Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
April 15, 2015
I had never tasted candied parsnips before, but after that first serving at Muriel’s house I could never get enough.
Muriel Dresser and her husband Marston were members of the Shopiere United Methodist Church, a small, rural congregation near Beloit, Wisconsin, where I pastored from 1978 to 1982. The Dressers were retired farmers, then in their mid-70s. Both were hale and hearty, though Muriel suffered from a severely arthritic hip and walked with an awkward, rolling gait. But that never stopped her from attending church or doing her household chores.
Shopiere was located was twenty miles from Footville, where I lived. It had an active youth group, which met on Sunday evenings, and which I was expected to lead. One Sunday after church, Muriel ambled up to me and said, “Pastor Rick, I hate the idea of you driving all the way over here in the morning, then driving all the way back to Footville for dinner, then driving all the way back here again for youth group, and then driving all the way home afterward! Why don’t you just come over to my house after church on Sundays for dinner? You can take a nap in the spare bedroom if you want to, and then you’ll be all rested up for the young people, and won’t have to go home exhausted. This is a standing invitation. Come any time you like!” I accepted Muriel’s gracious offer gladly, and so I began taking Sunday dinner at the Dressers’ about once a month. Sometimes Marston and I watched the Green Bay Packers game on TV.
One day, along with the roast beef and mashed potatoes, Muriel served me a mound of what I took for julienned carrots. I remarked that these were lighter in color than any carrots I’d seen before. “Well,” she replied, “they’re not carrots. They’re parsnips. We grow them every year.” She told me that the trick to parsnips is not to harvest them till after the first hard frost in the fall, and preferably not till the spring thaw. The longer they’re in the ground, the sweeter they become. Before cooking, you have to cut out the core, which is usually too woody to eat. Then you slice them, boil them in salt water, drain them, and stir-fry them with butter, honey and nutmeg. One bite and I was sold forever.
Muriel took immense delight in my relish for her recipe, and whatever the main course for any given Sunday dinner might be – beef, ham, turkey – candied parsnips were sure to be a side dish. Of course, I endured a certain amount of good-natured teasing from Marston for being a city boy, who couldn’t tell one garden vegetable from the next. But that teasing, too, like the ever-present plate of candied parsnips, was a sign of their hospitality. To Marston and Muriel Dresser, every houseguest was family.
Late one night, about two years after my first visit to that home away from home, I got a phone call from the local hospital. I learned that Muriel had just suffered a massive heart attack. She was stable for the moment, and fully conscious, but wasn’t expected to live through the night. She was asking for me. “Tell her I’ll be right there,” I said. I threw on some clothes, jumped in the car, and blazed down the back country roads, hoping to make it in time.
Luckily, I did. Muriel was in the ICU, hooked up to a battery of tubes and monitors. She knew me and smiled. “Well, Rick,” she said, “am I going to die?”
“I don’t know, Muriel,” I replied. “Are you ready to die?”
“Yes,” she said, “I’m ready.”
“Well, then everything is okay.”
She nodded. “Yes, everything is okay.”
Muriel lived through the night, but died two days later, after being transferred to a cardiac care unit in another hospital. A few days afterward I conducted her funeral. The service was held, as was proper, in the church sanctuary. After the service, we all drove to the cemetery, headlights lit out of respect for the deceased. We parked thirty yards or so from the gravesite, which lay on a sunny hillside. The pall bearers gently slid Muriel’s casket out of the hearse, carried it to the grave, and laid it on the slings of the lowering device. Marston and I stood at the head of the casket. I recited the solemn words of the committal, then dismissed the congregation and most drove back to the church for the customary “lunch.” But I stayed behind for few moments with my friend, my surrogate grandma.
“Goodbye, dearest,” I murmured. “Thank you for your faith. Thank you for taking me into your home. Thank you for your courage in the face of death. Rest in peace.” I threw a handful of earth on the casket, walked to my car, and drove back to the church.
The ladies of the congregation had prepared ham sandwiches, baked beans, jello salad, and vanilla sheet cake with chocolate frosting. It was a wonderful meal, and for Muriel’s sake I ate with a good appetite. But I did have an unmet hankering for candied parsnips.