The elementary school Christmas musical production season being upon us again like a cougar on a fawn, I am powerfully reminded of my own first experience in musical theater, the memory of which still makes my mother spit her apple tea across the table when I bring up such things as a hickory tree peeing in his pants, and a striped bass assaulting an eggplant, and, my mom's favourite moment, a young teacher cursing in Gaelic into her microphone near the end, and my dad's favourite moment, my kid brother Tommy suddenly singing When you're out of Schlitz, you're out of beer, which was not in the script at all, and was something of a conundrum, as my dad says in his inimitable style, as the boy did not drink beer, no one in the house drank beer, and if any of us were to drink beer, certainly we would not be drinking such a vulgar amalgam of wet air and insipid jingles, purveyed in cans of suspicious origin, which is how my dad talks.
This production was in the auditorium of Saint John Vianney Grade School, near the Atlantic Ocean, which is how we came to have a striped bass, as the young teacher was a student of local flora and fauna, and allowed her charges, the fifth grade plus a few slumming kindergartners (thus my kid brother Tommy) to choose any local plant or animal to impersonate, although she overruled a few choices, like rumrunners and gunsels.
My memory is not what it used to be, but I have a clear memory of a ragged front line of ducks and potatoes, those being then the most famous products of our island, and then a taller motley back line of fish, bushes, trees, birds, deer, and a horseshoe crab, this being a boy whose mother worked in the theater.
My kid brother Tommy was a horse, which suited him, for you never saw a child who looked more like a horse, it was a stone miracle how that boy carried his head as a child, and I was an apple, because my mother had burned all her time on my weeping brother Tommy and left me to my sister, who draped me in a red jacket and told me I was now an apple and if I complained to mom she would snap my fingers like brittle twigs.
I remember that there was a flounder near me, a silent boy named Michael, and an osprey, a foul-tempered girl named Grace, and my friend Billy, the tallest boy in the class, who was a glossy ibis, and I remember my mom and dad and brothers and sisters sitting near the statue of Saint John Vianney the Confessor, my sister ostentatiously glaring and cracking her knuckles, and that's all I remember of the production, other than the hickory tree incident.
My dad, however, is one of those rare souls whose memory has improved remarkably as he aged, and he says he remembers the day as golden and miraculous as if it was born yesterday.
You were so terrified we thought you would faint, he says, and your friend Billy, the tall boy, looked queasy beyond compare; your brother Tommy, however, looked calm and cheerful, probably because no child ever looked more like the part he was to play. Your mother does not like to speak of this, but, sweet Jesus, that boy had a head like a suitcase. He had the single largest head I have ever seen on a human being, big enough to require his own zip code. His head was so big it had different weather on either side. Try to imagine what it was like bringing this child to the barber. You should have seen the barber's face.
Anyway the production started well but quickly fell apart, and indeed the young teacher, who was from a large family in Scotland, as I recall, used foul and vulgar language in the old tongue. Things fell apart further and then for murky reasons your brother Tommy stepped forward and sang that beer jingle, a moment I will savour on my deathbed. Some moments are unforgettable for reasons we cannot articulate, and for me that is certainly one of them. It is not every afternoon, I can safely say, that a boy with a head the size of a suitcase sings a beer jingle on stage in an auditorium featuring not one but four statues of the Madonna in various stages of her holy and blameless life.
Other than the moments during which you children were born, and the moment your mother married me, and the moment she did not die on the surgeon's table that time, and the moment the war ended and I was not dead as she and I expected me to be, I believe that might be the greatest moment of my life.
You and your brothers and sister and mother were all there, the lovely old tongue was in the air, the Madonna hovered nearby with her enigmatic smile, we were all young and strong and in the fullness of our days, and humour, which is the greatest and holiest of gifts and virtues, as you know, was everywhere like a generous ocean.
Your mother does not remember that day as clearly as I do, but I remember it as if it emerged a moment ago from the unimaginable hand of the Maker, and that was a holy day. When you're out of Schlitz, you're out of beer, bless my soul, where that boy learned those lines is a mystery to me. I think I better lie down now, but not before I become as the hickory tree, profligate with the waters of the Lord released upon the thirsty earth.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland.