I Corinthians 13:11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.
Mrs. Harold Grose was an impressive lady. She was a determined and devout keeper of order during church services, and she was glad to mention to anyone who would listen that she was related to President Richard Milhous Nixon. Her mother was a Milhous. Mrs. Milhous visited once and spoke to the youth about the dangers of drugs. Afterward, one of our regular teachers warned my Dad that having a speaker like Mrs. Milhous “will make the children want to take drugs.” I was blessed to be too young to attend the talk, but hearing these comments certainly made me wonder what I’d missed.
Mrs. Harold Grose devoted herself to the daunting but essential task of supervising my brother and me, plus our sisters and the Cather girls as we kneeled at the altar for Wednesday night prayer. Mr. Harrold Grose, Mr. and Mrs. Cather, the saintly and serene Miss Lois Stetson, and Mom and Dad kneeled with us for prayer time following the customary congregational singing and special numbers brought by faithful saints who were either musically inclined or wished that they were.
The formidable Mrs. Harold Grose took her post each Wednesday directly behind the children, squinting fiercely through her outdated cat-eye glasses. She squinted to convey that eyes must be kept closed during prayer. We had already learned to squint during prayer and were able to snatch glimpses of her squinting at us. There was much squinting.
Mr. Harold Grose was a short, smiling man who looked up at his great wife with admiration and was gentle with all of us. His unwavering affection for his robust wife confirms the truth that love is a commitment. I enjoyed watching them together, so unlike each other, and yet so united. She wore a simple and harshly modest floral dress with a grey cardigan, sturdy nylons, and square, black shoes. She pulled her long, grey hair severely into a bun. She was tall and reminded my brother Joe of a cab-over Peterbuilt truck.
An adult observer would have expected her to strike fear in the hearts of children. Denominationally speaking, Harold and Mrs. Harold were Friends, and taken as a pair, they were friendly enough. They invited us to their little apartment for dessert one time. That was nice. But on her own, the formidable Mrs. Harold was not a friend like the One who said, “Let the little children come unto me.”
I should have been afraid of her, I suppose. The “little girls,” my youngest sisters and Cindy Cather, were. To the older and wiser children, Mrs. Harold Grose became a wonderful source of entertainment and challenge each Wednesday night. We may not have prayed as much as we would have without her, but we certainly did enjoy our prayer time more. I am forever in her debt.
Laughter can be tough to resist even when permitted, but forbidden laughter is a force to be reckoned with. Mrs. Harold Grose certainly did not believe that children should find anything amusing during prayer meeting, and the more disapproval she conveyed, the more hilarious she became. And how could we actually fear someone who also had a deep need to sing solos at church, using a massive vibrato rivaled only by massive breathiness!
Mrs. Harold Grose was amusing in all settings, but her solos helped her become one of the great heroes of my childhood. As she moved mightily onto the platform in preparation for a solo, her severe glory would be transformed behind a radiant smile. She beamed benevolently down from the chapel stage as my mother, the pianist, played the introduction. Our anticipation of her singing would reach a fevered pitch. It was amazing to consider the sounds that would reverberate forth. Mrs. Harold Grose would break out into song, and our little hearts overflowed with delight.
My parents were extraordinarily restrained at these times. Mom would just endure. She was able to accompany little kids with no sense of rhythm or tune, and she was certainly up to the challenge of Mrs. Harold Grose. Dad’s mouth would turn up slightly at the corners, his nostrils would flare, and we knew he was expending some energy remaining dignified. He would completely crack up at home later, when my sister Becca did reenactments of the blessed solos.
I don’t know if Dad could have held it together during prayer meetings if he had faced the same pressures we faced. There we were, kneeling at the altar, still recovering from the soaring solos of Mrs. Harold Grose and squirming under the force of her righteous peeking. Various adults, and perhaps even a child or two, were calling out in earnest prayer. I remember the strong conviction that I should be able to focus on prayer. Perhaps we had just sung the wonderful song of commitment, “I Surrender All” or we may have been considering our need for repentance. Perhaps we were reminded of a loved one or friend with “an unspoken request” and were filled with curiosity about a problem that could not be spoken. I had never needed to bring an unspoken burden for the gathered saints to bear. Such times filled me with earnest curiosity and concern.
So, we felt keenly the power of conviction and the needs all around, and we were aware that truly, “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer!” Yet this conviction, at times, was no match for the power of Mrs. Harold Grose, perched behind us. We would imagine the hilarious thought that someone like her could be sitting behind us, squinting purposefully, and maybe wagging her finger at the little girls, Rachel, Mary, and Cindy. The little ones felt more awe for Mrs. Harold Grose, but as the prayer time would extend, they would fidget, and she would feel compelled to wag. In moments of weakness, I would steal a squint at Joe, kneeling next to me. Hopefully he would be praying, and I might be able to resume my prayers; but often our squints would meet, and the power of forbidden laughter would boil in our bellies.
Mrs. Harold was tremendously funny, but we didn’t dare laugh. We would clamp our jaws shut and pinch our forearms, trying to ward off the laughter. Once Joe and I had achieved this crescendo of hilarity, the unthinkable might happen. We might, with the slightest provocation, explode with laughter, and in the worst of cases, the shock waves and spittle might blast the backside of a devout adult kneeling at the upper altar. Dreading this possibility did not always prevent it.
The adults were kneeling there, just inches in front of our bowed heads, and the more I realized the horror of blasting hilarious saliva toward the backs of the saints, and the more I thought of Mrs. Harold Grose’ outrage at such an event, and the more I realized that Joe might be thinking the same unthinkable thoughts, the more likely the outburst. The only thing for it was to move my nicely folded hands from the altar and clamp them over my mouth. Next, I had to look down. But then, in looking down, I might catch a glimpse of her square, black shoes and perhaps a long shin hair protruding from her nylons.
There really was no escape, except perhaps for the sudden conclusion of the service. At times, an adult, perhaps feeling pity for the children, perhaps remembering something about to burn in the oven, or perhaps waging their own battle with inappropriate hilarity, would break out with an obviously closing song. We were saved. Our little faces would be radiant with Christian delight, and perhaps a tear could be seen in the corner of our eyes. It was a relief to sing out enthusiastically. Miss Stetson would be radiant, certain that we had all been deeply blessed. Which, of course, was true.
On the evening of our most calamitous prayer meeting outburst, I was not rescued by a closing song. Becca and Yvonne Cather pulled off something improbable and daring that put Joe and me over the brink. I don’t know what distracted Mrs. Harold Grose from her usual vigilance. Perhaps the little girls were really fidgeting and forgetting to squint down at the far end of the altar. Perhaps Mrs. Harold Grose allowed herself to slip briefly into prayer. Whatever it was, Becca and Yvonne were watching her and seized their opportunity. I heard someone shifting softly to my right and away from the altar. I peeked. Becca and Yvonne were making a break for it, crawling quickly and quietly right under the pew where Mrs. Harrold Grose was perched. They squirmed past her undetected and crawled back several rows before popping up, grinning broadly. This development was too good to keep to myself. I locked my jaws tightly and nudged Joe. We noticed Mrs. Harold Grose noticing us, and then we saw her look of horror as her eyes moved to the empty spots just vacated by the girls. We burst forth like a pair of volcanos. Prayer meeting adjourned early and without an inspiring song.
I don’t remember Dad saying anything to us after the meeting, and I avoided Miss Stetson’s gentle glance. Mrs. Harold Grose never mentioned the episode. Her enforcement of prayer meeting etiquette depended entirely on the awe her subjects felt for her. I don’t recall her ever actually scolding us or causing our parents to punish us for our misdeeds. I’m sure my Dad felt a certain sympathy. He would have known that we were struggling under her disapproving eyes. He is a man who thinks like a man, but he delights in children.
Sometimes he told us funny stories of older ladies who helped him enjoy church with his brothers when they were small. Our favorite story was of “The Holstein Lady,” who always wore a large black dress with an exceptionally large white collar. Dancing during worship was a regular practice, and Dad reported that the Holstein Lady danced in delicate little circles and had a friend who danced by pumping a chair up and down over his head. I hope to meet these folks someday. Perhaps they will be dancing to Mrs. Harold Grose’ much improved singing, with Mom enthusiastically finding all the keys on a truly grand piano. And Dad will be with Miss Stetson, and Harold, and the Cathers, and with the rest of us children, openly delighting in our delight. And our Heavenly Father will lift his gracious, smiling face toward us and grant us all His perfect peace. We won’t need squinting or scolding any more.
Let the little children come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven. – Jesus-