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Tail of a Cloud

The Gray Lady, ghost of the Sims Scandinavian Lutheran Church parsonage, was a harmless spirit, says Carol Samuelson. A pastor’s daughter who grew up in the parsonage, Carol recalls that the ghost drew water from the hand pump and, when present in the living room, caused the temperature to drop.

“She was very friendly,” Carol insists. “It was comforting to have her there.” From the chilled living room they would see her ascending the stairs to her bedroom like “the tail end of a cloud.”

The day last week when First Lady Laura Bush came to Sims, North Dakota, she didn’t see the Gray Lady, but Carol told her about the apparition. Mrs. Bush had just a bite or two of Norwegian almond cake and chatted with people at the potluck in the church basement. Things didn’t go exactly as planned, but they went well indeed.

The idea behind the First Lady’s visit to the ghost town of Sims, North Dakota, was to express her support for the Save America’s Treasures program, of which she is honorary chairwoman. The Save America’s Treasures program provides funding to the organization, Preservation North Dakota, for restoration of historic buildings, including the historic 1884 church parsonage at Sims. Mrs. Bush followed the money to Sims, but also honored the local parishioners, like Donna and Joel Johnson, who worked so hard to restore the place.

And although I’m going on to talk about the homely spectacle of the First Lady coming to this little country church, let’s remember that the event was, at heart, about the people of Sims Lutheran, who do honor to themselves and to America by restoring this treasure house of the American prairies. They are good people who have done a good thing.

And Mrs. Bush did a good thing by coming here. It was interesting to observe the dynamics of the visitation. Attendees were vetted, screened, and selected by White House staff and security. Only about 25 church parishioners and a handful of Preservation North Dakota officers were permitted to partake.

On the scene, even in cozy little Sims on a sunlit Indian summer day, security trumped all other considerations. White House staff, mainly in the person of a firm but tactful woman named Christina, had been on the scene for days and had worked out the choreography for the event. When the Lady drove up, people were supposed to be singing in the church sanctuary, so that the music spilling from the open windows would welcome the First Lady as she drove up on the sunny south side of the church.

When the suits, by which I mean the traditionally black-clad secret service, arrived with the First Lady, they nixed the Norman-Rockwell hymn-singing scene. I’m rather sure what happened was they scanned the unsecured ridges all around and said, we’re not walking the First Lady around the road here. Instead they took her right to the parsonage for a tour; she was first welcomed officially there by my wife, Suzzanne, a matter of considerable excitement and wardrobe crisis in our household.

And yes, the First Lady did sit down with us in the church basement. We had been instructed to eat slowly, not an easy thing for country people, so we would still have food on our plates when she arrived. She chatted charmingly with us, even seemed to relax a bit. Seated by the oldest member of the church, Ruth Olien, I watched to make sure she turned around in time to grasp the hand of Mrs. Bush before she left.

There was singing after all, for as the First Lady rose to depart, a chorus of “God Bless America” welled up, and I saw tears welling, too, in the eyes of the practical women presiding over the kitchen. Mrs. Bush exited the basement walking under an inscription neatly lettered blue on the white plaster, which reads, “With God all things are possible.”

 

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