May 2022
Leaves from My Notebook
Elaine Greensmith Jordan


Cartoon by Arnie Levin.

On a clear desert morning Ethel Godfrey appears in the doorway of my church office holding a stout broom. “I removed the cartoons from the bulletin board in the entry,” she says without a greeting.

Do I hear her correctly? She’s taken down my religious cartoons in a cleaning fit? I’m her minister, her spiritual leader, and she’s eliminated my cartoons?

She has me, and she knows it. I can’t really defend my tattered collection of cartoons claiming they’re necessary to my sanity. I stare at her and her broom thinking how much I treasure those drawings — like the one of Moses leading the Hebrew people through the Red Sea after stopping to let a family of ducks pass through. Ethel doesn’t approve of making fun of Moses. Ethel doesn’t approve of fun, period.

Religious cartoons cheer me with their parodies of harried ministers, dotty church ladies, confused parishioners. They offset my feeling that I’ve been forgotten here in ranch country beyond the beyond. They resonate with the wit of clever people out in the urban world.

“Oh?” I say, “I’d been collecting those religious cartoons for a long time.”

“The entry looks better now without those tattered scraps. They’re really not appropriate for a church.”

Ethel did not heed my sermon on joy last Sunday. I’ve not waved a magic wand and created the community I’d imagined where joyful people work together to respond to social injustice and support each other.

Our real church is more complicated. We have a mixture of older folk who’ve come to Arizona for the climate and the golf. They’ve brought with them all sorts of religious perspectives, the majority from Midwestern towns where stern Lutherans prevail, as we know from the stories of Lake Wobegon. Our members have to compromise to create a successful mixed community, but they’ve managed heroically. They are an openhearted, friendly group. My freedom to preach as I choose is rarely questioned, and I’ve been accepted — a woman and a progressive — by most of the members.

Ethel and her husband are the holdouts. I hear her begin an earnest sweeping, as she attacks the invisible dust and dirt of a spotless kitchen. Give back kindness, I tell myself, and follow the servant of the Lord into the kitchen to refill my coffee mug. Ignoring me, Ethel kneels down and scrubs at a spot only she can see.

“I liked to think the cartoons livened up the atmosphere,” I say. “That one about the chicken and the lemmings ….” Ethel isn’t listening. She stands and takes a mop from the cupboard.

“Did you save the cartoons for me?” I ask. 

“No. They’re in the dumpster,” she says, as I knew she would.

“Isn’t anyone else coming to help you this morning? Muriel was saying —”

“I don’t need help,” she interrupts, her back to me.

I open the refrigerator and find a bag of Oreo cookies. “I appreciate your support of the new building project,” I say, fussing with the package. “This’ll be a much better kitchen in a few months.”

“Guess so, Pastor. I hope people keep their pledges, that’s all I can say.”

“I do too,” I answer, studying my Oreo cookie and finding a metaphor for Ethel’s thinking in my black-and-white treat.

Mug and cookies in my hand, I leave the mopping Ethel and return to my office where I swivel side to side in my desk chair, gazing out at the desert. Ethel and Jim, I muse, could be the farm couple in the painting American Gothic, glowering at us with their pitchforks raised. I have to admit that I stand facing the Godfreys with a sour face too, holding — what? A Jesus cartoon?

Did the Godfreys come here to teach me something? If I’ve learned anything from Ethel and Jim, it’s how little we have in common. Unlike me, they live like pioneers. They work year-round in their garden; they deny themselves television and sweets; they repair broken things with competence and skill.

I hear rattling. Ethel must be leaving. I can see her in the graveled parking lot. She looks like me — short dark hair and glasses — though she wears denim pants and a printed work shirt. She gets into her white pickup and backs around to swing the truck onto the road.

As she drives away, I think of how much she and her husband contribute to our church life. Often they give me their Social Security check to help out a needy family. They repair the church building and tidy the grounds at their expense. Ethel sings a lovely alto in the choir.

Sighing, I know I’ll never get the Godfreys to follow me like lemmings. They are the ducks, and I’ll have to stand aside in this desert sea and let them take any path they choose.

Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.