Thirty years ago, I was 9-years-old and going with my mother, my best friend, and her mother to the local Christmas Chorale performance, an annual event at the Methodist church. While I wasn’t raised going to church, I knew exactly what behavior was expected and was more than capable of sitting through the two hours of singing.
We filed into a long pew on the right side of the aisle. Although I could do without the Latin songs that no one East of the Pope could even remotely decipher, they gave us a break every so often with an audience participation of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” or something equally as jazzy.
About four or five songs in, I noticed a waft coming from the older gentleman seated to my right. It was stuffy and getting warmer by the minute with all the wool-clad bodies. The odor was growing more pungent.
I tried to ignore it and focused instead on the chorale members: an art teacher, a familiar looking mom of a kid in my class, and someone who was making very pronounced shapes with their caroling mouth like the Byers’ Choice figurines at the gift shop. Unknowingly, I started to fashion my mouth into a similar oval and caught my best friend’s attention. She snickered and made a mini hand waving motion in front of her face glancing at the man. I leaned over and whisper/sung into her ear ‘Do You Smell What I Smell?” complete with holiday tune.
This was not a good idea.
It would seem that whisper/singing any parody lyrics to a holiday song to your 9-year-old buddy in the middle of a solemn production dedicated to the glory of the lord, would increase the humor of said song three-fold. This is when the laughter started. Luckily, we were able to stifle it for several minutes, but as you know, the more forbidden laughter is at a given moment, the funnier the situation becomes. Meanwhile, the older gentlemen was marinating in his own stew and starting to ferment. This was when the glances started from my friend’s mother (the more stern of our two chaperones.)
“Girls!” she whispered and scolded at us.
As it turns out, a whisper/scold to silence two 9-year-old girls over subtle giggles induced by the fragrance of a pew sharing octogenarian only serves to send the things into a downward spiral. Stifled little girl laughs have nowhere to go but through the nose, and that’s what happened. We were now snorting and laughing through “Patapan” and I was willing the director to segue into a rousing audience sing-along of “Good King Wenceslas” in an effort to stop the madness.
The smell was getting stronger. My mother was starting to join in the silent discipline, giving us the side eye. Pleading our case, my friend whispered to her mother that the old man smelled bad, and we were struggling to breathe. Her mother then passed the message down to my mom. Neither parent seemed to care and gave us repeated looks that told us we needed to cease breathing for the remaining hour and 15 minutes if necessary, so as not to make a public spectacle. There was a threat to sit in between us if we didn’t cooperate and surrounding concert goers were starting to cast “shut up” looks our way.
The final move was mine. Unable to continue breathing in the Old-Spice-human carcass- special-funk-No.-5, I pulled my turtleneck up over my nose in one jerky and desperate move. Ahhhhhhh. I could breathe again! The cotton was filtering out the scent! Only fresh odorless air could breach the odor repelling fabric! I knew these things were good for something besides school pictures and draping tiny gold necklaces! I was saved. That was until I noticed the pew shaking slightly.
The shaking grew.
My friend had witnessed my scared turtle retreat and her silent laughing increased violently and started to shake the pew. As my eyes peeked out over my turtleneck, I too began to silent laugh, shaking the pew with all my 80 pounds. The entire bench was vibrating with the hilarity of the man’s stench in the eyes of two 5th graders. Then, before one of our mothers dropkicked us onto the holy chandelier, a Christmas miracle occurred. We were asked to rise and sing.