Not a Woman of the Cloth- an excerpt from Murder at the Rummage Sale by Elizabeth Cunningham

Elizabeth Cunningham headshot jpegWhen I finished writing The Maeve Chronicles, I returned to a mystery novel, abandoned thirty years earlier. I was finally ready to write about the small town Episcopal Church where I grew up in the 1950s and 60s and to explore the points of view of characters based on my late parents. When I began seeing through my mother’s eyes, the intensity of her suppressed fury took me by storm. Trapped in the role of minister’s wife, Anne Bradley strikes me as an embryonic feminist. In the scene below, Anne is hanging up laundry when she is approached by a pesky parishioner who makes a veiled reference to the death of Anne’s son.


“Hello there, Mrs. Bradley,” Mildred Thomson said, adding some obligatory remarks about the weather. “I was hoping to find Father, I mean *Mr. Bradley in today. Do you know when he might be back?”

Anne did not. In fact, she realized she did not even know where he was. Hospital calls? A diocesan meeting? Surely she would have remembered if he’d gone all the way to New York. He had probably told her, and she had probably not listened. He was not there most of the time, or if he was, he was not available, not to her or the children. He stayed in his study in the parish house where no doubt Mrs. Thomson had hoped to ambush him.

“I’m afraid I don’t, Mrs. Thomson,” said Anne, feeling for her cigarettes in her apron pocket. Hell’s bells. She must have left them in the back hall on the shelf above the washer.

Anne turned back to the clothesline. Three children meant a lot of laundry, though in the summer the load was a little lighter, shorts and short sleeves, not so many filthy elbows and knees. There were always Gerald’s shirts. Short or long-sleeved, they had to be ironed, something she could not even contemplate till the cool of the evening.

“Did you have an appointment with him?” Anne asked, hoping the question did not sound too much like a reproof.

“No, no,” Mrs. Thomson said vaguely. “I just happened by. I suppose I ought to make an appointment. I never did with Father Roberts. He never minded my popping in.”

That was definitely a reproach. Anne felt almost sorry for her husband, almost. But it was part of his job to listen to parishioners maunder on, as much as holding services on Sunday and galvanizing his congregation to do good works in the community.

“Mrs. Bradley, may I ask you a personal question?”

Could she say no, Anne wondered? Or at least, excuse me while I get a cigarette? But Mrs. Thomson took her hesitation for consent.

“Do you ever struggle with your prayer life?”

Anne bit back a bitter laugh. She could hear it in her head, a sound a dog might make, something between a yelp and a snarl.

“I suppose you don’t,” Mrs. Thomson said wistfully.

No, I don’t, Anne almost said. I don’t have a prayer life. I am not on speaking terms with God. But she couldn’t say that to anyone, certainly not to Mrs. Thomson.

“Why would you think so?” she asked instead, almost curious.

Block print of the Bradley's church by the late Johanne Renbeck

Block print of the Bradley’s church by the late Johanne Renbeck

“Well, I don’t mean to presume. I just thought that, well, being married to a Man of the Cloth, your faith must be very sure.”

Anne had stopped for a moment, stunned, holding Gerald’s plaid boxer shorts in midair. She fought an impulse to hand the undergarments to Mrs. Thomson. What the Man of the Cloth wore under his priestly robes. Temptation passed and she folded the rector’s underwear neatly and discreetly into the basket.

“We all struggle.” Anne hoped that platitude would suffice.

Anne reached for one of her own undergarments. Really, the woman was impossible; couldn’t she see that Anne didn’t want to air even her clean linen?

“Oh, my dear, I am so sorry. I forgot for a moment—”

Anne felt that familiar pressure behind her eyes: the world going red, as if all the blood in her heart, in her always cold extremities had rushed to her head. She wished she would just explode, bits of brain and skull splattering Mrs. Thomson.

“Excuse me,” Anne heard herself say through the roaring. “I just realized I’ve lost track of Katherine. The twins will be up from their nap any minute. I promised the children I’d take them to the pool this afternoon.”

Which was a lie, she hadn’t promised, but it didn’t matter. Briskly and efficiently, she’d yanked down the last garments instead of turning and ripping Mrs. Thomson’s throat out. Then she stepped into the driveway and called for Katherine.

“I can see that you are busy, Mrs. Bradley,” sighed Mrs. Thomson. “I’ll run along now….”

“I’ll tell Mr. Bradley you were looking for him.”

Which is to say, warn him.

“Oh, don’t trouble yourself. It’s nothing important.”

Mrs. Thomson’s humility sounded (for a moment) so genuine, Anne felt an unexpected rush of penitence. How dare Gerald—or herself for that matter—make fun of this woman, think her suffering any less significant than anyone else’s?

“Of course your prayer life is important.” Anne turned toward her. “I am sorry I could not be of more help.”

But then, Anne thought, I am not a Woman of the Cloth. My undergarments are plain and made of nylon.

“Why, thank you, Mrs. Bradley.”

To Anne’s discomfort, the woman’s eyes welled with tears. (She cries real tears, a line from an advertisement for a baby doll went through Anne’s mind.)

“You are a genuinely kind person,” she quavered.

Then before Mrs. Thomson could embarrass either of them further, Katherine appeared, and Mrs. Thomson, who had always struck Anne as frightened of children, murmured something and turned away.

*Anne’s husband, Gerald Bradley, is low church and dislikes the Anglo-Catholic title “Father.


Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen, now also available as audiobooks. She recently published her third collection of poems, So Ecstasy Can Find You. Her first mystery novel Murder at the Rummage Sale is forthcoming from Imagination Fury Arts in August, 2016. A counselor in private practice, Elizabeth is also a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.

Categories: Faith, Feminism, Fiction, General

Tags: , ,

18 replies

  1. A big “teaser” for the rest of the book, Elizabeth. It raises so many questions and images for me.


  2. Thank you! All (or almost all) shall be revealed when the book is published!


  3. Brava! I’ve always wondered how the wives of ministers felt about their husband’s world compared with their own worlds. Also how the “helpmeet” nuns really felt about their worlds versus the worlds of the holy male hierarchy. What an interesting look at the life of a wife. Now I want to find out what happens in the novel. Who gets murdered and why. How the crime is solved. Tell your publisher to hurry!


  4. Love this, ” couldn’t she see that Anne didn’t want to air even her clean linen”. Thank you so much for sharing this tasty tidbit! Looking forward to the full meal.


  5. “Anne had stopped for a moment, stunned, holding Gerald’s plaid boxer shorts in midair….”



  6. What fun (and a privilege) to be introduced to Anne Bradley prepublication. I personally liked the exploding brain image (although I’m not sure what that says about me). Thank you. I can’t wait to read the book!


  7. Oh, Elizabeth! I am so glad you went back to your abandoned mystery project! I can’t wait to read more!

    Love it!!!



  8. Great teaser – now waiting for the rest of the story. You capture her suppressed fury wonderfully!


  9. Elizabeth, I’m going to be on tenterhooks until the book comes out! Will we be able to get it in Kindle form? I can’t add any more rooms to my house to house hardcover books.


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