On pageants and pillow pregnancies

The pillow was not cooperating.

Weeks earlier, I’d been in the kitchen concocting a semblance of dinner in a bowl called salad when one of my roommates Lisa had asked me to play Elizabeth in our church’s Christmas Day pageant.

“Do I have to memorize a lot of lines?” I asked, tossing the odd bits and ends of food.
“I’ve asked Katy to play Mary,” Lisa replied, smiling and knowing that would clinch it.

My head shot up with a huge grin plastered on it. My Katy playing Mary with me acting the part of her old, barren cousin, pregnant?

In that moment, she got my  affirmative response and rapt attention.

Lisa’s years of drama teaching at a local high school served our church well during the important holidays. With her deft manner, she made old stories burst to life. This Christmas pageant was no exception. She had already planned that Katy would sing “Breath of Heaven” and queried me if I might be up for singing it as a duet.

Two things of importance: Katy is a professional opera singer with a round, rich mezzo voice and she also happens to be my closest friend. This had the makings of a performance to be written in the annals of my life’s work.

Katy and I met over the next few weeks mulling about how we would combine and separate the song. The idea of making it into a duet really gave the song new meaning. The first and second verses are chock full of questions, well depicted by a score of minor keys and unresolved musical strains. The chorus completely changes and not only transposes to a major key but becomes a magnificat – a prayer that is in its way a plea and a poem, asking “hold me together. Be forever near me.”

Stepping into these roles, we assumed the place of an unwed mother, pregnant in a time when a woman could be stoned for such a circumstance and an elderly woman, past her years of ripe fertility with a baby on the way. We practiced the song and Katy played the piano accompaniment. Our voices wove seamlessly in unison begging the imperative “hold me together. Be forever near me” and then separated into harmonies. It had been a long time since we had sung together and we thrilled at the opportunity.

We were ready.

The morning of the performance, I struggled with cinching the pillow of my pregnancy in place. Clearly the baby did not want to stay put. I donned a robe over a caftan as Katy, with her years of makeup application expertise, drew wrinkles of black kohl on my cheeks and crow’s feet along the outer corners of my eyes. She took several takes at getting the makeup done because I kept laughing at how funny both of us looked in our pageant garb. I kept repeating my two lines nervously convinced I’d forget them and miss the delivery. I was and still am not fearful about singing in front of a crowd, but acting has never been my forte. I chewed gum to prevent the predictable moment when my saliva would evacuate my mouth, leaving my tongue dry as the desert. I drank water like a person under siege by the sun and tried to pretend Katy and I were practicing in her living room without a roomful of people watching on.

During rehearsal, Lisa had directed me to come up the stairs on stage left after the “shepherds” and their flocks scurried off. She positioned me close to the baptistry and I waited the arrival of “Mary”, whose pillow pregnancy seemed to be faring better than mine.  Katy walked up beaming and exuberant in her “on camera” look I knew so well from years of watching her perform.

In costume, I stood waiting for her to walk my way with my hand perched on the small of my back, thinking of a position I’d seen pregnant friends cop when fatigued.

It had begun.

I welcomed her into my invisible home and asked, “But why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to see me?” She listened, her eyes wide and smiling.

And then she grabbed my arm.

This small movement took me aback.  While Katy was still in character,  mine began to dissolve. She could see that I was about to melt down into a fitful of giggles just as the long musical introduction commenced. Her eyes widened as mine sparkled. Her hold tightened and her look read “hold on!” I proceeded to listen as she began to sing, “I have traveled many moonless nights. Cold and weary with a babe inside…”

I began counting to 15, a trick I’d employed years ago, after my first singing performance debacle. I counted to 15 again and then attempted to crawl into the song, listening to the words and grasping them like the rungs of a ladder. Her portion of the first verse concluded and I squeaked out the first words:

“I am waiting in a silent prayer. I am frightened by the load I bear.”

Finally, I found sure footing as we began to sing together, “be with me now. Be with me now.” On into the chorus I harmonized around her strong certain voice pushing the melody forward. The rest of the song continued without any further dramatic interludes- even my pillow pregnancy decided to be dormant.

Years later, I look back on that performance, the pageantry of dressing up and singing a duet with someone I love deeply. Amid the near crisis of impending laughter, the nerves of having to deliver lines at the appropriate time, I am reminded that some of the most profound gifts come at the most unexpected moments and at the time we don’t see them as life-changing.  After Katy moved back to Colorado earlier this year, to be closer to her family, it left this gigantic void in the everyday. The act of pretending to be family came naturally on stage because our ties are already familial. This duet gave me a gift to reopen for years to come in a season known for wrapped packages and twinkling light pageantry.

This kind of gift cannot be taken away and cannot be destroyed by rust or moth.

I revel in the remembrance, in being thankful for unexpected gifts that keep on giving. And you might find yourself waking up on Christmas morning thinking of homemade muffins but I would admonish you to wait until later in the day. Then head down to the kitchen and cut yourself a slice of warm right-out-of-the-oven White Cranberry Almond Amaranth Crumb Cake.

It’s worth the work. It’s worth the wait- just like some of the best things in life.

white cranberry almond amaranth crumb cake

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