When I was a kid we had a big coffee table book of Norman Rockwell paintings. I still remember standing over that book in awe, turning the dusty pages and looking at life through the painter’s eyes. Though I never knew exactly what it was he saw. And I never could explain why I liked that book so much. Until last night.
You see, my husband comes up to me earlier this week with that fake innocent look he gets when he’s about to ask me to do something I’m not going to like.
Husband: Sweetie, the cub scouts aren’t having a regular meeting this week. We’re going caroling. (Insert Jaws theme music as he circles me slowly.)
Me: That’s nice dear. You should have fun. (Translated: Don’t even think you’re going to get me to come caroling. I don’t even like singing in the shower. Okay, so I sing on stage in front of thousands and I’m not even any good. That’s different. I’m doing it for a laugh. And they’re paying me.)
Husband: It’s not outside in the cold – it’s going to be inside at the old folks’ home down the street.
(Good move. He’s clever. Bring the old folks into it. But I’m tougher.)
Me: Oh, that’s sweet. They will love you and the boys. (Notice the subtle use of “you and the boys”. Now who’s the master of manipulation?)
Husband: I thought you might want to come with us. (He puts on the same “I’ve got a great idea” face that he put on when he suggested we camp out in the back yard in 20 degree weather – just for the fun of it. I wasn’t going to fall for it this time.)
Me: Oh, that’s okay. I wouldn’t want to intrude on your Daddy/Son time. (I should win an Oscar for this performance.)
Husband: (Stepping into my personal space – an indication of his commitment to winning this battle.) I actually thought that this would be a good chance for you to do something fun with him. You usually don’t get to do these things with us – because you’re usually working. (Ouch.Didn’t see that move coming.)
Husband: He really wants you to see him sing. (Crap. He knows his motivational speaker wife too well. He knows that I am now channeling every kid in every movie who wanted his parents to see his talent – Billy Elliott who wanted to do the ballet – Rudy who wanted to play football – Kevin Bacon who just wanted the town to let him dance. Check mate. I’m out. The better player has won.)
Me: Okay. I’ll go. But I am not going to sing.
Husband: It doesn’t matter. It’ll be fun.
Which brings us to last night when we loaded in the car and headed down the road to the old folks’ home to sing Christmas carols, while I continued the monologue I started earlier that day, of how I can’t believe they are going to go put on a show without any practices or even knowing what songs they were going to sing! Who ever heard of putting on a show and just “winging it” – talk about amateurs! “It doesn’t matter,” my husband said. “We’re going to have fun.”
“How can you be so sure?” I asked. “You know it’s going to be like a hundred degrees in there. And you’ll be lucky if they even know you’re there.” He looked at me with that one eyebrow raised – his disappointed look – and I slunk down in my seat.
The cub scouts were easy to spot –as they raced back and forth, dodging walkers, looking for something to break, bouncing around in the universal “ten days before Christmas” kid wriggle, squealing and making an occasional arm pit noise to impress their friends – while the leader tried to gather them in (much like herding stray cats, if you ask me) and the other assistant leaders stood there shell-shocked, still suffering PTSD flashbacks from the Christmas parade that lasted a quarter of a mile, and felt like ten.
I would say there was an air of pre-show anticipation, but then I would be lying. The only thing in the air was heat – a lot of heat – and the smell of unsalted food and sugar-free desserts. You know I hate to complain (pause for lightning to strike) but this was not on my list of things I wanted to be doing ten days before Christmas. I had wrapping to do, outfits to pick out, and I still needed to bake another set of roasted pecans to replace the ten pounds I accidentally ate before I could get it wrapped and delivered.
So we squeeze into the recreation room – “recreation” being the wrong word, as I’m not sure anything had ever been done in there except sitting – but who am I to judge? The pianist started to warm up – which is often required when it’s your second time sitting at a piano – while the saxophonist (another term I use loosely) practiced his scales and I suddenly remembered the sound our cat made all those years ago when he got stuck in the dryer. And the room started to fill up with residents who looked less than thrilled to be there as I wondered which of them thought they had come to a financial planning seminar and were going to be sadly disappointed once they figured out what was really happening and tried to make a run for it. Yes, you can take a moment here to exclaim about my disgraceful attitude. I deserve it. It wasn’t my proudest moment – but I can’t help what you see when I let you into my head.
The kids all got up there in random order, which I couldn’t believe that they would put tall kids in the front row and short ones in back – but who am I to say? They were this one big wriggling bunch, because getting them to be still would have required yelling, and apparently I was the only one in the room who believed in yelling. Just ask my husband. I come from a long line of yellers – and I must say that we have perfected the art.
The leader turns to the residents, introduces the cub scouts, and announces that they are here to sing Christmas carols – which I thought was pretty self explanatory, but then again…. The cub scounts launched (okay, so it wasn’t a launch, but more like a trickle) into The First Noel. At least I think that was the song. The pianist was still warming up, and the saxophonist had launched into an introductory solo that seemed to have taken on a life of its own. The kids were all looking at different pages in their song packet. Some I’m pretty sure were singing Happy Birthday. And the rest were standing there as if struck dumb (which might have actually been a blessing), staring into the audience while I’m sure their parents were making a mental note of what to do to get their kids to be quiet in the future – just put them on stage. And I was trying really really hard not to grimace as I realized my son had just in that moment traded in a career on the stage for a wrench. And he’d better learn to smile when he said “Would you like fries with that?”
The next two songs were a blur. A long, very hot, blur – as minutes ticked by like hours. And then it was time to sing the Twelve Days of Christmas – which is not the song to give to a cub scout troop unless you want a slow painful death filled with maids a milking and swans a swimming. I was inching towards the door and staring at the outlets, hoping that people would think I was maintenance, and not the parent of one of these mis-fitted boys in Santa hats and elf ears. I would have gotten away if the leg of that walker hadn’t blocked my path.
Twelve kids were assigned solos – again, another term I use loosely – and there was no practice round – so this was definitely an improv twelve days of Christmas as each child when arriving on his solo spot froze, paused, looked around, and then read his line while the musicians tried desperately (okay, didn’t really try at all) to back up. By the line “five golden rings” they were starting to get the hang of it, and the rest of us in attendance had finally joined in to spare the children, proving that there really are heroes among us. Yes, you heard me right. I started to sing. Shoot, it couldn’t get any worse.
And something happened when I started to sing. I started to have – fun. And every time the “five golden rings” part came, the children grew more confident and added their own little variations and arm gestures – and really getting into their parts. Until somewhere between a turtle dove and a French hen, I was actually enjoying myself. And by the ninth chorus of “five golden rings” I was even throwing out my arms and acting like Wayne Newton on New Years Eve. And laughing – the kind of deep belly laugh that comes out of nowhere – the very best kind.
And then I looked around. And I didn’t see disappointed old people. I saw people with faces lit up – smiles bigger than the song – hands clapping – laughter – rejoicing – and singing. I saw parents look at their children with a pride so strong it was physical. I saw the children searching the crowds for one look into the eyes of their mom and dad.
And I felt like the Grinch as my crusty old judgmental heart grew three sizes last night as I realized that my husband was right. It didn’t matter that they couldn’t sing. And it didn’t matter that it was a hundred degrees in there. And it didn’t matter that some of them never uttered a word. What mattered was that in that moment, we were having fun.
And in that moment my mind took a snapshot – a snapshot that Norman Rockwell would have loved to paint – but that for now I can only show you with words the picture that I took last night, that is now branded into my heart:
The flushed freckled faces of the mis-fitted boys of Pack 16 with their crooked bangs and missing teeth, in wrinkled blue uniforms, with a frog poking out of one of the pockets, and untied shoelaces on well worn sneakers, their round Kool-Aid stained mouths open in song, their arms thrown out in jubilance as they sing “Five Golden Rings”. The jolly saxophonist with cheeks blown out and eyes bulging, beside the pianist who’s brow is wrinkled in serious concentration as she counts the beats out loud and taps her foot in time.
A crowd of cardigan and velour jump suited old folks with whispy hair and deep wrinkles that told of a lifetime of Christmases past – wrinkled hands clasped together in glee – the lady with the angel pin on her Christmas sweater who hugged my son as if she’d never let him go, and told him of her own son who had the same name and is the captain of a big ship and how she hopes that one day he’ll come to visit. Of the little boy who handed that grumpy old man in a wrinkled suit a Christmas ornament that crumpled that old man’s face as the boy hugged him and said Merry Christmas with a lisp.
And now I know what I saw in all of Norman Rockwell’s paintings. I saw life – not in its glamour, but in its simplicity. Heads bent over dinner tables in prayer – naked boys running for a fishing hole – a young girl staring at her reflection – an old man waving a flag. For Norman Rockwell showed me the things that are most important – family, friends, faith, traditions, my country, good food and children in santa hats who sing off key. He painted life in all its blessings.
As I wrote this, I was wondering where that book ever went, looked down and lo and behold (that’s a phrase we just don’t use enough) there it was – one of the books used to prop up my computer monitor. I guess it’s time to take it out, dust it off, put it on the coffee table, and show it to my son. And pray that one day, he sees what I see.
Merry Christmas! And this holiday season, may you see life as Norman Rockwell did – filled with many blessings dressed as flushed faced freckled boys in wrinkled cub scout uniforms.
And to all a good night
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