Helene Tuchbreiter was one of Palm Beach’s most prominent socialites in her time. She made an impact both on the social scene and on the people immediately around her.
My own recollection of her, however, was more prosaic: she was one of my mother’s best friends during the years we lived in Palm Beach. This was made more real by an experience they both shared: the founding of the Church Mouse thrift shop.
Both of them were members at Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church and also members of the St. Mary’s Ladies’ Guild. (or circle, as it’s called in some churches.) Each year the guild had a “Rummage Mart” at the church to raise money for its charitable activities. Helene was the Guild’s president. In the Spring of 1968 the Vestry of the church informed the Guild that it wasn’t right to have the sale on church property. In support of their position they cited such Bible verses as “Jesus went into the Temple Courts and began to drive out those who were selling, Saying as he did so: “Scripture says–‘My House shall be a House of Prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Luke 19:45-46) This didn’t sit well with the ladies of the Guild, who thought all along they were doing something good. The Vestry, flush with its new found knowledge of the Scriptures (they probably really wanted to keep the riff-raff off of the church grounds) stuck to its guns. So the Guild had to find an alternative.
Helene, unwilling to be sidetracked in the mission to do good (and probably unwilling to be outdone by sellers of shirts), took the initiative and led the Guild to start a thrift shop off of the church grounds. The Rector, Dr. Hunsdon Cary, was sceptical about the concept; he told Helene that they would probably end up poor as church mice. Beyond the absurdity of anything in Palm Beach experiencing such poverty, this doubtless spurred Helene and the others to make it work.
Dr. Cary’s quip also gave the enterprise its name; in March 1970 the Church Mouse thrift shop opened. It was soon forced to move because the building was being torn down for the Publix market in Palm Beach (that was another great controversy as well.) It moved to its second location at 101 North County Road. My mother kept the books for the Church Mouse during its early days.
In 1987 it moved to two locations, one at 374 South County Road and the other in West Palm Beach. The store was and is to this day a success, as good example of any of taking lemons and making lemonade.
Years later, while we were preparing for my mother’s estate sale, the portrait reproduction above was found in my mother’s things. The individual who was organising the sale asked me the question, “What did she do?” My response to him was, “In Palm Beach, it isn’t a matter of what you do, it’s what you are,” and went through the story you have here.
This state of affairs, however, is not unique to socialites. When God called Moses to lead his people out of bondage, Moses asked the obvious question:
“Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I shall say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” And God, furthermore, said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations.” (Exod 3:13-15 NAS)
This abstract sounding answer had then and has now an important point. We as human beings have a habit of defining everyone and everything by what they do. The gods of ancient peoples were a reflection of that; every one of them had a specialty task. But the God who commissioned Moses and later sent his own Son is beyond that: he is not defined by what he does, but by what he is and moreover that he exists: “For in him was created all that is in Heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible–Angels and Archangels and all the Powers of Heaven. ” (Col 1:16) Jesus himself underscored his own nature and that of his Father when “Jesus said to them, ““In truth I tell you,” replied Jesus, “before Abraham existed I was.”” (John 8:58 NAS)
Our habit of defining ourselves and others by what we do is worse than ever in this performance based world we live in. Helene Tuchbreiter — the preacher’s kid from Montgomery, Alabama, who went on to Palm Beach — has gone on for the last time to meet the great “I Am.” Of the results of this encounter, we do not know, but we do know that before we do anything else we must follow God through his Son Jesus Christ, and then what we are will far surpass anything we can do — in this life and the life to come.