As a 16-year old girl watching Felicity and 10 Things I Hate About You, there was nothing that drew me to the Young Ladies’ Institute (YLI), a large, active women’s organization at our local Catholic Church. My mother was greatly involved. With all the jokes about how young the ladies were (they were not) I did not understand this organization.
Like many other high school graduates I knew, I petitioned for financial support, a donation for missionary work, a scholarship for college, both of which received. YLI was a good organization. I thought nothing ill of it.
College and marriage took me to the midwest and east coast, far away from YLI which spans the west. Returning home, looking for projects to fill my housewife lifestyle. I volunteered to create the monthly newsletter.
In this way, I learned about the program to which my mother was greatly committed. I learned the events, the works of mercy performed, the offices and annual tasks. Every woman I interviewed had this to say about YLI, “I love YLI because they were there for me in my time of need…”
As life goes on, the structures of our relationships change. I found myself looking for friends who were able to be a part of daily life. I longed for a community I could plug into with like-minded women.
In the last two years, crises mounted. We were in need. YLI came to our aid through meals, donations, and putting together the most beautiful funeral reception I could imagine. Walking into my mother’s kitchen, seeing platter after platter of brightly hued fruit after burying my baby was a relief I did not expect. It was Beauty after Sadness.
These women served and washed dishes while I talked with friends, hoping this would be the end of our grief. They did not do this only because they are my mom’s friends. They did it because they are my sisters, my YLI sisters. Despite my lack of involvement, they were there for me as no single individual could be.
Meanwhile, I considered the benefit of the parish in a small town, as put forward by Rod Dreher’s in The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming. Our friends can be like-minded, but in our lives we need to be confronted by people who are different: older, younger, married, single, with kids, without kids, wanting kids, not wanting kids, working, unemployed by choice or circumstance, conservative, liberal, faithful to the Magisterium, spiritual-but-not-religious, and so on. In adulthood, it does us no good to live in a bubble. For some, social media and steaming-on-demand create quite a secure bubble. We see or hear only what we want.
Then one evening, I decide to attend the YLI meeting in order to flesh out that month’s newsletter.
There are three young women there, all younger than me. I gravitated towards one, sitting on the outskirts with her infant. Feeling the need to explain my lack of involvement (too cool for the old ladies group), she scrunches her nose, smiles and says, “I like it. It’s fun.” When the meeting begins, I see what she means.
First, I felt like I was in Bewitched at some committee meeting. This gave me a sense of continuity with history. Housewives did not just stay at home mothering. They volunteered. They plugged into not just their children’s schools, but community groups, local nonprofits, programs that benefit the neighborhood. This is one fall out of a majority of mothers going to work. Neighborhoods wane because no one except paid employees has the time to improve them.
Secondly, Robert’s Rules of Order govern the meeting. A strange sight for a teenager, I see how that this structure is necessary. How else could you bring 18-year-olds and 80-year-olds together in one room? Without the structure, they would speak a different language. Like the Church, this order makes it bigger than the personalities of the leaders and the age.
Lastly, I cannot think of many tasks I like more than watching people interact. This was food for the mind and fodder for my humor.
I thought to myself, this could be it. This could be what I have been looking for. My community, right here.
And in the end, it provides more opportunities to tease my mother. That makes the experience priceless.