Like most southern women my mother took primary responsibility for our religious training early in life. That’s not to say that southern fathers aren’t as concerned with the parochial status of progeny souls, but Dad’s idea of moral education bent more to the ‘do what the hell I tell you and your ass won’t end up in a sling’ book of prophesy. Getting four young children clean, dressed in Sunday’s best, herded into the family Oldsmobile and actually delivered across the theological threshold on time should be enough to qualify for some unfettered length of time in paradise. It apparently was not enough for Mother. One day she announced she was joining the choir.
Singing in the Sunday choir allowed her the additional emotional stimulus and requisite soulful refreshment that even Wednesday night rehearsal could only provide someone running a household with constant unselfish attention to everyone else’s wants and needs. It did, however, present a bit of a logistical problem. Dad worked swing shift at the paper mill and was mostly unavailable to provide parental oversight during church, and we needed oversight. Her only play was to march us all into the living room, sit us down on the long black naugahyde couch and threaten us down to the last inch of our not yet promising young lives if we didn’t sit quietly and respectfully through the entire hour long 11:00 am service while she remained in the choir loft.
Lessons taught, glitter glue religious artwork complete, cool aid and oatmeal cookies consumed, Sunday school is finished and it’s time for worship service. Robe already donned, Mom rounded us up and strategically positioned us in a pew that gave her the best line of sight past the preacher from the soprano section. After placing us in our seats, presumably in some least likely to act up order, we got the wag of her mommy finger with one final reminder of our talking-to and she was off to the choir room.
The casual nature of the informal liturgy in southern protestant churches is generally active enough to keep a kid out of trouble. The service progressed with the occasional glance from the soprano section to keep us in line, but then came the sermon. Not too far into sanctified and consecrated homily, we had checked out and resorted to doing what kids do to get through sermons, whatever they can get away with, with whatever tools are at hand: little bitty pencils with no erasers, offering envelopes and hymnals.
Usually mid-sermon activities involved drawing race cars or airplanes and maybe playing tic-tac-toe or hangman with my brother. I disremember the exact details of our wrongdoing, but we had certainly become so involved in our affairs and comfortable enough in our separation that we did not take heed as the glances from the choir loft progressed to stares and, finally, to the full blown, dreaded Mommy stare, replete with clinched jaw and pursed lips that only vaguely hid the promise of painful correction. If we had taken notice in time, we would surely have repented and turned from our wicked ways. But no, like a thief in the night she came. White robe and blue stole flowing, she descended from the choir loft in the middle of the sermon and we didn’t notice until it was too late. The Mommy rapture came upon us and we were sorely prepared. On the ride home we began to come to an understanding of our status as goats among sheep, and how the wheat and chaff are separated through the process of sifting. We were sorted and sifted with a heavy hand that day, in a time when corporal punishment was standard of care.
Truth is, I feel much more remorse all these years later than I did then. My poor Mom was denied a much needed musical and spiritual break from the constantness of large family obligation by the very heathens from which she sought refuge for just a scant hour or so a week. No such noble thoughts were running through my mind the following week sitting there in the same pew with a robeless Mom firmly ensconced within arm’s reach of all four of us, baby sister next to the isle, then big sis, Mom, big brother and me. My thoughts tended toward the more primal task at hand, getting through the next hour without another full blown public incident, well, that and not gettin’ another whoppin’.
The first part of the service progressed smoothly. No problems. Again, the sermon came, but so did my stomach. I’m not sure what the offending agent was. It may simply have been a young boy’s constitution in training for manhood. Stomach rumbling, I could feel the expanding gases growing and moving. A grumbly stomach soon brings the worry of uncontrolled flatulence, and with last week’s incident still fresh on my flesh, I was not comforted. Eventually fear turned into the realization that it was no longer a matter of if, but when. That was quickly followed by the fidgety body squirming stage and lots of butt cheek squeezing and hoping and praying for some control until the feeling passed or the end of the service finally arrived.
In the middle of a maximum cheek squeeze that had me lifted off the pew a good three inches, a little one squeaked out. I froze. With as innocent a look as I could muster, I surveyed my surroundings. Nothing appeared or smelled out of the ordinary. Whew, Mom hadn’t heard it. And she wasn’t being cool trying to ignore it, either. It was not in her makeup to ignore such things. No, if she had heard it some part of me would have gotten pinched.
But my brother had heard. I looked up and he was about to bite a hole through his lower lip to keep from laughing. Tears were running down his cheek and his entire body was shaking inside his Sears Catalog Store mail order seersucker suit. Then I started to laugh inside, and it was funny. Before long, the two of us were sweating, shaking, crying and trying not to explode. I finally did, but not with laughter. No, I didn’t flatulate. I didn’t pass wind or even pass gas. I farted…but good.
If this had been a few short years later, the incident would have been contained to a small section of pews within a short radius of my location. At that time there would have been cushions in place to dampen the concussion. Alas, there was nothing contacting my nether regions but bare wood. And this was no ordinary fart. It contained all the characteristics needed for great tone: a strong attack, intonation, duration well supported with plenty of hot air and resonance, resonance amplified by the 20 foot long Brazilian mahogany soundboard on which I was sitting. It was a FART with a capital F. This wasn’t a magnificent fart, it was THE magnificent fart. It was a fart for all of time. It. Was. Glorious!
Damned the consequences, there was nothing left for us to do but make our escape out the side door of the church and continue laughing until we barely had the energy to squeak out the occasional euphoric giggle. I have laughed well in my lifetime, but oh my good Lord I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder and as long since. We laughed a pure laugh from the depths of our souls. You know the laugh. The laugh you hear when around children at play. Looking back, this may just qualify as one of the best worship experiences of my lifetime. I would bet my brother’s best clip-on tie that the God of all creation, the Father of our Savior, the Giver of Life was laughing right along with us.
Once the service was over we met Mom and our sisters at the car. Nothing was said. Not a word. A few giggles and cross-eyed looks out of baby sister were the only interruptions in the short four block drive home. That was it. For a time I was puzzled by the delay in retribution. Even at a young age it was easy enough to understand that punishment pondered, once delivered was always worse than swift castigation. Nothing happened. Benevolently, we seemed to have been spared Mom’s wrath. Was it empathy or, perhaps, mercy? It didn’t seem likely. Was it that we had simply worn her down? Was it a miracle? Frankly, it’s a miracle my mother never just killed us.