No, no,” she said, “that Booth rumor was a cover-up. It was the Jerry's who killed him.” She sat back, smiling and looking pleased.
“The Jer...Jerry's....You mean the German's killed him?” I asked, astonished.
She nodded. “A dozen of them,” she said, “all came running into the box seat and filled him with holes.”
I was nodding like a madman, trying to keep up.
She motioned for me to lean toward her and whispered in my ear, “I was there, you know....”
“When...when the Germans killed Lincoln? You were there?”
She smiled again. She had a lovely, old-lady smile,
“Mr. Lincoln, himself, invited me to the theater that night,” she told me. “That Mary Todd wasn't pleased. If you ask me, she was in on it.”
I took a deep breath and a large slug of bad sherry. “Mrs. Lincoln was part of the plot to kill her husband?”
Mrs. Baggs nodded and then said, “she was a German herself, you know.”
About that time, Doris reappeared.
“We don't want to tire Mrs. Baggs too much,” she said softly, “I think you should leave.”
My head still spinning from the German plot to kill Lincoln, I started to rise. Doris cleared her throat loudly.
“I think you have something I must see,” she said.
She waited until I understood and found the piece of paper with a figure on it in my pocket. Doris took it from me and said, “just say your goodbyes.”
I shook hands with Mrs. Baggs and kissed her cheek. Her skin was surprising soft for someone in their 80's. Doris came back with a check she had filled out and a pen.
“Put your name here, darlin',” she said to Mrs. Baggs, pointing to where to sign.
On the way out, Doris gave me the check. It was for several thousand dollars more than my note had said. She saw my reaction and said, “don't worry, the girls know about this and approve.”
“Mrs. Baggs...,” I started and then didn't know what to say.
“I was listening from the hallway,” Doris said, “and when you got started on Lincoln, I knew it was time I came in.”
“The Lincoln thing....” I began.
She smiled and helped me on with my winter coat. “No one understands it. The girls certainly don't.” She laughed softly, “once Mrs. Baggs told me she was there when the President made me free. That's how she said it: 'Doris, I was there when he signed the proclamation that made you free'. I swear I think she thinks she was....”
“So what will...,” I started.
“Happen to her?” Doris was faster than me. “Oh, until her body goes, I'll be here. The girls like me and I actually love Mrs. Baggs. She's a load of laughter.”
At the door she touched my arm. “Come back and see her please. But not like this, have someone call me with the total each year. Just come and visit and have some bad wine with her.”
“And talk about Lincoln?” I asked.
She laughed, “most likely,” she said and shut the door behind me.
I was astonished by the strange and wondrous Mrs. Baggs, by Doris calling two women at least in their 50's 'the girls', and by Doris herself. Mrs. Baggs was in good hands.
After I left St. Paul's, there was a need for a lot of repair to the building. The Baggs family was, I was told, extremely generous.
But by then, I knew Doris wrote the checks.
Remitha may be the most remarkable parishioner I've ever served...and one of a handful of the most remarkable people ever in my life.
She had a story (doesn't everyone) that made her remarkable enough. But how she chose to live out her life, post story, was astonishing.
Physically, she was unimposing. Five foot six or so and thin with a coffee Au let skin coloring. Her hair was turning the least bit gray when I came to St. James in Charleston but I don't know how old she was. Age wasn't something you tended to note about Remitha. She was most likely in her sixties back then, but there would have been no way to tell. She had more energy that any two people and moved rapidly.
It was her movement that gave her past away. She moved with a grace and economy of motion uncommon and rare. She moved like a dancer—which is what she was. Remitha had danced with Cab Calloway during the last years of the Harlem Renaissance. She knew all the notables of that remarkable artistic time and place. The only thing she ever did to let on that she could have been famous is refer to the figures of the Renaissance by first name. When Rimitha said “Duke”, she didn't mean 'Snider'.
But when her parents were having health problems, Remitha left New York and came back to Institute, West Virginia to watch out for them. She had a married sister but since Remitha was single, it was her duty to care for parents. Both her parents were associated some way or another with West Virginia State College. She stayed with them until they both died and then, too old to take up her career again, stayed in Institute as a teacher. She had just retired when I arrived. To keep herself busy, she took on the care of other elderly folks. There were dozens of them that she looked out for—doing shopping, taking them to the doctors, bringing them food, just spending time.
Remitha could be irritable from time to time, though not nearly as much as someone who spent many hours a week with needy and demanding elders had ever right to be. Oh, she was never anything but patient and kind to the people she ministered to (and it was a real 'ministry') but she would come by my office every week or so, flop down on a chair gracefully (Remitha could actually make a 'flop' look 'graceful'!) and give me a litany of the woes of 'her folks'. But as soon as she got started complaining, she would begin to see the humor of the old people's eccentricities and we'd end up almost whooping in laughter. After a while, she sigh and smile, 'well thanks for listening' she would say and head back out to do dear, kind things for her folks.
“They drive me crazy,” she would say from time to time, “but being crazy keeps me going....”
Due to some strange demographic blip, the largest single group at St. James was teenage girls—only three teens who were boys, but over a dozen teenage girls. This was long before the curse of smart phones fell upon the land, but most of those girls could find something inane to do anyway. Remitha thought them lazy and spoiled.
“Look at them,” she said one day, “do-less, junk-food addicts and turning fleshy. Someone should do something.”
I remained a deacon for nearly a year, doing deacon's masses (which are like sacramental take-out blessed by a priest at another church) and with the help of Father Dodge. But my ordination had been scheduled—the first ordination at St. James in the church's 90+ year history. It was a Saturday and the next day I'd celebrate my first real Eucharist. Remitha came by one day a few months before my ordination and caught me at the church.
“What do you think about liturgical dance?” she asked me.
“I like it,” I said, “if it's done well.”
“Oh, it will be well done,” she told me, “you can trust me on that....”
Before I could ask what she meant, she was headed toward the door. “I've got Miss Bessie's two sisters in the car. I've got to get back before they get into mischief.”
Before I knew it, all those teenage girls were showing up after school at the church and Remitha was teaching them to dance. Some of them were reluctant, but Remitha had gone to their parents first. It didn't take much convincing to have the parents ordering the girls to do whatever Remitha told them to do. And Remitha could still dance—she'd had ballet for years before Harlem. The girl could really dance!
So, the St. James dancers came into being. She had them sewing their own costumes—simple, full colorful skirts to wear below black leotard tops with a scarf matching each skirt for their heads. They danced in bare feet. Some of them were naturals and some tried Remitha's patience. But they all learned to dance. My first mass as a priest was their debut. They used the whole church—all three aisles and the front. They performed four numbers all to Duke Ellington's “Sacred Concert”. Remitha danced with them—some times doing things they couldn't yet do, but often just as one of the ensemble. Her grave and graceful demeanor gave the girls more confidence and they ended up being better than even Remitha had imagined. It was most definitely 'done well'.
At the reception following the first Dance Eucharist at St. James, Remitha received the praise and deflected it to the girls. They had grown to love her though she was very strict with them and demanding of their bodies. They worked hard and when anything went wrong in rehearsals Remitha would first look sternly at them and then burst into her infectious laughter. Sometimes at the end of a rehearsal they were be exhausted, strewn around the church on their backs laughing with joy and amazement at themselves.
After that first service, Remitha gathered the girls in my office for a moment. I was with them. She smiled broadly at them. “The Duke would have been proud of you,” is all she said. They knew that was the highest of praise.
They went on for several years, dancing at St. James to a widening repertoire of music: Benstein's “Mass”, “Jesus Christ Superstar” and most lovely of all, old Negro Spirituals. Their reputation spread and they would often dance at other churches or at Diocesan Conventions or, because it was part of Remitha's passion, nursing homes.
“When do we get to see you again?” I asked her one day before a trip to Huntington to dance at the largest parish in the diocese.
“Lord these girls run me ragged,” she said, shaking her head. “I sometimes wonder if it's worth it....”
I started to tell her that of course it was worth it when she went on, “but these girls ARE worth it....”
Remitha wasn't satisfied simply to do her 'good work'--she drug me into it at every possible moment. I sometimes believed she double booked trips for her folks on purpose so I'd have to drive people places and drive them home. She also was very active in working with the retarded and crippled. (I know neither term is politically correct today but it was the 1970's and that's what we called the 'mentally and physically challenged' in those days.) She would drag me off to help her do exercises at group homes and special schools. It was impossible for her to imagine that the 'challenged' population couldn't do more if you only asked them to. So we would do calisthenics and run races and do silly dances with folks all over the county. Her network was seemingly limitless and everyone who knew her fell under her spell. But then, it's hard not to love someone who treats you like you are more capable and smarter than you think you are and is constantly reminding you how proud she is of you.
It was the same for me, but with an ironic bite to it.
Once after church she told me, “You certainly are a great preacher.” I walked around coffee hour about a foot off the ground. Just before she went home she came over and whispered, “...for a white man.” I could hear her laughing all the way out the front door.
Something she taught me that every priest needs to learn is simply how to be with people different from you or someway impaired or old or dying. That's a lesson for us all, but especially for a priest. It seems to me that most of my long ministry has been spent with a large number of those folks. Since I was always in urban settings, Remitha's teaching was acutely important. And I love her for it.
Another teaching was that the world is, in the end, a tad bizarre and usually inscrutable. Weird, odd and strange things happen all the time. Remitha taught me that bemusement and pondering were two tools of Life's trade. She'd shake her head often and say, “God works in mischievous ways....”
A few years after leaving Charleston, I was in West Virginia for a while, visiting relatives. My friend John had called me when Remitha went into the nursing home. She had developed rapidly progressing Alzheimer's Disease. It took her quickly, almost before she knew what was happening. She went in rapid succession from not remembering where she put her car keys (as we all do sometimes) to finding them and wondering what on earth they were, those oddly shaped metal things. I drove a couple of hours to visit her. It was a homey place, not the institution I expected. The Director had known Remitha before she got ill and treated her with the respect Remitha deserved. I went into her room. She had fallen and was tranquilized but awake. The first thing I noticed was the ironic, mischievous, good humored spark that had always been in her eyes had gone out. She seemed so frightened about something—perhaps the fear of staring into the world and seeing nothing that made sense. When I touched her, she jumped a little and turned her head away.
The Director was still with me. “She does that with everyone,” she told me, softening the blow of the rejection I felt so acutely.
I sat with Remitha for 45 minutes and helped feed her some apple sauce which she ate reluctantly and staring at me without recognition.
I talked to her about our times together but those times seemed so long ago when I saw her like that. I couldn't stay any longer because it hurt too much.
I stopped at the Director's office on the way out.
“Did she say anything?” she asked me. I told her no and she shook her head sadly, “she's pretty much quit talking. And Lord she was a talker in her day....”
I admitted Remitha could really talk and started to apologize for not staying longer.
That same sad head shake. “Don't apologize,” the Director said, “it's just too hard, I know it is....”
Remitha's sister let me know when Remitha died. She told me how proud Remitha had been of me and what a good priest she always said I was. I thanked her for calling and was sad. But I realized the woman I loved had died a year or two before her wondrous, expansive heart stopped beating.