What’s it like when the man you married is already married to God? asks Pastors’ Wives, an often surprising yet always emotionally true first novel set in a world most of us know only from the outside.
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s debut novel Pastors’ Wives follows three women whose lives converge and intertwine at a Southern evangelical megachurch. Ruthie follows her Wall Street husband from New York to Magnolia, a fictional suburb of Atlanta, when he hears a calling to serve at a megachurch called Greenleaf. Reeling from the death of her mother, Ruthie suffers a crisis of faith—in God, in her marriage, and in herself. Candace is Greenleaf’s “First Lady,” a force of nature who’ll stop at nothing to protect her church and her superstar husband. Ginger, married to Candace’s son, struggles to play dutiful wife and mother while burying her calamitous past. All their roads collide in one chaotic event that exposes their true selves. Inspired by Cullen’s reporting as a staff writer for Time magazine, Pastors’ Wives is a dramatic portrayal of the private lives of pastors’ wives, caught between the demands of faith, marriage, duty, and love.
On the first day of my life as a pastor’s wife, I decided to buy a Star magazine.
Not People. Not even Us. No: Star, trashy Star, with its cover promises of fabulous people in unfabulous situations, page after page of full-color schadenfreude. You know. Porn for housewives. If I gave it any weight at all, which certainly I did not at the time, I would have to call it a $3.99 act of defiance. A purchase to attest things had not changed, I had not changed. That Ruthie Matters still belonged to a population that consumed celebrity gossip without guilt or thoughts of spiritual consequence.
Still, I hesitated. I stood there in the airport newsstand, my hand hovering over Jennifer Aniston’s chin. Funny thing about becoming a pastor’s wife: You felt watched. Not by God, exactly. Just . . . watched.
With a start I realized I was being watched, by the cashier, an Indian woman with chipmunk cheeks packed tight with chewing gum, black eyes steady and suspicious. It took a moment to comprehend why. I almost laughed. So much for my new status as a moral pillar of society. If a shopkeeper could suspect me of filching a supermarket tabloid, then clearly I did not yet reek of saint-type values.
I withdrew my hand, and the cashier turned back to help the next customer.
Hands in my pockets, I wandered toward the back of the store, past the blister packs of Dramamine and leopard-print neck pillows and twelve varieties of trail mix. Finally I reached the books. Books sold in airports fascinate me for their schizophrenic jumble. Jackie Collins next to Malcolm Gladwell smooshed right up against Jane Austen. Anyplace else, the reading public could expect some distance between pie recipes and the vampire apocalypse.
And here, in a stand-alone display labeled inspirational, were the Greens.
The Greens. Aaron and Candace Green, of Greenleaf Church, coauthors of Serve Your Marriage. It was the latest in a blockbuster series by Pastor Aaron Green, its premise the application of Bible scripture to serving your country, your worship, yourself. Unless you’re in the market, you probably don’t pay attention to books like these. I never did, either. Once you do, though, you realize they’re huge. Just last week I opened up the Sunday New York Times and saw that the book was number one in the self-help category.
Even among the other glossy titles by spiritual sorts, it seemed to me the cover of the Greens’ book popped. Against a white background, Aaron stood behind Candace with his hands on her shoulders, a full head taller than his wife. He looked as silvery and dashing as ever, but then anyone with a TV set knew what he looked like. The George Clooney of the pulpit, they called him.
The surprise was Candace. I forgot my resolve not to touch anything in the store and picked the book up for a closer look. Candace’s face looked etched, her features exact, as if their creator had deliberated over every detail. Her hair was curled high and away from her face, tendrils spun like blue-black cotton candy, defiant of any notion of gravity. Her nose had one of those tiny squares at the tip, like its sculptor had completed it with a push. The inky plume of her lashes fanned out from around her beetle-green eyes. Her lips hinted, just hinted, at a smile. She wore a fitted black suit with a leaf-shaped emerald pin in the lapel. In bearing she resembled Jacqueline Onassis, as played by a thin Elizabeth Taylor.
The surprise was not her beauty, exactly. After all, I’d seen her once or twice, when the camera panned to a close-up during her husband’s telecasts. The surprise was that the woman transcended a two-dimensional surface. That scant smile was like a sorcerer’s wand: One flash and you performed as bidden. It scared me just a little.
“Think that could be us someday?”
Jerry had snuck up behind me. I saw that he’d already inhaled half his bag of peanut M&M’s, his in-flight comfort food. I glanced over my shoulder at the shopkeeper. But Jerry projected goodness, just radiated it. I was pretty sure no one had ever suspected my husband of shoplifting so much as a loose gumball. Sure enough, all I saw of the shopkeeper was the long braid trailing like an oil slick down her back.
Jerry took the Greens’ book from my hands and peered intently at the jacket.
I snorted. He glanced up. “What?”
“The thing about us,” I said. “Becoming them.”
We looked at the book cover together. “Yeah,” he said finally. “You’re probably more of a Tammy Faye.” I took the book back and whacked him with it.
“Hey!” he said. “It says Serve Your Marriage, not Beat Your Husband.”
As he took my hand and led me out of the store, I found myself repeating this exchange in my head, sifting it for underlying intent. Was he joking? It sounds crazy, but I wasn’t entirely sure. In our recent life together, I’d lost my grasp of his meaning, my ability to read between his lines. It’s like when you’re channel surfing and you stumble upon a Sandra Bullock movie and you’re happily settling in only to realize it’s dubbed in Spanish. On the surface, all was familiar. But at times like this I became aware I no longer felt fluent in our language.
As we lined up to board, I inspected Jerry from behind. He was even taller than I was, a discovery that had relieved more than attracted me when we first met. It’s not that I minded shorter guys; it’s that they minded me. He still let his wavy dark hair grow over his collar, a style he’d never bothered to change even when he worked on Wall Street. His cheeks were leaner, his jaw more often set. His eyes had taken on the cast of a hotel pool before a summer storm. But otherwise he looked like the Jerry I’d met years ago outside Professor Baker’s office.
Except he wasn’t. He had ceased to be the Jerry I knew that morning in April when we woke to the rain machine-gunning the windowpane and he turned his face to me and said, “I had the most incredible dream.”
The dream. Some might say that was the day I first became a pastor’s wife. When does a man become a man of God? Is it the day he joins a ministry, or the day he’s called?
The word incredible caught me—Jerry wasn’t given to hyperbole—but I grunted a sleepy “huh” and pursued it no more as I padded out to start the coffee. He didn’t mention it again until later that evening, when he returned from work with Thai takeout.
A new place called Basil had just opened down the block in a storefront notorious for the brief life span of its inhabitants. We called it the Cursed Corner. I took a mouthful of shrimp pad Thai and promptly spat it out.
Jerry frowned, upset. “I said no cilantro. I said.”
“Gah,” I said, flailing for water. Cilantro tastes like stinkbugs smell. No need to argue; it’s a fact. “Curse the Cursed Corner!”
Once he refilled my glass and sat down, he clicked off the TV and turned to me. “So about that dream I had,” he said.
I put down the beef satay (more or less a Slim Jim dipped in peanut butter), tucked one leg under the other, and smiled at my sweetheart. His dream. What dream?
He hadn’t even asked me about my day yet, and that was unlike him. Not that I had much to report. I was between jobs, which is to say I was between careers, which is to say I had no clue what to do with my life. Ever since I’d left my job as an assistant publicist at a book-publishing company, I’d spent the days online, reading up on graduate schools. Journalism at CUNY. Film at NYU. Creative writing at the New School. No sooner would I work up the enthusiasm to download an application than I would alight on another, sparklier option. It’s so hard to choose a future.
Still, he always asked, and he always listened. And Jerry was exceptionally good at listening. He’d put down the prospectus in his hand and look in my eyes. He laughed in the right spots. He asked pertinent questions. If I grew vexed, as I admit I often did, Jerry stroked my forearm with his thumb, a sensation I liken to what a cat must feel when it’s rubbed under its chin. It occurred to me only recently that as the middle child of five, I was wholly unaccustomed to anything resembling undivided attention. I never even knew until I met him that I had craved it all my life.
So I faced my husband that night to hear about this dream of his. For despite the casual wording, something in his tone indicated it mattered.
I had no idea how much.
Jerry took a deep breath. “It’s not that I remember the dream so much,” he said. “There was a kind of lightness. Like warm light. Like someone was hugging me.”
I raised my hand. “That would be me. Your wife. I was cold.”
He smiled. “It was . . . I don’t know,” he said. “This feeling of coming home.” He was quiet for a moment, his eyes scanning my face like it held some sort of answer. “I think I was called.”
“By who?” I asked, reaching for a rice chip.
Jerry blinked at me.
“Whom,” I said through a mouthful of chip. “By whom.”
The silence stretched.
“You know,” he said. “By God.”
If my marriage were a timeline—the kind they run in newspapers to mark the meaningful moments in a course of events—this conversation would get a boldfaced mention. Everything up till then was B.C., Before the Call. You might wonder at how dense I was. How I’d utterly failed to understand. But in my defense, B.C., this was not our language. Despite or maybe because of my Catholic upbringing, despite or maybe because of Jerry’s theology degree and his ongoing exploration of faith, religion had heretofore existed in our marriage as an abstract. A topic of intellectual discussion. Words I would soon hear proclaimed at every turn—“I was called,” “I was saved,” “I accepted Jesus”—back then, B.C., this kind of talk was nothing short of alien.
Later I would think of the Tower of Babel. You know the story. These people gather from all over the world and decide to build a structure that will challenge God’s glory. Of course, God doesn’t like to be fronted like that, and in his fury he not only blows the tower to smithereens but smites the people with disparate tongues so they can no longer communicate. That was kind of what it was like for us. Like the marriage we’d built was a tower God recognized as temporal. In the moment, I did not see. Facing my husband on the couch, bad Thai food congealing on the coffee table, I did not see the pillars and stanchions crashing down around us, the ruins that promised to swallow our marriage whole if we did not find each other soon and hold fast.
Meantime, I had questions. No sooner did I spit one out than another crowded up. “What does that mean?” I spluttered. “How do you know? What did God say? Are you feeling warm? Could it be stress? Or that homeopathic crap you’ve been taking for your sinuses, that weed of Saint What’s-his-face—”
Jerry took my face in both his hands. I loved those hands; I trusted those hands. Instinctively I nestled my cheek against his palm.
“I don’t know what it means,” he said. “I don’t know how I know it was God—I just do. He didn’t say anything. It was more of a feeling. And I’m not sick. I’m not hallucinating. I’ve never felt better in my life. In any case, I’m not doing anything about it yet. I just wanted you to know.” And then he leaned forward and kissed me.
He just wanted me to know. It was one thing to know and another to understand. I pulled back to stare at my husband. And for the first time I wondered: Who are you?
* * *
It all happened so quickly. Months after Jerry’s dream, on a Saturday morning in July, he called me over to his laptop.
“Hold up,” I said, looking over his shoulder as I extracted the bagel clamped between my teeth. “They advertise church jobs online?”
Jerry laughed. “How else?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a holy grapevine. A want ad from above.” At least that’s how it seemed to work in the Catholic church.
We looked at the listing together. It read:
SEEKING: Associate Pastor
Evangelical church (20,000 members and growing) in suburban Atlanta seeks gifted, motivated young pastor with finance and/ or business experience to assist in management of sizable endowment. Academic degree in theology accepted in lieu of pastoral experience. Pay commensurate . . .
In the weeks and months following Jerry’s calling—though it still felt weird to call it that, and I avoided the word—we had discussed the implications. That maybe he would leave Wall Street. He had always said he would, sooner rather than later, and now he had somewhere to go. He had been called to serve. A church job made sense, as a start.
“The question is where,” said Jerry. And I understood he wasn’t referring to geographical location.
A Catholic is a Catholic is a Catholic. So I marveled at the way Protestants could flit from one denomination to another. Jerry had attended Presbyterian services growing up in a wealthy suburb of New York City, and over the years had sampled from a pupu platter of Protestantism: Episcopalian (too Catholic), Baptist (too emphatic), Charismatic (flat-out insane). He liked the inclusivity of the Unitarians, but not their loosey-goosey services; the work ethic of the Lutherans, but not the pole up their backsides; the politics of the Methodists, but not their lousy worship music.
“You should start your own church,” I joked, then immediately realized this had already occurred to Jerry.
“I need to learn the ropes first,” he said.
What kind of man contemplates starting his own church? Who are you?
“Greenleaf Church, it’s called,” Jerry was saying, tapping the computer screen. “In a place called Magnolia, outside Atlanta. What do you think?”
What did I think? My Wall Street Journal–reading, NPR-listening, Yankees-loving husband was looking at a job opening at a Southern evangelical megachurch, and he wanted to know what I thought?
I said the only thing I could say with honesty. “I think they’ll love you.”
* * *
“Flight 4502 to Atlanta,” called the gate agent.
Passengers surged forward. The family of four ahead of us was dressed in shorts and flip-flops, which I thought premature; ten-to-one the little girl in the sleeveless shift would throw a fit when the flight got chilly. The snowbirds to my right showed off the kind of bone-deep perma-tan that’s a formal invitation for melanoma.
I caught myself. Judgy. That’s what Candace Green would think I was: uncharitable and judgy. Just what she’d expect of a Northeastern liberal, not to mention a papist. No one needed to tell me that for a pastor’s wife, there were certain behaviors that simply would not fly. But someone did need to tell me which. Was there a handbook? Some sort of guide?
We settled in our seats, a window and an aisle. The middle seat remained open, just as the nice ticket lady had promised. People did things like that for Jerry. He smiled and the world turned to goo. Jerry took the aisle seat to stretch out his long legs, and before takeoff he’d fallen asleep. This, too, was a gift, one I envied at least as much as his talent for public speaking and facility with names.
It was then I remembered, with disproportionate regret, that I had failed to purchase my Star magazine. I wanted to cry.
I looked out the window. There below was the New Jersey Turnpike, stretching like a concrete scar across the belly of my home state. As I always do during the ascent, I craned my neck to see if I could spot my hometown. It isn’t far from the airport, but we were pulling south, not north, and in any case no landmark distinguished Hoogaboom from the air. Growing up, the compass I’d used to orient myself was the Manhattan skyline to the east, in particular the World Trade Center. So direct and unobstructed was our line of vision that my father saw the first of the twin towers struck while walking home from Mel’s Bakery with a bag of doughnuts.
The horizon wasn’t all that had changed in Hoogaboom, named in 1772 for a Dutch settler who could not have foreseen that his family name would one day be mocked by a late-night TV comedian as the dorkiest place name in America (over Hackensack and Ho-Ho-Kus—both, naturally, also in New Jersey). Two Catholic churches bookend Main Street still: Saint Ann’s for the Irish, and Saint Adalbert’s for the Polish. Our clapboard split-level home just off the main drag also housed the law office of my father, Frank Connelly. That central location and his social ubiquity meant he served many residents at one point or another, drawing up their wills or transferring their deeds. Old-timers called him Mayor, even though he’d handed off that thankless post years ago to Stew Kozlowski of Kozlowski Funeral Home.
When the Koreans began to arrive in the 1990s, the town transformed seemingly overnight, Caffrey’s Drugs replaced by a bulgogi barbecue, Anka’s Pickles now a Hello Kitty boutique. When longtime residents groused, my father played peacemaker. It was Dad who persuaded one of the first arrivals, Soong-sa Kim, to start the Korean Merchants’ Association. I remember Mr. Kim and other men knocking on Dad’s office door with Chivas and cigars to look at blueprints and discuss ordinances. Many of them retained him for counsel until one of their own opened up shop.
The signage issue crept up. Up through the late 1990s, the merchants advertised their wares in proud if sometimes odd English (korean burned cow, read a sign in the window of a barbecue joint). But some newcomers argued against having to explain their services in English, as they expected to cater primarily to their countrymen. The new lawyer in town, Stanford Lee, got all hepped up over their First Amendment rights. Dad talked him down. He liked to tell his children that had he not gotten Lee to settle, this case had Supreme Court written all over it. It could have been the case of his career, he said. But that wasn’t Frank Connelly’s style.
“Never let your ego decide what’s right,” he told me.
That was unlikely. My ego had a hard time just showing up. As a child I distinguished myself in little, accomplished not much, and stood for nothing at all. I proved difficult to label, unlike my siblings. Tom, the oldest, was the smart one. Vivian, the second, was the beauty. After me came the twins, Paul, the comedian, and Michael, the athlete. But me—I was just Ruthie. Toothy Ruthie when I grinned, and then Juithy Ruthie during my abominable orthodontia years, when I both sprayed and lisped.
In college, I took the concept of liberal arts literally, giddily loading up on one bullshit course after another. Appalachian Anthropology. Symbolic Imagery in Animé. History of Hip-hop in the Harlem Renaissance. For one semester I rode the intercampus bus twice a week to the arts school to take classes in Tamenaibuga, an African friendship dance. I know.
Despite my lack of direction—or maybe because I could indulge it—I loved college. I felt for the first time independent and free and unique from my siblings. Even though all of us attended the same school, its teeming student body and scattered campuses meant I rarely ran into them. By the time I matriculated, Tom was in law school on a campus in a different city. Paul and Michael disappeared promptly into a fraternity and became known as “the Tau Sig twins.”
In college the snippy rivalry that had characterized my first eighteen years with my sister mellowed into something resembling friendship. Vivian is eleven months older than I am, and we grew up squabbling over everything. Our shared bedroom, our shared Guess jeans, our one yellow Sony Discman. We looked somewhat alike and on occasion were mistaken for each other, an occasion that pleased only me. Vivian was beautiful. She had perfectly symmetrical features: a straight nose, puffy lips, and wide, lashy eyes. You could stare at a face like that and marvel at God’s work. People did.
If you drew a charcoal sketch of Vivian’s face and smudged it, you got me. As a teen, I spent many, many hours at my mother’s vanity wondering how such tiny alterations in the features—slightly smaller eyes, barely rounder cheeks, a lower jaw just a tad askew— could create such a different effect. Boys did not fall speechless at the sight of me, as they did my sister. No one looked at me and praised creation.
In my senior year of college, I responded to an ad in the student newspaper for a part-time secretarial job at the political science institute, the one that lent the college a national reputation for its highly publicized polls around election time. At least, that’s how I knew of Brandywine, a name I found weirdly inappropriate before learning it belonged to its deceased founder. The building was on the main campus, or rather off slightly to the north, set apart by an ancient grove of oak trees. A long, straight path led up to the brick structure, fronted by white columns and crowned with a white bell tower. The college brochure featured Brandywine on the cover; when dignitaries came to visit, politicians in particular, they spoke on its steps. In the fall, with the oak leaves turning, it looked like New England in the middle of New Jersey.
I got the job. I joined a rotating roster of students who assisted a political science professor named Stephen Baker, who wrote op- eds for the New York Times and had authored five books, all of them on presidential elections. Student groupies trailed him from lecture to lecture. When I reported my new post over Sunday dinner to Dad, he sat back in the dining-room chair and grinned. I felt proud. Though my parents never pressured me, I admit: I was anxious to find my thing. I didn’t need to be the best. I just wanted to locate my place, to discover that one thing I did fairly well.
That thing, at first, was filing. Mostly I filed Professor Baker’s notes, in manila folders in steel cabinets lining a long, cramped hallway on the institute’s third floor. Baker’s stuff kept spilling out of his offices, but given his value, Brandywine’s president allowed it. Also I sorted his mail: speaking requests; readers; media. The professor responded to all, but always to journalists first. The first time I overheard him taking an interview by phone, I was awed by his effortless eloquence, the way he spoke in sentences and paragraphs. Later, when I took charge of his media appointments, I learned he kept in his head a ready arsenal of reusable sound bites.
One day I came in to work to find a young man sitting across from my desk, waiting for the professor’s office hours to begin. I said hi and began opening mail. When I looked up, I found he was looking at me. He smiled.
I smiled back. I wasn’t shy around boys, maybe because I never assumed a boy’s interest in me that way, or maybe because I had three brothers. I looked down at the appointment book and read aloud: “Jeremiah Matters.” I looked at him again. “That sounds biblical.”
He laughed. “I go by Jerry,” he said.
I studied him. “Poli sci, minor in . . . econ?”
Vivian had warned me freshman year against asking a person’s major the second we met. Completely unoriginal, she said. So my own twist on this lame line was to guess. I swear I was right about eighty percent of the time.
Jerry laughed again. I liked to hear him laugh, to watch his long, still face ease open. More important, it meant he found me funny, and that was extremely attractive.
I sat up a little straighter and adjusted my sweatshirt. “Athletic XXL,” the sweatshirt read across the front, though I was neither. Why had I worn it? It made me look like my sport was sumo.
“I’m taking Professor Baker’s lecture, but I’m not officially at the college,” he said. “I’m at the theology center.”
I knew of it. It stood among a row of affiliated institutes, not unlike Brandywine, that took residence on a leafy lane hugging campus. I walked past it every Tuesday on my way to Sociology of Scrapbooking. (I know.)
“So,” I said, “the biblical name fits. Either that or you were named after the bullfrog.”
He laughed again. Three times now that I’d made this strange boy laugh. Only, now that I evaluated him, he wasn’t a boy. I remembered then that the theology center’s programs were graduate level.
Jerry leaned back, stretched his long legs, and cocked his head all at the same time. Like a cat. I liked that. He was comfortable in his body, not like the other male specimens I saw every day in the dining hall, all shuffling or preening or spastic.
“And you? No, no”—he held up his hands—“let me guess. Your name is Ruthie. And you’re undecided.”
My eyebrows lifted.
He pointed. Next to my head, taped to the wall, was a scheduling calendar of all the students who filed and answered phones for Professor Baker. Under Thursday, from two to six p.m., highlighted in pink, was my name.
“Okay, I guess I asked for that,” I admitted. “But I’m a senior, I’ll have you know. I had to declare a year ago.” I said this last with resignation. Because he was right: I was undecided. In every way. “Communications,” I volunteered. “Whatever the hell that means.”
He tipped his head in apology for his assumption. Then he said, amicably and not ironically, “Without communication, humans would still be monkeys.”
I relished the lob. “So the theology center acknowledges evolution, then?”
Before Jerry could respond, the door opened and Professor Baker beckoned, still cradling the phone against his ear.
I felt the moment and the man slip away. How many times had I begun promising conversations with young men at the college only for class to end or the intercampus bus to arrive, and I’d never seen them again? The college was so big, you could make and lose a friend a day. Besides, surely a guy this good-looking and this self-assured was merely making polite conversation.
I gave Jerry a quick smile and made myself look busy shuffling some envelopes. And when I looked up again, he was closing the professor’s door behind him.
I realized I was sweating under my sweatshirt, and I took it off. Underneath I wore a tight T-shirt. I shot off to the ladies’ down the hall to check my hair and face. Not tragic—not walking-dead tragic. I dabbed gloss on my lips and wished I had something to spritz in my ridiculous hair. There would come a day when I appreciated the rotini pasta that corkscrewed from my scalp. But there and then, I wished hard for sheets of silk I could ripple in his direction like a fishing lure.
By the time I scooted back into my chair, though, the office door was open and Jerry was gone. The professor was on another phone call. Or who knows; maybe he’d never gotten off the first one. Baker was an affable guy, but that was also his problem—he couldn’t not take a call or a meeting or a lunch, even if he had other plans, like a call or a meeting or a lunch. Once I began making his press appointments, I’d learn his schedule book was basically a work of fiction.
My heart hurt. Of course, I thought as I walked home later. The oak trees around Brandywine had just begun to turn, the leaves paused between green and red, an intermission of color. Of course.
But as I reached my dorm, my cell phone buzzed. I didn’t recognize the number.
“Hello,” I said.
“It’s Jeremiah,” he said. “Like the bullfrog.”
It took me a moment. Then it hit me: The scheduling sheet outside the professor’s office for his part-time assistants, the one Jerry had used to divine my name, had my phone number on it, too.
This time I grinned as I thought it: Of course.
* * *
“So what’s it like?” Vivian asked.
“What’s what like?” I said.
“What’s it like when the guy you married decides to marry God?”
Vivian burrowed deep in the sofa, her feet up on Paul’s shoulders. Paul sat on the floor in front of her while Michael reclined in Dad’s orange Barcalounger, as far back as it could go. Tom stood near the old air conditioner in the window, banging it occasionally with his fist to keep the cool air pumping.
I faced my jury. I sat in a straight-backed kitchen chair I had pulled into my parents’ living room. I had picked Tuesday night to gather my siblings, when Dad would head reliably out of earshot to Bob Reinhardt’s poker night. Since Mom’s illness, we had taken to holding family meetings without him. It was just easier that way.
Vivian’s body lied. Her slouch, her loose legs, even her hair— the pose reminded me of a Ralph Lauren ad, the ones with the improbably gorgeous girls splayed artfully on some haystack. Viv looked the picture of relaxation, even, or especially, with the pregnant belly. But unlike the carefree eyes of the models in those magazine ads, hers told another story. And Vivian was furious.
I didn’t have an answer. I’d rehearsed obsessively for a week, and I didn’t have an answer to that one. I felt my hand groping for Jerry’s, even though I knew he wasn’t there.
He’d wanted to come. “It’s me,” he’d said. “We’re going because of me, and I ought to be the one to explain. I owe it to them.”
I refused, with more vehemence than I’d known I felt. “They’re my family. If you come, they’ll pull their punches. They won’t say what they really feel, and then they’ll stew about it, and then come Christmas there’ll be some confrontation. With shouting. And a flying ham.”
There was another reason I wanted him to stay out of it: I needed to spin the story. I would emphasize the job, not the calling. The financial management, not the pastoral duties. The place to crash in balmy Georgia, not the five states’ distance to New Jersey.
It did not go as planned.
I began as scripted: “Jerry’s taking a job at a church—”
“I knew it!” said Vivian. She turned to the others. “I told you all it was a matter of time.”
Tom stroked the air in front of him, a gesture that said to Viv: Settle. Then he faced me. “So, is that it? He heard his calling, or whatever?”
I looked around at them, stunned. “How did you—”
Tom shrugged. “We talked about it once. Last Thanksgiving, I think.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Paul. “When we were throwing the football out back.”
“We were talking about how useless our degrees were,” said Michael. “And Paul asked Jerry if the master’s in Godology helped him pick stocks.”
I glared at Paul.
“What?” said Paul, palms up. “Joke. Anyway, he laughed.”
“And then he said he thought he’d use his theology degree one day, maybe soon,” said Michael. “And Paul said—”
“ ‘You gonna ditch the Street and go be a minister?’ ” Paul said.
Michael nodded. “Then he got all quiet.”
Vivian was stretching her neck and working her mouth. Next to Jerry, Viv was the person I knew best in the world, and I could read all her signals. I braced myself.
“What kind of church?” she demanded.
I shrugged. “Evangelical, I guess.”
“It’s all so new.”
“So what are you now—a pastor’s wife?”
“By default. I suppose.”
“And you’ll do what—throw tea parties and lead Bible study?”
“I don’t know yet. It’s up to the Greens.”
The boys had been watching the volley between their sisters, back and forth, back and forth. Like an umpire, Tom held up a hand.
“Whoa, whoa,” he said. “The Greens? As in, Aaron Green?”
“The dude on TV?” said Michael.
“Hey, yeah,” said Paul, kicking the Barcalounger. “We watched that one time at Tau Sig when we were too hungover to change the channel. Remember? Dude talked for, like, two hours straight, man. It was impressive.”
“I just got that Time magazine with him on the cover,” said Tom. “Him and Rick Warren and the pretty one with the teeth.”
My brothers looked at me with . . . not admiration, but something close. As if proximity to fame suddenly made our venture worthwhile.
“So,” said Viv, cutting their awed silence. “Are you converting?”
“What?” I said, startled. “Of course not.” Suddenly, though, I wondered: Did becoming a pastor’s wife automatically make you a member of that church? I tucked the problem away for later examination and continued, “But it’s not like I’m a practicing Catholic anyway.”
At that, Viv’s eyes narrowed. The boys ducked and covered. Like me, they knew Viv’s moods, and this one was going to rip.
What came out was something between a rumble and a hiss. “How can you say that,” she said, “after what we just went through with Mom?”
There it was.
After a moment, Paul spoke up. “Aw, jeez, Viv,” he said softly. “You don’t gotta throw the Mom bomb, do ya?”
But it was too late. My ears filled with the wheeze of the balky air conditioner and my mother’s voice.
* * *
“He’s a keeper.”
That was what my mother told me the first time I brought Jerry home.
We were in the kitchen, Mom washing the dishes wearing yellow rubber gloves, the secret to hands still marvelously supple after thirty years of housekeeping and gardening. I wiped. Mom had made her roast beef, which Dad called roast beast, and which I knew signified the importance of the event. She didn’t whip out that dish just any old day. Since Rupert Benedict, my disastrous junior prom date, Jerry was the first boy I had ever introduced to my parents.
Come to think of it, Jerry was the first boy I could properly call my boyfriend. He courted me. Seriously: courted. He asked me on actual dates. He paid for dinners and movie tickets; he opened doors; occasionally he produced a single red rose. We spent hours and hours walking around campus, talking about everything and nothing. We held hands. I crept toward this idea of we, a pronoun I’d never before applied to a romantic unit, until it became easy, natural. That night at my parents’ house, he brought Mom a cake from Mel’s, because he remembered me mentioning she would beat down her own children for the bakery’s chocolate seven-layer.
“Yep,” I agreed, not bothering to hedge the happy. “He’s a keeper.”
The next time I brought him home was over Thanksgiving, when all my siblings would be around. I had already taken him to meet my sister, over lunch at a sidewalk café in Hoboken, from where Vivian commuted to her job in Manhattan as a sales assistant for an evening-wear designer. He’d met Paul and Michael, too, when we bumped into them while strolling hand in hand in the vicinity of Greek Row. (They followed us for a while, strolling hand in hand as well.) Within minutes of arriving at the Connellys’, Jerry settled into the Giants game with the boys while Tom told him about a case before the Trenton judge for whom he clerked. Later, at the table, Jerry cried laughing at Paul and Michael’s reenactment of me throwing up on my date at junior prom. I didn’t even mind. My family loved my beloved. Was there a higher joy?
Religion raised a bit of a bump.
It wasn’t until Christmas that I let slip Jerry was not a Catholic but a Protestant of indeterminate denomination. Maybe I was naive. Certainly I was naive. Still, I felt his earnest faith and spiritual studies would preclude much dissension from my parents. Though I could not tell them this, his faith far outshone my own.
“Well, Toothy,” said Dad in his Voice of Authority, to indicate this settled the matter, “you can love a Protestant. But you can’t marry one.”
“Now, Frank,” said Mom, putting a hand on his arm.
Edith talked to Frank. This was a typical resolution to family drama: Dad would bluster, and Mom would talk him down, usually to a result in favor of the children. “We could use some joy,” I overheard her saying.
It was right around the time of her first cancer scare. “Breast cancer,” she scoffed when she telephoned me with the news. “It’s nothing. A little snip, a little chemo, and we’re all done.”
I was the first to marry of the five, in and of itself a first for me to be first at anything. Jerry consented to wed at Saint Ann’s, and my parents overlooked the denial of a full Mass, being that Protestants could not receive our Communion. Dad walked me down the aisle, Mom wore a silk scarf wrapped around her head, and my siblings hogged the front pew. The three boys had shaved their heads in solidarity with Mom, and only her frantic begging had stopped me and Viv from doing the same.
The cancer was not nothing. It metastasized to a cluster of lymph nodes in Mom’s right armpit, which the surgeon assured us he had successfully removed. When her white blood cell counts kept dropping, her oncologist switched chemo cocktails, then switched them again. For a time she seemed to recover, even spending a year taking only maintenance meds. That was a banner year for the Connellys of Hoogaboom, with the twins’ college graduation, Viv’s wedding and the prompt arrival of her own set of twins, and Tom’s promotion to assistant district attorney in Trenton. Dad celebrated by renting a beachfront house for a week in Ocean City, where everyone gathered for a Fourth of July lobster bake, Mom lolling on a deck chair and beaming at her family as the fireworks splattered the sky.
Toward the end of the year she complained of pain in her right hip, and a scan showed the bone eaten through with cancer. From there the illness galloped from organ to organ, and within months Tom was signing her up for in-home hospice care.
We took shifts, the five of us, days at a time, whatever work or child-care duties we could get off, whenever we could drive over. As a nurse, Dad was useless. He trotted off in the morning to his law office out front, returning all jovial and expecting lunch. The grim faces of his children seemed to baffle him. He referred to the hospice workers as “Edith’s maids,” and kept alluding cheerfully to future events, chiding his wife that she’d better get her butt out of bed if she still wanted that Easter trip to Dublin.
“I’m going to kill him,” Viv muttered. “I’m going to shove him into Mom’s coffin and nail it shut.”
I myself was an inadequate nurse. Left alone with my mother, I felt clumsy and inefficient, bumbling around the bedroom-turnedhospice straightening medical supplies and organizing get-well cards. Mostly, she slept. The morphine drip countered the unspeakable pain. One day, I glanced over in the middle of sorting Dad’s sweaters to find Mom watching me.
“Come here,” she said, patting the side of her bed.
“I just have to—”
“Oh, Ruthie. Put the stupid sweater down.”
I put the stupid sweater down. I sat down next to my mother and began to cry.
“Because,” I said. “Because. I don’t want you to go.”
“Oh, baby.” Her satin hand rested on mine. “You just need to remember—you are not alone.”
I nodded, over and over, like the bobble-head doll of Derek Jeter on the windowsill. Paul had secured it for her by shoving away ten-year-olds at a recent giveaway game. My mother adored the Yankee shortstop.
“Do you know what I mean?” she asked, in a voice so loving it summoned from me a fresh gush of tears. “You are not alone. You always have Him.”
My mother’s faith seemed a simple but abiding thing, a fact, as irrevocably a part of her as—I would have said as a limb, but now her actual limbs failed her and yet her faith remained unbroken, unbowed. My faith, in contrast, had gone missing. I don’t know exactly when or how. But somewhere between Sunday school and late-night dorm debates on the origin of species, my doubts had overtaken blind belief. How could I tell her this?
As the morphine pulled her under again, I sat by my mother’s side, careful not to touch the parts of her body that hurt. I watched her drug-calmed face. I thought about her words. You are not alone. You always have Him.
Even though I knew she meant God, I decided my mother also meant Jerry. If I could not believe in Him, I could believe in him.
* * *
Jerry was stroking my forearm with his thumb.
He had slid over into the middle seat. I kept my forehead on the window and stared at the clouds, stacked vertically like teetering towers of coins. In time I turned to bury my face in his shoulder, taking a breath to stave off a sob. But it rattled out anyway.
What’s it like when the man you married decides to marry God? In the weeks since Viv had asked the question, I had pondered it over and over. If I were a woman who believed, I imagined my husband’s betrothal to the church would work out like a happy three-way. For me, it was more complicated. But strangely, unexpectedly, it began to feel like a lifeline. A beginning. An escape from my trinity of loss—of my home, of my faith, of my mother.
When I felt it was safe, I lifted my head and looked at my husband. He handed me a cocktail napkin. I blew.
“I miss her,” I said.
“I know,” he said.
The plane began its descent. I reached for Jerry’s hand. And told myself: You are not alone. You are not alone. You are not alone.
“Riveting, perceptive, and funny. Once you pick up this novel, you won’t be able to put it down.” —Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project
“Hilarious and moving. The characters are so real, I want to friend them on Facebook.” —A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically
“With a reporter’s eye for detail and a writer’s heart for the everyday truths we all face . . . a terrific first novel, fast-paced and fresh, full of sly wit and compassion.” —Laura Zigman, author of Animal Husbandry and Piece of Work
“Pastors' Wives is often surprising yet always emotional, set in a world most of us know only from the outside.” –USA Today
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen's debut novel, Pastors' Wives, offers readers a stirring and humorous look beyond the secrets shrouding the mega-business that is church in America. Pastors' Wives is a tender reminder that our ability to trust God is compromised when we can't trust one another. —Karen Spears Zacharias, author of Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide? 'Cause I Need More Room for my Plasma TV
“Lisa Takeuchi Cullen is such a beautiful writer—lyrical, thoughtful, honest, direct—that she somehow tricked me into reading a book about romance and religion. I resent her deeply for this.” —Joel Stein, Time magazine columnist and author of Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity
“Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s Pastors’ Wives is comic, heart-breaking and ultimately full of hope. It explores the lives of three women living within the confines of a megachurch and the sacrifices and choices they must make. I adored Cullen’s characters and I love her witty prose. Cullen’s belief in love shines through and makes for a wonderful read.” —Anita Hughes, author of Monarch Beach and Market Street
“Cullen is a fabulous writer, and I was mesmerized by the women [of Pastors’ Wives] and their challenges. Faith never has easy answers, and I loved how she showed both sides of the Christian walk.” —Colleen Coble, author of Tidewater Inn and the Rock Harbor series
“Cullen’s three women are a perfect, complex trinity. Religious feeling is shown to shape lives, both the lives of believers and non-believers. The book will fascinate anyone who knows church life, and especially anyone who has had the peculiar experience of being a member of a pastor’s family.” —Bee Ridgway, author of The River of No Return
“By Chapter Two I had completely forgotten that I was reading fiction written by a crack reporter, I was too busy alternating between fits of laughter and multiple-Kleenex sobs. I can't stop thinking about what this book has to say about love, struggle, and commitment, not just to a faith, but to our families and our very selves.” —Lauren Sandler, author of Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement
“The characters are very realistically developed, and I could relate to them and their various struggles. Whether a man of God serves in a megachurch or in a small country church with less than fifty members, the struggles a wife faces remain almost the same. If you want an inside look at a pastor’s wife, then you will want to read Pastors’ Wives. From the moment the call is received, life changes.” —Laura V. Hilton, pastor’s wife and author of The Amish of Webster County series
“Don’t for one minute assume that a novel about pastors’ wives is not for you because within a few pages you’ll discover that the three protagonists’ hopes, struggles, and attempts to get through the hard stuff in life as best as they can mirror your own and those of everyone you know. Then you will spend the rest of the novel wondering which of these three women do I love the most—Candace? Ruthie? Ginger?—until you get to the end and realize that you just love them all.” —Donna Freitas, author of This Gorgeous Game and The Possibilities of Sainthood
“Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s funny and poignant debut novel is a marvelous read. With a humane and artful touch, she has taken a world that could be so easily caricatured and created rich, indelible, and wholly believable characters. Pastors’ Wives is a sharp, charming tale that will surprise you—I’m still shaking my head at the alchemy Cullen effortlessly pulls off by the end of the book.” —Amy Sullivan, National Journal correspondent and author of The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap
“I flew through this book. You will fall in love with these women, all human, all funny, all struggling through their journeys in both original and relatable ways.” —Kristin Newman, TV writer and author of What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: A Memoir of Sex on Vacation
“In her sparkling debut novel, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen captures so well the truth of faith—not the pretty facades we may put up for Sunday mornings but the messy reality of believing and struggling to believe. Her pastors’ wives aren’t the plasticized, perma-smiling automatons of stereotype, but complex characters whose journeys are bittersweet and often funny, just like life itself. This is a novel that's full of hope and full of heart.” —Jeff Chu, author of Does Jesus Really Love Me?
“Funny, generous, welcoming and ultimately deeply moving.” —David Van Biema, author of Mother Teresa: The Life and Works of a Modern Saint and Speaking to God: A Cultural History of the Psalms
“These women take vows of a whole other kind. Cullen has them rule their world, leaving you in awe of these gals behind the ‘thrones.’” —Carmen Wong Ulrich, TV host and author of Generation Debt and The Real Cost of Living
“Cullen reveals a remarkable depth of truth and strength of character within the women of Pastors’ Wives. I was captivated by their stories, cheered them on as friends, and was terribly disappointed when it ended. Novel Rocket and I give it our highest recommendation. This is a must read for everyone who attends a church.” —Ane Mulligan, Novelrocket.com
“Pastors’ Wives is an engrossing, thought-provoking read. Cullen takes the stereotypical image of a pastor’s wife (devoted, dutiful, serving tirelessly behind the scenes without complaint) and turns it upside down and inside out by compassionately depicting ‘real’ women behind the role.” —Kelli Simpson, The Zen of Motherhood
“An insightful, spiritually honest story that accurately portrays the pressures that can accompany mega-church leadership and family life. A little edgy, sometimes raw, never cliché.” —Kelly Matthews, Faith Village
“Pastors’ Wives is a story with real depth and with likable characters who are trying to figure things out the best way they know how.” —Heather Adams, The Christian Manifesto
“In a word . . . compelling. This is not a sugar-coated or sinless tale of women, filling the unsung role of pastor’s wife in the twenty-first century. Instead, Pastors’ Wives delves into the high-profile, high-pressure world of evangelical, megachurch Christianity. Told from the point of view of a skeptical outsider, this raw look into the first ladies of modern megachurches offers drama, intrigue, and hypocrisy. Cullen is a gifted writer with a worthy story.” —Jenny Dean Schmidt, The Channelmom Show
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