The Loving Season

It’s that season again. I can tell by social media that some of you started decorating on Labor Day weekend while others have shown more restraint. One reveler I know at least waited until mid-September to set up her newly purchased tree. I made no comment (where she could hear), but I believe she kept everyone out of her house until Thanksgiving night when she revealed it.

I’ve been known to make a little holiday effort myself, but some years have been more challenging than others. If nothing spoils the mood, you’re apt to find every surface of the house covered in something celebratory. What could spoil the mood, you ask? During the retail employment years of my life, any number of things could set me off. It’s best not to take a peek behind that curtain.

For this blog, I haven’t written much, if anything, about my years as a church organist. Yes, once upon a time I was one of those maniacal manipulator of stops and keys; a special kind of control freak that can bring on waves of tearful sentimentality by simply pulling out the celeste stop. I can also pile on reeds and mixtures to drown out the disrespectful chatter of a cluster of parishioners who think they have something more important to say when it’s my turn to be heard.

One particular organist position was a misery unlike any other. The congregation was grand, and I was given artistic freedom. The only things not musically under my control were the choir, its director, and his wives. Yes, I wrote wives. He wasn’t a polygamist, but a serial monogamist. I didn’t have to deal with a harem all at one time, but I might as well have when it came to Christmas and Easter. The director seemed to have exhausted the last of his choral creativity, but his wife was brimming with ideas. A regular Oracle of Delphi, she could dream dreams, alter the course of events, and screw up men’s minds when she dug in.

I could feel my nausea setting in by late August because I knew enough about Madam and her machinations. She had more climbing skills than a mountain goat, and manipulated less astute church members like Frank Underwood on House of Cards. When she returned from her honeymoon, she officially switched denominations and rose rapidly in church leadership. She knocked the music committee chair off the throne and grabbed the orb and scepter before they hit the ground. We walked into the next meeting, and she had recruited enough new committee members to back her agenda, which was to replace dignity with chaos.

The choir would no longer be doing Lessons and Carols. My repertoire would no longer be required. I was to be set free from an autumn of holiday music preparation because Madam had selected a musical! She insisted that it wouldn’t sound right accompanied by a three-manual (keyboard) organ. Her idea required an orchestra. It didn’t matter that we had no budget to pay for an orchestra or square footage to seat them. You see, all she had to do was buy a soundtrack, and our 22 mostly amateur voices would magically sound like one of those “fancy choirs” one can pull up on YouTube. “Patrick, we only need you for Wednesday and an extra two-hour rehearsal each Saturday to hammer out the voice parts. Oh, and if you could go ahead and learn the full ninety-page score and set aside some time each week to practice with the eight soloists, that would be great!” So much for my fall freedom.

You just know I wasn’t very nice about this to anyone who would listen. There would be NO holiday decorations at my house that year. I wouldn’t even turn on a porch light as I contemplated my revenge in the dark. Who was this low country contralto who’d swept into our musical lives like a demon in search of a soul to possess? I phoned the senior minister who said that it was too late for any type of containment. We were well beyond a simple musical. “Patrick, it’s being staged… with costumes.” They heard me screaming across three counties.

Just exactly how was this banshee going to transform the interior of a dark-paneled gothic church with an acre of stained glass into her Space Odyssey vision of Heaven? Based on her recent behavior, I had my doubts that she’d ever be allowed to see the real Heaven much less design one within our building’s confines. Her cumulus concept was to be populated by 22 amateur elderly angels who could no longer walk and sing at the same time. They’d never be able to perform “off book,” find their marks, and hit their notes.

When word got out that Madam was “producing” the Christmas musical, five soloists dropped out on the spot. One of the remaining soloists, the best soprano in town, was going to have to take on triple duty, but Madam’s ego couldn’t deal with a better singer getting more solos. Two weeks before performance, she reassigned the parts, which left the best singer with one solo and, you guessed it, Madam doing all the rest of the women’s parts in a lower register since you can’t change the key of a pre-recorded soundtrack.

11 days prior to the big day, we were informed that dress rehearsal would take place on the eve of the performance. “We’re going to start at exactly 8:00 on Saturday morning. Plan to stay until 4:00 that afternoon!” Such hours are fine if you’re running through a Wagnerian opera, but for a 55-minute cantata this was a sure sign of trouble.

I had the feeling we were headed in this direction because I was still being called upon to hammer out the parts for those who were having difficulty with harmonies and rhythms. With the exception of the remaining soloists, that meant the rest of the choir. Madam was still determined to stage the production, and had even added a few speaking lines here and there, as if the performers didn’t have enough trouble with the music while trying to find their marks on the cotton batting that kept slipping all over the floor. There were rumors of a forthcoming fog machine, and I could only hope that everyone’s Medicare co-pay was up to date.

It was time to pray for a Christmas miracle. Madam’s supplication was that her cast and crew would somehow fall into place and replicate the skills of a Tony-winning Broadway production. The soloists prayed that they didn’t cross paths with ill people coughing and sneezing in their direction, and I petitioned for a drastic change in the Jetstream to blanket the city in ice long enough for Madam to abandon her folly.

The true miracle came from Mother Superior. That was the sobriquet of Valera Thurgood Harper, our stereotypical church lady. Every parish has one. You know, graduated two years after Jesus, and has thought of nothing for centuries but how to control the institutions, the traditions, and the long string of clergy that have stumbled into her lair. My initial run-in with Valera was the first day on the job. During my interview, I’d been shown where my office was to be. When I arrived, this resolute character informed me that no such room existed. The chamber was hers – note the handwritten nameplate next to the entrance – as she required a place to conduct her business as church historian, Sunday school recording secretary, and budget chairlady. (She was not a chairperson, she insisted, because she learned English grammar before that “Steinem woman stirred things up!”)

Mother Superior had first attempted to dissuade Madam by pointing out that the rood screens and mahogany pulpit were part of the building’s structure and couldn’t be moved without the strength and authority of the actual archangel that rolled away the stone from Christ’s tomb. Madam took the edict of immovable altar furnishings in her stride and announced that they could be covered in a few more bolts of cotton batting. “Perhaps the kind with glitter in it to reflect the light, and maybe some plastic snow!” Frosted white helium balloons could also provide a sense of floating, and that meant renting a tank.

When two totalitarian super-powers clash, people take cover. Some of us like to peek out and see whether the ancient foundations can withstand the onslaught or whether the trifling upstart regime can gain an advantage. Mother Superior was not the fainting type. That’s why she’d reached the pinnacle of parishioner power. She firmly explained to Madam that collections were down, and that there would be no discretional spending before the new year. Besides, balloons were akin to sacrilege, and the use of glitter could cost the offender his baptismal certificate and anything else to bar entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Undaunted, Madam hastily enlisted two altos and discussed the possibility of special donations to pay for the set. The ex-chair of the music committee got wind and, still smarting from the coup, informed Mother Superior of brewing trouble. Dress rehearsal was cancelled, and Heaven on Earth remained as illusive as ever as the musical would now become a no-frills event.

On performance day, the soundtrack blared over the ancient public address system as the choir remained in its normal place on the chancel. The only point that Madam was unwilling to concede was that the singers remain dressed as angels. The poor soloists even had to wear halos fashioned from stiff wire and tinsel that wobbled precariously as they belted their parts above the overpowering accompaniment.

The Christmas Pageant of 19— was but the first battle of a four-year war filled with intrigue, espionage, and other un-churchly activities. There was never an armistice; peace was unattainable until the choir director’s next wife arrived. She couldn’t care less about music. Her zeal was foreign missions. I liked her very much.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the two featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

 

Stiletto Prints in the Sand

IMG_4225I was going to attempt a clever article about the holidays, perhaps reminiscing about Christmases past, but then I remembered I’ve already shared anecdotes about my childhood at Christmas, which you can read here.

I have touched on my role as a singing Martian, fictionalized in A Final Folly, and my crushing disappointment upon learning of the nonexistent special effects budget when called upon to vanish during a live stage production.

I have a few other stories yet to be told about smoke alarms as gifts, a church Christmas pageant that was overtaken by an evil soprano who should’ve been cast in The Exorcist, and the year a towering drag queen lip-synching Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree stole the show (she exceeded seven feet while wearing a red and green double feather boa that arched from the crown of her head). I also get a smile on my face when remembering the year when five cousins returned from a ride around the lake in a 1965 Mustang unusually famished less than two hours after a big lunch.

Before you get too excited, I’m saving those stories until you’re a little older. Until then, just picture me as one of the beatific child shepherds outfitted with one of my mother’s plush Royal Velvet guest towels tied on my head. Someone tied it so tightly that I developed an unbearable headache before they killed the spotlight on that year’s production.

When all those moments were taking place, I didn’t find them as funny as I do now. Holidays are hard on so many people, and I’m one of those who doesn’t spend Labor Day weekend diagraming my lighted yard display. Even before my years in church music and a few spent in retail, I have been a person who steels myself for the holiday season as if December is a big wave heading for shore. I sympathize with those who feel the pressure to consume, whether it’s commercialism or what we stuff into our bodies. I’m one of those who strives for cheerfulness even when I don’t know where it’s going to come from, and I understand the feelings that this Christmas isn’t going to be nearly as great as the one way back when.

Disappointment affects each of us to varying degrees. People experience loss, and devastating events don’t schedule themselves with our personal calendars in mind. Add layers of advertisements, nostalgic shows, and sentimental music to bring home the fact that this holiday season isn’t going to be as good as that year when we thought everything finally fell into place. It’s no wonder we set ourselves up for disappointment.

A large part of my holiday expectation problem has been perspective. Much like photographs that I hated at the moment they were taken, I realize twenty years later that I didn’t look as bad as I thought. And so it is with Christmas. At the time, I might have been sad that a favorite family member or best friend couldn’t make it. Perhaps we couldn’t be together one year or maybe we never were again. There have been years when I’ve worried there wasn’t enough money to pay for presents, special meals, or parties, or there was the time a significant other decided to break up the day after the gifts went under the tree. All of those terrible moments seemed to occur while Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas played over and over.

All of our worst holiday experiences affix themselves to our psyches. I’ve had some terrible years, and I’ve heard stories of even worse experiences. As I dug deep into my memory to find a heart-warming story to share this December, I quickly passed over the more difficult years, which seemed to remind me why I am not always immediately filled with hope. After pondering the holidays I consider to be some of my best, I realized that those really terrible Christmases had mellowed with age. At the time, I was very unhappy, but each year contained at least a morsel of joy that continues to make me smile.

You might say that when I looked back to see one set of footprints and thought I’d faced a particularly sad Christmas on my own, I’d never been truly alone for an extremely tall drag queen wearing a double feather boa had been carrying me all along.

© 2017 by Patrick Brown

IMG_7899To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

The Toast of Christmas Past

I received a toaster for Christmas the year I was five. Like all small children, I’d been asked for several weeks what I wanted Santa to bring me. I was the youngest in my immediate family, and I seemed to have sprung from the womb thinking that I was as old as everyone around me, which led me to believe that I would be getting my own place any day. Instinctively, I seemed to know that I would need appliances of my own, and I had already realized that an investment of that magnitude couldn’t be achieved with my dollar-per-month allowance, which I earned by folding washcloths.

Therefore, I strategized that I would ask for an appliance or some other thing for the kitchen at each birthday or Christmas. This strategy paid off a few years later when I got my waffle iron, and later when I received pieces of anodized aluminum cookware.

I couldn't wait until Christmas even if I had only asked for a toaster and a clock. Notice the color wheel in the left corner of the photo. I thought the silver tree was beautiful.

I couldn’t wait until Christmas even if I had only asked for a toaster and a clock. Notice the color wheel in the left corner of the photo. I thought the silver tree was beautiful.

The toaster, however, was my first appliance. When thinking back on the adult reactions at the time, my wish must’ve reinforced the perception that I was a weird little kid. “A toaster?” laughed Grandma Brown. “I’ve never heard that one. He must want toast!” She looked at my mother as if she was somehow to blame.

Instinctively, I knew not to elaborate on the real reasons I wanted the toaster. I also knew that I needed to counterbalance my adult request with something a kid would want. My cousin Brant is a year older, and he was always doing such wonderful things like crossing the street by himself or tying his shoes without help. I admired his abilities and realized that with each new thing he had learned to do that I could do them, too. My mother never told me to wait a year to cross the street alone as long as I looked both ways, and learning to tie my shoes meant that she wouldn’t have to do it any longer. Brant also had this wonderful toy in his arsenal that I just loved.

He had a Mattel See ’n Say Farmer Says, and whenever I was at his house, I couldn’t stop positioning the pointer and pulling the string. Yes, I might’ve been crossing streets, tying shoes and undertaking a mission to stock a kitchen, but I was five. I had to have a Farmer Says of my own. The problem is that I didn’t know what the thing was called. I couldn’t read, and I had too much pride to ask after playing with it all that time.

“What else do you want Santa to bring you?” Grandma asked. The only thing I could come up with was “A clock.” For days I’d tried describing The Farmer Says to my parents. “Brant has one. It’s this big,” I demonstrated with my hands. “It’s round, you pull a string and the center spins.” I’d forgotten to mention that the spinner lands on an animal, and then the device makes the corresponding sounds. No one ever seemed to understand that I was describing The Farmer Says. It was one of my first experiences at not making myself clearly understood.

As it happened, Mattel actually made a clock that was like The Farmer Says only it was blue and told you what happened at each hour of the day when you pulled the string. I suspect my parents knew this and probably thought learning to tell time was more appropriate than learning what farm animals sounded like. After all, I’d had a lot of exposure to farm animals already. Learning to tell time was more important, especially since I was planning to move out.

Mother must’ve realized this because she’d been encouraging me to say that I wanted a clock for Christmas when asked. However, following up the toaster question with “I also want a clock,” caused Grandma to get a perplexed look on her face. She probably blamed my mother’s side of the family for my peculiarities.

“A clock? You want a clock? I’ve got a clock.” She got up and left the room, and I felt very strange like I was going to have a talk in the car on the way home. She came back a few minutes later with a baby blue alarm clock from the 1930s that hadn’t been used in years. Without giftwrap or any ceremony, she handed the dusty thing to me as if it were a glass of milk. “There’s a clock for you.” I’m sure the look on my face was similar to hers when I’d first mentioned the word.

The toaster had already been taken to the kitchen, but it was more important than the Tonka trucks and the Mickey Mouse watch, pictured here.

The toaster had already been taken to the kitchen, but it was more important than the Tonka trucks and the Mickey Mouse watch, pictured here.

I unwrapped the toaster on Christmas Eve. This miracle appliance was the highpoint of that Christmas. When I unwrapped the package to reveal the pasteboard box with the image of the toaster, I’m sure I squealed with delight. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes until we plugged in this chrome marvel with black plastic trim. I seem to recall hovering over it right there on the living room floor. We filled both slots, and the aroma was marvelous as the coils lit up and started browning those slices of Wonder Bread.

My desire to move out had nothing to do with my home life. I was not deprived. I had horses to ride, toys to play with and a smart sister who taught me lots of things. I believe something in my family’s DNA pushes each of us to get our own places. We all want to run things our way, and reigning over your own domain seems to be a sure way of taking control. I just happened to want this at the age of five, and now that I had a toaster, I was on my way!

Moving day finally came. After three years in the dorm, I finally got my first apartment. The toaster, however, didn’t make the trip. Its handle had cracked and fallen off, and its ability to brown had become unreliable. You might get warm bread or a slice of charcoal. You never knew what was going to slide up as the toast no longer popped.

Six years later, my best friend Randy and I quit our jobs, loaded everything onto a U-Haul that we were willing to keep, and headed for San Diego. We’d spent months imagining the lives we would have. We’d be close to the beach in a city that knows nothing of cold winters. No more suits and ties, but the feeling that we were constantly on vacation. We’d find jobs, affordable housing and just have fun! We’d worked out the transition very carefully. Some friends who had moved there the year before had a house, and they’d asked us to stay with them. In fact, they were the ones who convinced us that a move to San Diego during the 1992 recession was perfectly logical.

These people explained that they were converting their two-car garage into a guesthouse. They said they were getting bids from contractors and the place would be ready in time for our arrival in two months. We wouldn’t have to pay rent if we were there less than three months, at which point we should have jobs and be on our feet.

In the weeks before we moved, they called with weekly updates on the construction. 20 years ago, we didn’t have the technology to send photos electronically. We simply believed what we were told. When we drove up with our truck full of everything we owned, we were told that the place wasn’t ready. When we got up the next morning to inspect the progress in daylight, we discovered that the reason the guesthouse was not ready was because they’d not gotten a single bid from a contractor.

A few weeks after we stayed in their guestroom without a door for any sort of privacy, we found a 1915 cottage owned by a charming Midwesterner who called us “The final threads in a tapestry of loving and supportive neighbors.” I gave this airhead our total savings to cover the deposit and first month’s rent, and he disappeared for the next three weeks without returning a phone call.

Because our hosts had grown increasingly crazy as Christmas approached, we simply couldn’t stay at their house a moment longer. We finally heard from the landlord who apologized for having “been away for a few days.” He assured us that all was well, and I left for work that Christmas Eve morning with all of my clothes stuffed into my car. Moving over Christmas was not exactly a Norman Rockwell painting, but at least we’d have a permanent space away from our crazy hosts.

As I was leaving work that evening, excited to be in my own place at last, Randy phoned to say that our landlord didn’t have our place ready. Another delay! It turned out that we’d leased an occupied unit filled with a tenant who was not budging. Our landlord’s dishonesty is an entirely different story, but suffice it to say, we couldn’t return to our hosts. We’d have to go to a hotel until the situation could be sorted out.

With the move to California, the housing setbacks and the mounting costs, buying Christmas gifts was out of the question. When I got to our hotel room, I collapsed into a chair, and Randy presented me with a wrapped box.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Open it,” he said. I couldn’t imagine what it could be.

“We agreed not to exchange gifts. Neither of us has any money, and I feel bad that I didn’t get you anything.” He assured me that there was nothing to be concerned about, but he had seen this when he was out and thought it would make Christmas special.

It was a Black & Decker toaster, white with gray accents, and a browning selector that put my old Oster to shame. The dam burst. I would like to say that my tears were due solely to this touching moment that the person on the planet who had shared the last few weeks of stress and frustration was assuring me that everything was going to be okay. I was feeling some of that, but mostly I was scared out of my mind. We were technically homeless. Our families didn’t know where we were, and the only thing between having a roof over our heads and living in our cars was my credit card limit along with the cash from our meager paychecks.

We decided for one night not to worry about money or shelter and concentrate on the other basic need: food. We always seemed to eat well even during the darkest times.

© 2014 by Patrick Brown

My latest book, Tossed Off the Edge, is available at:

http://www.amazon.com/Tossed-Off-Edge-Patrick-Brown/dp/1495359875/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415994293&sr=8-1&keywords=tossed+off+the+edge%C2%A0