“It is a truth universally acknowledged” are the words which began Jane Austen’s most famous story. If I were to begin a story with a truth, it would likely be one much less acknowledged in this day and age—that a daughter of a pastor must be in possession of great accountability. To put it simply, I live in a fish bowl.
Believe it or not, the role of a minister’s daughter is not just a label which I acquired at birth. It is in fact a highly demanding job. The job description includes roles such as a PR agent, cook, secretary, and volunteer (specifically, a volunteer for all of the aforementioned and anything else). Mainly, I am a certified door greeter and chair stacker, and I can make banana pudding, sweet tea, and casseroles better than any other sixteen-year-old in Foxworth, Mississippi. The only other ladies in town who put my recipes up to the test are my mother, my older sister, Anne, and Ms. Rodgers. If the church had a food chain, it would go in the order of the pastor, the pastor’s wife, and the leader of the women’s ministry, who, as you might have already guessed, is Ms. Rodgers.
Ms. Rodgers has a habit of approaching me every single Sunday after the 9 AM service. By that time, the hospitality hallway is always crowded with men, women, and children alike trying to get to the last of the donuts and old coffee that was brewed two hours ago. However, Ms. Rodgers’ first order of business is to push her way through the crowds, tap my shoulder, and ask a nosy question between her overly sticky pair of red lips. She would usually ask if I had a boyfriend yet or how my grades were in school, or worse, try to compare me with Anne. On a good day, however, she would pay me compliments.
“You’re a real pretty doll, just a doll. Why, I could just stare at those lovely blue eyes and those butterscotch brown curls on the top of your head all day long. Honestly, they make me forget all about how unfortunately skinny you are. Poor thing, it must be mighty difficult to make friends when your daddy’s the very minister himself! Well, don’t you worry about it, dearie. One day, you’ll look as pretty as Anne, I just know it.”
That would be my cue to recite the words that every child of every pastor knows by heart. I bet I learned it in the same week I memorized John 3:16. “Thank you, you’re very kind.” And then, I’m home free as I spend the next five minutes listening to the latest gossip Ms. Rodgers picked up, until she has no more words left to say. I often wonder why the deacons haven’t chosen her to do the announcements in service. She picks up more tidbits in this congregation than a magnet can pick up iron filings.
Today, Ms. Rodgers asked the worst question she has ever brought up.
“Since it is May, and you’re finishing off school soon, how would you like to help me organize this summer’s vacation Bible school program?”
“The--the vacation Bible school?”
I knew Ms. Rodgers was looking for a way to send me to my grave. I just thought it would be something like putting my name on a sign-up sheet to run the church 5K fundraiser ten extra times. Vacation Bible School, however, is a much nastier, onerous form of torture--driving in Mississippi’s summer heat to fifteen different grocery stores for ninety-nine different brands of graham crackers, filing hundreds of parental consent forms, and supervising crafts for energetic children that involve marshmallow cream and finger paint--for two whole weeks, not to mention an entire month of planning and organizing.
“Now, Rachel, I’ve been telling your mama and the Reverend for years about how wonderful you are with those little young’uns in Sunday School. I remember when your older sister, Anne, used to do such an excellent job before she went to Ole’ Miss. Anyway, I’m a little short on volunteers this year, and your mama said that Anne was taking a summer semester—“ Anne had spent years as the perfect pastor’s daughter, and Ms. Rodgers bought it more than anybody. Anne taught me everything I know about living in a fish bowl. I miss her especially today, knowing that I have to swim alone.
This won’t be the first time that I have had to volunteer at Vacation Bible School, but it was always easier when Anne was around. We would make jokes about the odd names of store-brand graham crackers (our favorite was “Brown Board Crackers”), and Anne would teach me how to make lesson plans for every single class. This year, without Anne, I would be taking on the work of two people at least.
“Anyway, I’m sure you’ll do just as well as Anne, under the circumstances. Now, here’s what I need you to do. Just like last year, I need you to shop for some snacks and craft supplies and things like that—“
“Yes ma’am, but—“
“Also, do you think you could create all of the lesson plans, and teach grades 2-4?”
“The lesson plans for every class? I guess, but I’m used to—“
“Excellent! And then, I need you to come to my house every few days to organize some materials and forms. I’ll email you that information.” That would be the worst part: driving to and from Ms. Rodgers’ house every week. I was going to be her personal assistant.
“I know this is a lot to do within a month, so I really appreciate your help. Does all of this make sense to you, dear?”
“Well, Ms. Rodgers, I actually—“
“Oh, wonderful, I just can’t wait!” she squealed. “Rachel, you really are a doll! I’ll see you soon.”
She scurried away like a mouse on to another conversation, but I hardly noticed. I was too stunned.
Absolutely no one can get out of any plans with Ms. Rodgers. My only way out of this mess is to stick through it, and above all else: do not mess up.
If there is one thing that I’ve learned as a pastor’s child, living in a fish bowl, it is that someone is always watching on the other side of the glass. The trick is to swim as long as I can without letting Ms. Rodgers see me go belly-up. Anything could happen. I could get the wrong brand of graham crackers or even print out mistyped Bible verses for the children to memorize. Any mistake could be my downfall. A report from Ms. Rodgers would show that I had defiled an entire ministry towards hundreds of young children’s lives. I only have one month to prove that I can still be a perfect pastor’s daughter without ruining the VBS program single-handedly.
On Tuesday afternoon at four o’clock sharp, I stepped up onto the porch and rang Ms. Rodgers’ doorbell. After a very long pause, there was no answer. I tried ringing it again, giving her more time to answer the door. Nothing. I couldn’t have possibly come at the wrong time. We had both scheduled our meeting for Tuesday at four. Her car was in the driveway, and she never misses a meeting. The door was unlocked, so I knocked once more before deciding to enter. “Hello, Ms. Rodgers? It’s Rachel Collins. I’m here to help you sort through some VBS things. Hello? Are you there?”
After a short pause I heard a small, weak voice: “Heeelllp!”
I ran upstairs into Ms. Rodgers bedroom. “Ms. Rodgers, are you all right?” As soon as I came in, I found her laying on her side, pale, and helpless. She had not put on her make-up yet, but her hair was done and she was in her bathrobe. Her loss of strength made her seem even older. “What happened? Did you fall?”
“Yes. M-my knees b-buckled, and I—I just couldn’t—couldn’t stand…” She looked weaker and started to close her eyes some.
Every bone in my body was telling me to panic, but I was the only one here who could help her. This is the situation that I’ve been trained for as a pastor’s kid: to be mature, to be wise, and most importantly, to be successful.
“Ok, everything will be all right, Ms. Rodgers. I’m going to help you into bed and then I’ll call a doctor. Do you think you can stand up?”
I put her arm over my shoulder, held her waist, and helped her lie down. She was starting to drift off and become much more pale. I didn’t have much time.
As soon as she had settled in her bed, I picked up my cell phone and frantically dialed 911. “Hello? Yes, I have a woman here who has fallen in her house. She looks very pale and weak, and she needs medical attention. Please, someone needs to get here quick!”
“The doctors think that her blood pressure dropped and she lost strength in her leg muscles. Her symptoms indicate the early stages of Parkinson’s disease,” my dad explained later that evening.
“But what about VBS? Will she still be able to do it?”
“I doubt it, honey. You’re going to have to be pretty self sufficient until I can find a replacement.”
“You mean, I have to take on Ms. Rodgers’ jobs for myself? Dad, I can’t! I couldn’t even step one foot into her house without witnessing a disaster!”
“Rachel, that wasn’t your fault. Everybody runs into accidents, but that doesn’t mean you should give up! Ms. Rodgers needs you to take care of her and her VBS responsibilities until she gets better. I’m so proud of you for everything you’ve done so far. You did great today.” He finished by giving me a kiss on the forehead.
Here’s another truth I began to acknowledge: all along, I saw myself as a pet fish, when I should have been an Ichthus. An Ichthus was a symbol used in the early church to represent the presence of Christ.
I decided that my only way to get through this was to become an Ichthus. That’s who I needed to be. I had to bring the presence of Christ to Ms. Rodgers and VBS. Best of all, I knew that I was able to do it without fail.
Two weeks later, I had finished sorting and organizing every permission form and graham cracker box with a week and a half to spare. I was visiting Ms. Rodgers every day since her accident, and it was surprisingly much more rewarding than I thought it would be.
I stepped up on Ms. Rodgers’ doorstep with a plate of freshly baked peanut butter cookies and a bag full of folders showing my progress. I knew she would be proud of me. I knocked on the door and heard an excited “Come in!” from the other side.
“Hi, Ms. Rodgers! It’s Rachel.” I walked upstairs to her room. “VBS preparations are almost done! All that’s left to do is setting up the church. Look, I even had time to bake you some cookies!”
“Aww, thank you, Rachel. You really are a doll. It’s a shame you couldn’t have brought me banana pudding. That’s what Anne used to bring me during her visits.”
Later that afternoon as I reviewed lesson plans, I kept thinking about the smile Ms. Rodgers had on her face when I told her how great VBS was coming along. She would never admit it, but that silly old lady is probably on her third cookie right now, even if she did say she wanted pudding.
That’s when my cell phone rang.
“Hi, Rachel! It’s Anne. How’s everything there? I’ve missed you a lot.”
I chuckled. “Anne, you have no idea how crazy this summer has been. By the way, Ms. Rodgers says hello. She misses your banana pudding.”
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