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The Martha Circle Bakes, Cooks, Cleans, and is Superior

Mary might listen raptly, but she could get ear pods and help


The smell of coffee from a percolator filled the living room when my mother hosted the Martha Circle. Ladies’ aid circles were a tradition in our community.

My mother took me along to mind my brother and help as needed when she attended the ladies’ circle in the church basement or at someone’s home. White bedsheets were torn and rolled for bandages and sent to medical missionaries in Africa. Knitting projects and sewing projects produced scarves and gloves for the needy in our snowy winter town.

The church hosted several ladies’ aid circles, named after famous women in the Bible: the Ruth Circle, the Rebecca Circle, and the Sarah Circle. The meetings led off with prayer requests for those in the hospital or recovering at home. There were whispers about Gladys who was recovering from a nervous breakdown.

A nicely groomed lady with her hair still smelling from a beauty parlor perm poured coffee into glass cups. The glass coffee cups fit into the ringed circle on the glass platter. A little silver bowl held pillow-shaped mints and peanuts to spoon onto the plate.

The hostess served a delicious lemon pound cake and cookies, or homemade pastries, or a new Bundt cake recipe.

This was the Martha Circle, and they were proud of it.

Mildred Olsen had read the Bible text that day. There were some stories they all disagreed with even if they were never discussed. For example, Mary Magdalene (who had a suspect past anyway) sat at the feet of Jesus while Martha was cooking and cleaning in the kitchen.

Well then, Martha had a right to be miffed. Even if she were scolded for being too busy, all the church ladies knew that idle hands were the devil’s work, and it was better to wear out than rust out.

“She knows how to work” was high praise, indeed.

I loved the smell of old perfumes that rioted with each other for dominance: Shalimar, White Shoulders, Blue Grass. The colognes came in wonderful bottles and dispensers which were poured into spritzing containers with bulbed applicators.

A spritz on the wrists and a dab behind the ears, and then the exchange of women’s talk, the hum and rise and fall of the communal chatter as heads bent over the project, Martha-like.

I was banished to the playroom downstairs until my brother and I were allowed up for our serving of goodies and milk.

The rhythm of their lives was weddings, baptisms, and funerals.

Each woman had a Tupperware container of cookies in the freezer in case they were asked for a last-minute contribution for a funeral reception.

Some sociologists discussed the unpaid social economy and the value of the ladies’ circles of old which have mostly disappeared. When I tried to find studies on the stay-at-home working women’s economy, I felt like I was looking for the archives. The well-attended ladies’ circles and PTA meetings and Elks Club meetings did knit together the stray yarns of the social fabric.

But I welcomed the changes and marched to different drummers, held placards, as did many of us of this generation.

The Martha Circle still influences. As I write these accounts or try to assemble memoirs or pass along stories I think are important to the next generations, I recognize there is no explaining the Martha Circle, the smug certainty of women who knew how to work, who knew what was right and wrong, who were Pillars.

Their hands weren’t manicured. Their hands might sport callouses or angry red marks from an oven burn or reddened hands from scrubbing with Clorox. As much as I pushed against that ethic, I admire it.

Recently an acquaintance suggested that the solution to the labor shortages would be if we retirees all picked up a shift a week in some workplace. “No!” I said loudly. “I’ve worked since I was twelve and I want to sleep in or do what I choose now.”

This is true. I am still focused on my work, but it is work I choose to do, mostly involving a laptop. I can sport a manicure, like the one my granddaughter painted unevenly for me.

I might be a Mary at heart, but I know Marthas are superior.

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  1. Jane
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    With Thanksgiving approaching, I’m remembering family holiday gatherings where the grandmothers, mothers, aunts and daughters cooked and cleaned in the kitchen while the grandfathers, fathers, uncles and sons played touch football out in the yard. Now, I’m so pleased to see my son and son-in-law pitching in with the cooking and jumping up after the meal to clear the table and load the dishwasher!

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