Pageant

Sometimes my kava tea smells like a car ride home from the Christmas pageant at my church when I was a kid.  And my Burt’s Bees face wash smells like that, too. There is something a bit citric and slightly sweet about these fragrances – and like the mild, flattened out melange of an old spice drawer –  that reminds me of the one clementine and the plastic sandwich bag of rock candy given out to each kid as we left.  That aroma filled the car, the clementine rolling around on the seat, unloved, while I grappled to loosen a piece of candy from the lump that had stuck together.  The hard candy was disappointing to me, a fat kid who preferred all treat roads to arrive at chocolate town, but I would take sugar however it came to me.

The hippy-adjacent rituals of my cruelty-free cleanser and natural relaxation tea seem themselves worlds separate from a white bread family driving home from a baptist church in a Ford station wagon in the 1980s.  To be fair, while world peace and zero carbon foot print were not buzz words in our family, we were hardly model conservatives either.

The last thing on my mind was God and I suspect it wasn’t on the minds of my family, either, because talk centered around whose kid forgot their lines – with a lot of laughter and a healthy dollop of schadenfreude – and then, more quietly, there were gossipy exchanges between our parents about other adults.  Eventually we broke the barrier between front seat and back by sharing the tidbits of ignorance we’d gleaned from other kids before the show.

“I heard Barry Hart’s a queer,” one of us said.

And, “Mrs. Clatterbuck is putting Tammy Joe on pills because she’s gotten so fat.”

“Donna said Sven Jenkins is a child molester. Is that true, Mom?”

This wasn’t the first time my parents had to hear kid gossip and go to the bat to save the world from our brutality and flagrance.  My mom always either cried out in alarm or rolled her tongue in disgust at our childish ignorance.  She would caution us against gossip in general and then run defense for the rest of the community. This night was like most others.

“Barry Hart is not that way. He just happens to be a nice, polite kid, who cares about his appearance. I wish more kids were like Barry. And don’t forget how hurtful it would be if talk like that got back to his mother. Eloise has it hard enough, raising that boy alone.”

And, “Tammy Jo is a perfectly pretty girl. I don’t know why the moment someone puts on a couple of pounds, everyone becomes obsessed with how big she’s going to get. People are so stupid sometimes!”

That one felt personal. We weren’t blind to the fact that there was a little more lap to mom these days than there used to be.  Come to think of it, cuddling up with a pudgy mom when we were really little felt great, so it is strange that society gets so distraught about it. Maybe if we were all to get swept up in this hygge craze, we’d each discover the comforts of a vast and pillowy hug and finally set the fashion world aflame. Okay, now I’m taking it personally, because I, too, have a bit more lap these days. I wish people would leave Tammy Jo Clatterbuck the fuck alone!

Of course, the tidbit of pre-pageant gossip that had come up before and which my mother took pretty seriously was the one about Sven Jenkins.  It had been bantered around by kids for as long as I could remember.  This ride home from the pageant it was my middle sister who reopened the cold case, lisping in my memory because she was either in between teeth or worrying a chunk of candy.

“Donna said Sven Jenkins is a child molester. Is that true, Mom?”

“It’s Mr. Jenkins, Meredith. And, no, I don’t think he’s a child molester. Do you kids even know what that means?”

We bristled.

“It’s when grownups do stuff to kids and stuff!” That was my oldest sister, Molly, her voice a mixture of boredom and winter allergies from the wood stove at home. Nasal and flat, she usually chimed in from behind a trashy romance novel. Tonight she was pretending to study the pageant program in the dark.

“I watch 20/20, Mom!” That was me, wanting it to be clear that I had a level of worldliness far beyond my years. In fact, though I really was foggy about what child molesters were, I knew a lot about normal, everyday sex from reading Molly’s trashy romance novels.

I’m still surprised that a sixteen year old girl was allowed to read that openly in our house and that a nine year old boy could get by with it with little effort to hide his movements.  My sexual awakening was painted all the more colorfully by reading accounts of men with tanned and brawny thighs ravishing women on the beaches of Caribbean plantations or in the wet grasses of an English moor. Thanks, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, for all the deliciously filthy memories.

Regarding pedophiles in our baptist church, Meredith brought forth evidence from the court of public opinion.

“They say he lures kids to him with those pink mints.”

He did give each kid a round pink mint from the pocket of his nice navy blazer with the brass buttons each Sunday after church. A tall and lean farmer with a speckled tan and a blond flattop haircut that always looked newly cut, he had to lean down pretty far to offer the sweets. It did feel a little alarming when he’d peer at you and hold out the circle of pink cradled in his palm.

“Oh my God,” Mom said. And that was as close to God as that car ride home from the Christmas pageant ever got. “Can’t a man give kids candy anymore without being accused of something? People are so…sick.”

I don’t remember how that conversation ended. I like to think we eventually grew quiet, tired of trying on adult themes, letting our heads lean together as we succumbed to a sugar coma. Maybe I even eventually tore away the skin of that clementine.