Her name was Sister Pooters. Petite, energetic, single. She was around seventy when I, a young convert, met her at our local Mormon branch. She lived in the tiniest apartment of the tiniest rowhouse on a gloomy street of a forgotten Antwerp suburb. Serving others had been her whole life. As an orphan of the First World War she grew up in a Catholic convent where the nuns taught the girls to become deferential maids in well-to-do households. That’s what she became at age seventeen. She spoke with pride of her fifty years of service “among the rich”, in the upstairs-downstairs interaction of bourgeois town houses. She had lived in their basements, cooking, washing, mending, ironing on a meager salary. She considered serving dinner upstairs, dressed in starched black with an immaculate white apron, the highlight of her daily chores. Her pride was that she knew “the etiquette in society”, learned from the nuns and from the four or five “eminent” families she had served.
When she retired, she moved from her last basement to that tiny apartment. Her cupboards were stacked with worn-out silverware and weathered wine glasses, which her “families” had given her over the years as a “token of appreciation” when they renewed the cutlery for themselves. Her “letters of reference” of former masters – excellent maid, no boyfriends, trustworthy, clean, no reservations - were kept and shown as PhD diploma’s.
One day, shortly after her retirement, there was a knock on her door. Two Mormon missionaries. She embraced the Gospel as much as she did the Elders, whom she adored as true messengers of the Lord. Miss Pooters became Sister Pooters, a gutsy member of the primitive Antwerp branch. Gutsy? I should clarify she was a stubborn saint. For Sister Pooters had a temper. As an experienced maid with a pedigree, the petite woman dictated to members and investigators the etiquette, correcting clothes, comportment and communication. She picked her friends and her enemies. While the district president was her avowed foe, I found grace in her eyes. That earned me the privilege of being invited to her dinners for the missionaries.
Ah, those dinners! A number of times a year she summoned the local messengers of the Lord to her tiny dwelling for a six course banquet. I do not know how she managed to cook all those dishes timely on her crumbling kitchen-range for five to seven guests, but she did. Her mass of stylish silverware and decorated glasses of a by-gone era now fulfilled a divinely foreseen purpose. The small festive table was overflowing for it had to hold for each guest a couple of plates, four sets of knives, forks and spoons in gradual sizes, three arty glasses, a silver napkin holder, a calligraphed menu card, and a finger-rinsing cup with lemon water. Also candles, bottles, flowers. Calculated and compacted to the millimeter, the whole radiated the grandeur and harmony of a banquet for royalty.
At each dinner Sister Pooters relived the best hours of her upstairs service among the elite. From a corner of the table, dwarfed by and squeezed between two elders, she oversaw her gastronomic ceremony. In no uncertain terms she told the missionaries how to unfold the embroidered napkins, which knife to take first, how to hold the fork, how to cut the beef, how to graciously hold a wine glass (filled with juice). The missionaries were happy to comply for the reward was tenfold: the most exquisite cuisine and so plentiful that even they could not eat it all. A dinner would last for at least three hours.
When I became branch president, saw Sister Pooter’s tithing and conducted tithing settlement, I came to know how small her pension was. She lived as soberly as possible, saving every penny for her next missionary dinner. The frequency of the event depended on the money she could muster. Her reward was the satisfaction of the messengers. She knew she gave them the strength to face hundreds of hours of fruitless tracting. And her happiness reached ecstasy when later on she would receive a Christmas card from one of them – all the way from Amerika. It should be said that the return ratio of the cards was not better than that of the ten healed lepers.
Each autumn she made her own apple juice and bottled it according to ancestral traditions, including herbs and spices. A dozen bottles were always neatly stored in a dark corner. One Christmas Eve, with six missionaries and me crammed around the table, she placed a couple of her dust-covered bottles between the plates and uncorked them professionally, beaming with contentment.
- I’ve saved these for you. From a very good apple year.
Glasses filled, we drank to her health.
- Gee, what a strong taste, it makes you feel warm, whispered one junior to his companion. I wonder if…
- Don’t ask, Elder. Drink and shut up. Don’t offend her. We don’t know what it is, so it’s OK.
Yes, apple juice can ferment to cider. Sister Pooters kept toasting to each of us, making sure we emptied the glasses. Happily – yes, very happily – we all got home safely. It was quite a sight. Six tipsy missionaries trying to ride their bikes on a starry Christmas night.
One day, in her eighties, while returning from the market, hauling supplies for her next dinner, Sister Pooters was ran over by a trolleycar. For two weeks she lay in a coma in the hospital. Delirious she didn’t stop talking about some money she had left in her apartment. Money for a dinner, she kept repeating, clasping my hand. She died with that concern on her mind.
Such are the Mormon characters that will not make an Ensign-story for lack of noteworthy deeds. But since the day of her conversion, Sister Pooters certainly did consecrate herself, her time, talents and resources to the Church, for the building up of the Kingdom of God and for the establishment of Zion. By nourishing the messengers, like the poor widow at Zerephath, willing to give her last flour and oil to feed Elijah.
Sister Pooters is one of many of such sisters. Missionaries who have worked in Antwerp will remember others, like Sister Janssens and Sister Giebens. Such can be found all over the world, in large and in small branches and wards. We salute them with deep respect.
As for dear Sister Pooters, I allow myself to imagine her now, in radiant white, teaching Celestial Etiquette 101 to the ministering angels.