I’m single because I am a church leftover, a cruel term tossed out by a thoughtless young man who probably was trying to be kind to me when he was explaining which Sunday School class I might want to attend as I visited his church. (Not the one for church leftovers.) But I was over thirty at the time, one of countless single women who got passed over during the husband hunting days of college or immediately thereafter. We often ended up doing good works. I called myself a Baptist nun; I had the poverty and chastity down, and the obedience was enforced by the various Christian institutions at which I worked, all of which had rules of conduct.
When I left home to attend a Christian college, the thinking was that I would find a nice young man there. It wasn’t high on my priority list, but I never intended to be single. I had wedding themes and colors for every season picked out, and a long list of possible names for my children. I was reasonably pretty, and very dedicated, planning to be a missionary.
Decades later, a savvier friend told me I’d picked the wrong answer to the question of what I intended to do with my life. Missionary shrank the pool too far down; if I’d said pastor’s wife, I’d have done better. But I didn’t want to be a pastor’s wife. I’d been fired by the example of missionaries who came to my church to report on their lives and converts, never noticing how many of them were single women.
The truth is, I’m not very good at decoding men or playing the dating game. Years after the fact, it dawned on me that some of them had been flirting with me during college, and if I’d responded properly, the relationship may have become something other than what it inevitably became—close friends, study buddies.
I was smart and independent, which didn’t help. I was overweight—not obese, just not Twiggy-sized, which was the trend when I was in college. And I was busy. I had a double major, so I took heavy course loads with lots of required reading. I had a job on campus. I was in plays and wrote for the newspaper. I also wrote and helped record a radio program for kids. I was on ministry teams every year, traveling during spring break to exotic places like Michigan to spread the good news. When did I have time to notice a guy noticing me?
When I moved to another state to teach in a church-related school, supportive people at church thought surely I would meet someone there. But most of the men I met were married, and the single ones were—well, odd, in ways different than the way I was odd. Old patterns die hard, so I listened to their relationship troubles and gave good advice. All the male teachers were married or engaged. We were expected to be on seven days a week, active in church, attending any school-related activity, and, oh yes, writing lesson plans, teaching a full load, and grading papers, which always took me longer, because English papers and math papers aren’t remotely the same.
And suddenly I was thirty, and it was too late, apparently. I was learning to live without romance; the few dates I had weren’t nearly as much fun or as easy as being with my women friends. I liked men; I still do. I like the way they think, all logical and hospital corners. I like their conversation; I felt I had more in common with my male colleagues than with married women at church, who talked of their husbands, children, laundry, Little League, and recipes. I like their bodies.
But no man asked for my hand in marriage, though some of them had great lines about love, so tender even decades later that I can’t write them down here to mock the faithlessness of the men who uttered them.
So I never married. Most of the time that’s been okay. I’ve learned to live alone, and I think I’m pretty good company. A book, a movie, a walk, some writing, a stab at housecleaning can distract me when I’m not. I want a husband when I need someone to laugh or cry with; I wanted one desperately when I went through cancer treatment. I want a second income. I want grandchildren.
I have no complaints about my single life. I’ve seen too many unhappy marriages to believe mine would have been the fairy tale version that a few lucky women and men seem to create. I’m blessed with women friends and work to do. I’ve missed what most women would call a full life. With Karen Armstrong, I can say I’m a failed heterosexual—and how I blessed her for writing those words about herself, giving me a biological term for what’s been my life.
But really, I’m a church leftover.