Rhonda Skillings had told both Mr. Waterbury and Mary Ingersoll that her brief conversation with Katherine indicated there might be something going on between Tyler and his married housekeeper. She told Mary and Mr. Waterbury that it was certainly important—for the time being to hold the information in the strictest of confidence. But Mary Ingersoll went home and told her husband, except that didn’t count—he was her husband; you can tell your husband anything—and soon she telephoned a friend. “Don’t tell anyone,” she said, and believed the assurance she heard, because this, after all, was an old trusted friend. After that, with the sense of facing a box of chocolates and thinking—Oh, just one more—she called another friend. “Don’t tell anyone,” she said.
Elizabeth Strout. Abide with Me.
In the late 1950s, Tyler Caskey ministered to the church in West Annett, Maine, a drab, small town whose residents failed to bring color to their dour lives. He and his five-year-old daughter, Katherine, struggled to survive the death of his young wife and Katherine's mother. They centered inside themselves, each in their own way as they tried to make sense of the family’s tragedy.
When his wife became ill the congregation hired Mrs. Connie Hatch to perform light housekeeping duties. An older woman who had expected to have children but never did, she shuffled through her days. Memories of past sins did nothing to help her order her thoughts. The minister’s small expectations matched her abilities.
In the year following the minister’s wife’s death, the congregation’s previous enthusiasm and acceptance dissipated into dissatisfaction and gossip.
He straightened his shoulders. The mouth of the deceitful are opened against me: they have spoken against me with a lying tongue.
Gossip constructs a tower of Babel, thoughtlessly elevating itself to God’s position of all-knowing. The odd-shaped bricks and boulders are words neither placed by mercy nor mortared with compassion, but dry stacked rude and graceless. The sniggers, asides, prayers and speculations emanating from Babel merge into a shock wave of sound falling short of heaven, as chilling as it is unmelodious.
And so the news had gone around that Tyler might be mixed up with his housekeeper. It was the most dramatic news since Lauren’s death—more dramatic, in a way, because it wasn’t entirely clear. In any event, it provided the townspeople with the chance to complain without guilt about their minister, who had increasingly disappointed and puzzled them. He was secretive, when you thought about it. And where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
On the ground around Babel the sibilant whispers sweep away logical obstacles to the lies and rumors. The whisperers bolster their sinning in clusters of like-minded communicants. They know who doubts their babbling. Their shoulders shrug as if the doubters may themselves be hiding secrets. To quote Tyler, it’s the kind of thing that happens in a small town, when people are bored with their own lives and needing some excitement.
He prepares what he thinks must be his final sermon in West Annett. It is your job to ask, in every thought, word, and deed: How can love best be served? God is not served when you speak with relish of rumors about those who are poor in spirit and cannot be defended; God is not served when you ignore the poverty of spirit within yourselves.
Pride is the essence of idolatry, of gossip. Sometimes I like the practical solution Tyler’s manipulative mother offers us. But it won’t reform the harmonics of gossip.
Sometimes I think our ancestors had the right idea by putting liars in stocks and pillories, right in the center of town, where people could jeer at them.