by Elena E. Smith
5th Grade, December 1965
When I was a kid, nobody thought it was cool to live on a farm. I’ve heard some people think growing up on a farm is fun. At times, it could be. But it definitely had its down side — getting up at four a.m. to feed the cows, or walking to school with the grey muck on your shoes still drying. Boys don’t care about that stuff, but when you’re a girl, like me, it can be embarrassing to show up at school smelling like a barnyard. And back when I grew up, in the 1960s, we didn’t have a mall nearby where we could buy “body splash” to cover it up with.
I wasn’t a good student or a bad student. I was the kind of kid nobody noticed much, with medium-length plain brown hair, big eyes and freckles. But there were a few things I could do really well. I could sing, I could dance, and I could do gymnastics. And whenever my parents took my brothers somewhere, I transformed our small living room into a stage, where I turned a flashlight upside down and sang into the big end, like it was a microphone, prancing over and around the furniture. I played this game for hours, and my life changed for the better when I met Beth, because she loved to sing, too, and we staged duets, concerts and sing-offs in my empty living room on a regular basis. Beth was much prettier than I was, with naturally blond hair, and she was taller and not as skinny as me. She had better clothes, too, and more confidence. But when we sang together in my living room, with the lights turned down for atmosphere, we were equal, and sometimes I was even a little better than she was when a lower voice range was required.
When we were in the seventh grade, fall kicked in with a vengeance, and the Arizona temperature dropped into the forties with a dry wind that found all the loose spots in our cable knit sweaters as we stood in line for the annual Christmas Pageant auditions. Every year, our school produced a play with costumes, a band concert and other entertainment, including the chance to be the soloist on O Holy Night. The day of try-outs, Beth and I waited with fifty other kids outside the school cafeteria, which also doubled as the auditorium, our hands pulled into our sleeves to preserve what little warmth we had.
A red-haired boy bumped by me and mumbled, “Smelly Nellie the Cattle Queen,” in my ear, but I ignored him. I’d learned a long time ago that the kids who called names were often called a lot of names, themselves. Let me just say that red hair wasn’t too popular at my school. A lot less popular than living on a farm. But I had another reason for ignoring him, too — my brothers, Jim and Curt. Once the redhead found out about them, he would forget about my dreaded nickname. And if he didn’t forget soon enough, my brothers would help him do it. Weeks later, the class bully would see that “Smelly Nellie” became “Sweet Nellie” when Momma sent a batch of fresh-baked fudge nut brownies to the pageant for everyone to enjoy.
On the day of the pageant, I waited patiently in line for the janitor in grey coveralls to open the auditorium, as I clutched a frosty pie tin with a paper napkin covering the no-longer-warm sweet treats. Inside the auditorium, it was a zoo. Parents, kids with musical instruments and kids without musical instruments shed coats hats umbrellas purses on every available chair as Mr. Herndon, the band teacher, and Mrs. Zwick, the music teacher, yelled as loud as they could for us to put our personal belongings backstage, even though backstage was not much more than a narrow corridor behind the scrim curtain. I blended in with the milling mass that hustled up the six steps on one side of the stage, and was thrilled to see that the normally dusty, navy-colored scrim curtain had been painted with glittery white paint which transformed it into a jewel-like silhouette of Jerusalem, the Holy City. I wanted to enjoy it longer, but someone’s elbow in my back pressed me to continue on behind the scrim where several long conference tables had been set up, and my fudge nut brownies soon joined the cookies, candy canes and fruit punch.
As I found a spot for my comfortable but tattered tan corduroy coat, I noticed the highly polished wood plank floor, amazed that the janitor had been able to remove the scuffmarks from black patent leather shoes that had built up during weekly band rehearsals. With a pang, I remembered the auditions for the Christmas Pageant four weeks ago. I sang my heart out on O Holy Night, but it was no use. A low alto like me could not hit the A-above-high-C without a slight screech in my voice. And though I had practiced for weeks to adjust the screech to what I hoped was a less noticeable squeak, Mrs. Zwick smiled and said only, “Good work, Nellie. Next? Beth?”
Beth, of course, was chosen to sing O Holy Night. As a strong second soprano with a wide range, she glided easily over the notes that had taken me hours of practice to reach. I wasn’t jealous. You see, Beth was my best friend. But I had hoped that practicing would make it possible to have the opportunity to be the soloist this year.
The cacophony of instruments tuning up, singing and laughter forced me to stop dwelling on my disappointment. The Pageant would last several hours, and each of us had something to prepare for, even if it was just to change into our shimmery dresses to be part of the back-up chorus.
I looked across the room and saw Beth at the refreshment table — her blonde hair perfectly curled and glossy with hair spray. She had not changed into her sparkling white soloist dress, yet, and was still wearing blue jeans and a red plaid hunting shirt. I watched her rummage through the sweets, popping treats into her mouth, including one of Momma’s fudge nut brownies. And that’s when the problem started. Because, even though I knew that Beth was highly allergic to walnuts, it was the furthest thing from my mind at the moment. Mrs. Zwick began herding us to the dressing room and in one jostling noisy bunch, we moved away from the refreshment tables that would soon be placed elsewhere in preparation for the show.
It was about twenty minutes later — as we girls seemed to be half in and half out of our costumes — when someone screamed, “Beth, what’s wrong with your face?”
We all turned to look, and sure enough, Beth’s face had swollen like a balloon filled with water. She struggled for breath as her face got redder. “Teacher!” someone cried out.
And, let me tell you, I wanted to crawl into a gopher hole and hide when I realized what had happened. Beth was having an allergic reaction to Momma’s fudge nut brownies. She was going into anaphylactic shock. I knew about this because she’d explained it to me before, but I’d never seen it happen, and I realized that I had actually seen her pick up the fudge nut brownie — and I hadn’t said a word to stop her.
“Nellie!” Mrs. Zwick grabbed my arm at the same time the ambulance came wailing up to the back door of the auditorium. “Put on the white dress.”
I just stared at her. “I can’t —”
“Do it. Now!”
“But, Mrs. Zwick,” I stammered. “I know I’m supposed to be the under-study, but I can’t hit the highest note.”
“We’ll transpose the key, if we have to,” she said calmly. “You don’t have to go on for an hour. You know the words, don’t you?”
I nodded dumbly, wondering what “transpose the key” meant.
I couldn’t tell you whether the hour went by too slowly or too quickly. Even though O Holy Night was my favorite of all songs, I dreaded the idea of singing a solo in front of the entire community and hitting the squeaky note near the finish. So, I cracked my knuckles. I paced. I practiced slow breathing and counting to ten, but I was a nervous wreck. Somewhere in my heart, I knew that I had seen Beth pick up that fudge nut brownie and I’d done nothing to stop her. Did I do it on purpose, so I could get the solo away from her?
Nearby, Mrs. Zwick and Mr. Herndon were talking in a loud whisper as the Hand Bell Choir performed on stage. She was an upbeat middle-aged pear-shaped woman who always dressed conservatively and had a smile for everyone. He was slightly older, thin and athletic with hair as short as teddy-bear fur and dry, reddish skin.
“But we can’t,” Mr. Herndon hissed. “You can re-key a song if you’re using piano and vocals, but it’s a different thing when you have a small orchestra. You can’t just transpose the key so easily with all those instruments involved.”
“It can’t be that difficult —,” Mrs. Zwick protested.
“But it is. Not all instruments can play in all keys. Besides, these are kids. It was hard enough for them to learn their parts to begin with. We can’t just change it on them at the last minute. They’ll never be able to do it!”
A big knot of dread built in my stomach. Then, Mrs. Zwick saw me watching them. She came over to me, fiddled with my hair and adjusted the big shiny bow at the back of the soloist’s dress. “Nellie, why don’t you sit down for a few minutes, over there,” and she put her arm around my shoulders, leading me to a chair.
I looked out onto the stage from the sidelines. I kept seeing a cartoon character in my head running around in circles crying, “Woe is me!” I was responsible for single-handedly ruining the Christmas Pageant. First, I hadn’t warned Beth about the fudge nut brownies, and now I was going to sing a song that was meant for her because of a high note I couldn’t hit.
I sat down on the cold folding metal chair as the Hand Bell Choir left the stage and the pastor from the local Lutheran church walked briskly onto the platform with a serious look on his face. In his left hand, he carried a Bible that must have weighed ten pounds, and with his right hand he adjusted the height of a nearby black metal sheet music stand. He flopped the gold-leafed Bible onto the stand and it appeared to magically open to the exact page he planned to preach from.
I didn’t have to listen, because I already knew what he was going to say. “The Word of the Lord, from Matthew 1:21.” He was going to tell the story of the birth of Christ, just like every pastor did this time of year. “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS for he shall save his people from their sins,” he intoned from his New King James Version.
As he continued on, I couldn’t help reflecting on my own sins of that day, and sank into a deeper level of misery as I realized that wrecking O Holy Night was going to be my punishment. But then the preacher’s calm voice and encouraging words began to show me that I would get through this day, even if I squealed on the high A. It wouldn’t be easy, but by the time February came, everybody would be so busy talking about which boys would ask them to dance on Valentine’s Day that my failure would be long forgotten. I felt myself sitting up a little taller in my chair as the thick red velvet curtain framing the front of the stage closed, removing the auditorium audience from view and turning the stage and backstage area into its own private navy and silver-white world. O Holy Night would be performed next, following the fifteen-minute break. I swallowed hard as the band members began to quietly move their chairs into a semi-circle in front of the scrim curtain where the Holy City shimmered under the Klieg lights.
“Beth!” someone cried out, and I looked up to see that Beth had entered the backstage area. Her face was still puffy after a hasty treatment of benadryl and adrenaline. I stood up quickly, worried that she would be furious with me for putting on the white soloist dress. In the background, I could hear Mrs. Zwick saying, “There isn’t time to change.”
“Then what do you suggest we do?” Beth’s mother was asking in a strident voice.
I wanted to run, but as Beth’s best friend, I knew that was the last thing I should do. So, I forced myself to get up off the chair and walk toward Beth and her mother, who looked at me, smiled, and said, “Hello, dear.”
“You look nice,” Beth agreed.
“We’ll just have to put something over her face,” Mrs. Zwick was saying, and she was right. The aftermath of Beth’s attack was going to draw far more attention than her beautiful voice would.
“I have an idea,” Mrs. Zwick announced. “Nellie, you can dance, can’t you?”
“Dance?” I echoed.
“You know, move around, like this?” She imitated some very basic ballet moves we had all practiced in gym class, but I couldn’t imagine why she was asking me this.
“Then, we’ll put Beth behind the scrim curtain. We’ll light her from behind, which will make her look like an angel. She will sing the solo, and you, Nellie, will be at the front of the stage, moving in time to the music.”
And that was how we performed O Holy Night at the Christmas Pageant that year. The reporter from the local paper really liked it, and only a few of us knew why the show had been changed from the way it was done before. I walked away that day with a special Christmas glow. I had a best friend who loved me, and who forgave me even when I didn’t deserve it.
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