The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

You tell people up here that you’re from the South, and nine times out of ten, they say the same old thing: “I’m sure you miss the sunshine.” Rhonda and I both miss taking sunshine and easy morning commutes for granted. But what we really miss are the laughter and embrace of our mothers and grandmothers and aunties, kin and not kin. We miss the big oak tables in their dining rooms where, as kids in the seventies and eighties, we ate bowl after bowl of their banana pudding as they talked to each other about how much weight you’d gained, like you weren’t even there. We miss helping them snap green beans and shell peas sitting at their kitchen tables watching The Young and the Restless on the TV perched on the pass-through. We miss how they loved Victor Newman, hated Jill Foster, and envied Miss Chancellor and how she dripped diamonds and chandeliers.

We miss their bare brown arms reaching to hang clothes on the line with wooden pins. We miss their sun tea brewed all day in big jars on the picnic table in the backyard, then later loaded with sugar and sipped over plates of their fried chicken in the early evening. We miss lying next to them at night in their four-poster beds with too-soft mattresses covered by ironed sheets and three-generation-old blankets. We miss their housecoats, perfumed with Absorbine Jr. liniment and hints of the White Shoulders they’d spritzed on from an atomizer that morning before church. We miss tracing the soft folds in their skin when we held hands and watched our favorite TV shows in their beds. Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing, and Falcon Crest.

We miss how they laughed and were easy with each other. How their friendships lasted lifetimes, outlasting wayward husbands and ungrateful children. Outlasted that time Alma caught Joe cheating and she whacked him on the top of the head with the sword he’d brought back from the war, but he told the people at the hospital he didn’t know who did it. Outlasted having to hide your medicine bottles in your shoes because, otherwise, seven of your nine children were liable to steal them. We miss how they seemed to judge everyone but themselves. Or maybe that judgment was in the “nerve” pills they procured from the Chinese doctor on Bay St. who didn’t ask questions. We miss their furtive cups of brown liquor on Friday and unabashed cries for Jesus come Sunday.

We miss their one gold tooth that made us wonder who they had been as young women. We miss their blue crabs, the shells boiled to a blood red in wash tubs atop bricks over makeshift fires built in the yard. The wash tubs reminded us of cauldrons, full of rock salt– and cayenne-drenched water bubbling and rolling, mesh bags of seasonings and halved onions and peppers floating on top, along with potatoes and ears of corn. We miss how they stood over those cauldrons like witches, stirring a potion. With sweat beading on the tips of their noses and smoke swirling around their hands and wrists, they wielded long-handled spoons to press the frantic, flailing crabs toward their deaths.

We miss how they made our Easter dresses and pound cakes and a way out of no way.

Deesha Philyaw, from “Snowfall” in “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” (West Virginia Press, September, 2020)


  • Let’s rate this book as: “Wow.” And Highly Recommended.  Finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. Winner of the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award, and so deserving.
  • Kirkus Book Review: “Tender, fierce, proudly Black and beautiful, these stories will sneak inside you and take root.”
  • Los Angeles Review of Books:  “Her characters create intimacy and have hope, not despite their ugly odds but because of them.”


  1. What beautiful writing, such poignant and vivid reminiscences. Are you reading this now?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. this sounds absolutely wonderful. and ‘how they made a way out of no way’ says it all.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Since you never came back with the last one, I’ll dismiss it and replace it with this. I can tell it is the type of reading I’ll love.
    How do you end up choosing to read something like this?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Michael Zahaby says:

    I loved reading that excerpt. It reminded me of times past of heritage and family. My wife is an on air host of an NPR program and I highly recommended that she hosts that author and to feature that book. Thanks for that wonderful share

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I got totally breathless reading that excerpt. Wonderful – thank you so much. You are SUCH A WELL of absolutely incredibly texts and ideas – I’m also bookmarking the podcast link. Just now listening to Jo Nesbo, although I think I’ll move to something else, as I didn’t even finish reading on ‘what’ and don’t really want to know about Eleanore…. I’ll find something else. Couldn’t find the one you ‘treat’ above though!

    Love that!!!!! I often listen to podcasts, contrary to Dale, but NEVER en route, as you obviously do. I’m with her; we have sounds of nature (at least here), birds, trees with sweeshing branches, screaming kids, barking dogs, murmuring waves of our lake. I’m also always startled when I speak to somebody to see that I really disturb them in their listening to something I didn’t realise because those earbuds are so tiny that you don’t see ppl wearing them… LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Brings more than a tear to my eye – makes me sloppy cry…and so true. Where you’re from has less to do with the topography of anything other than the paths that lead to family


  8. Christie says:

    I love this…this slice of life I so resonate with…Deesha Philyaw is such a gifted writer!!! She paints such an amazing snapshot of life…/// I also watched the “The Young and the Restless” for many years. I meet the very talented actress who played the character Mrs Chancellor – Jeanne Cooper (rip) who happens to be the Mother of actor Corbin Bernsen!

    Liked by 1 person


  1. […] raucous symphony can be heard here, my friend 🙂 Something tells me your earbuds would have been […]

    Liked by 1 person

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