You Better Be Good…
‘I remember you,’ says a lady from church, my mum’s age, ‘you couldn’t keep still. I felt sorry for your poor mother.’
Another lady nods. ‘She had her hands full, your mum.’
‘Ooh, there was the time you escaped and ran up to the altar—oh, your poor mother!’
I smile and nod. So different now.
Back then, mid 1960’s…
The Children’s Carol service Christmas Eve—the bag full of sweets and honey biscuits stacked under the live Christmas tree, an incentive to stand in front of the congregation, singing my little three-year-old heart out. I love singing. Then when the Pastor preaches, the Sunday School teacher, Mrs. S, tells me to sit still, be quiet and don’t sin. Be good if you want your bag of lollies.
So, unless I’m told, I sit, am quiet and I don’t sin. Being good means not singing unless told to sing. I thought that’s what Mrs. S meant. And, being good means the reward of sweets at the end of the service. Oh, dear! How long is the pastor going to preach! I try not to wriggle. Everyone’s looking at me. But it’s so hot and stuffy in the church. Poor baby Jesus born in the middle of summer when it’s so hot! My halo’s itching my head. I take it off and scratch my head.
Mrs. S holds up her hand to me. ‘Lee-Anne! Be still! You want your sweets, don’t you?’
I try and put the halo on my head. It’s crooked and slips over my ear.
Mrs. S snatches the halo off my head. She has a cross look in her eyes.
Oh, dear, I hope I haven’t been naughty. I wasn’t sinning, was I? I hunch over and hold my fidgety hands tight. Must be still. Must be quiet. Must not sin. Want those sweets.
Mrs. S gestures for us children to rise. Goody, I can sing! I stand, take a deep breath of pine-air. ‘Joy to the World!’
The service ends. We wait by the tree. I marvel at the white “crismons”, the symbolic decorations from our great-great Grandfathers from Germany. These white shapes made out of Styrofoam and sprinkled with glitter make me wonder, is this what snow looks like? I’ve never seen snow. Snow is for cold places and Adelaide is always hot. Except in winter when it’s cold enough to have the kerosene heater going in the kitchen. But Adelaide’s not cold enough for snow, mummy says.
‘Lee-Anne?’ Mrs. S calls.
I go up to the tree and she hands me my bag of sweets and a children’s book with my name in it.
‘This is for attending Sunday School every week and learning all your bible verses,’ Mrs. S says. ‘Good girl.’
I take the gifts in my arms and careful not to drop my cargo, I take one step at a time out the church as if I’m a flower girl in a wedding. I know about weddings. My Aunty K was married in this church and I wore a new pink dress that my mummy made. And I had this lacy hat and everybody took photos of me.
I’m in the courtyard, lost in a forest of legs. I search for mummy’s legs. She has ones under her pretty aqua dress with frills at the bottom. That’s her new dress for Christmas. My mummy’s a dressmaker and she always makes a new dress for her and me at Christmas. I mean, what are daughter’s for but to be dressed up in the prettiest, frilliest dresses at Christmas?
I can’t see mummy’s dress, or legs. I weave through the legs and scamper down the gravel drive to the back of the church to the car park. She’s in the car, our FJ Holden, Bathsheba, surely. I look in the car. No, she’s not there.
Tramping behind me. A roar. ‘Naughty girl!’ Dad all red-faced. ‘You know not to go down the drive on your own!’ Dad smacks me on the back of my legs.
‘But I was looking for mummy!’ I howl.
Mummy comes running. ‘Ah, you found her. I was getting worried.’
My always-good-brother strolls up to the car. He rolls his eyes and mutters, ‘Lee-Anne, always getting lost.’
‘Now get in the car,’ Dad snaps.
I adjust my load. A biscuit drops onto the dirt. I bend to pick it up. Can’t waste good food.
‘I told you!’ Dad says with another stinging slap to the legs. ‘Get in the car! Behave yourself, or else!’
I climb in and assume “or else” means another smack on the legs. Dad crushes the biscuit with his shoe and then slams the door behind me.
‘Doesn’t matter how much you smack her,’ Mummy mumbles. ‘She never seems to learn to be good.’
As Dad drove down the road he glances at me and says, ‘We’re off to Grandma’s now, so be good, or else.’
Be good, what does that mean? I pondered in my three-year-old mind. I thought it had something to do with not getting into trouble or getting a slap on the legs. I still hadn’t worked it all out, this “being good” business. It had something to do with following my older brother’s and cousins’ example. Something to do with being still. Being quiet and not upsetting the big people. But I don’t know, just when I think I’ve got it worked out, I do something I’ve no idea is wrong and the next thing, I get a smack. All I know is sitting still and being quiet means I’m being good.
Our car tyres crunch on the stones in Grandma’s driveway. We climb out of Bathsheba and enter the house through the back door, and greet Grandma who’s piling plates with honey biscuits. We side-step around the table in the dining area and into the lounge lined with couches, dining chairs, and a piano. The lounge room is filled with the smell of pine tree. Pinned in the corner another real Christmas tree, all lit with electric lights and decorated with colourful baubles. I move to the tree to touch the pretty decorations. I must be careful not to step on the presents wrapped in red and green paper under the tree.
‘Now, Lee-Anne, you sit on the floor,’ Mum says. ‘The chairs are for grown-ups.’
I sit cross-legged by the fireplace.
‘You better sit still and be quiet,’ Dad warns, ‘or else.’
Cousins, aunts and uncles, and the odd lonely soul from church crowd into Grandma’s lounge room.
I try hard to follow my cousins’, all older than me, example. Sit still and don’t make a sound. I must be good. I watch the grown-ups all chatting, getting up and down, laughing and joking. Must be fun to be a grown-up.
Clothed in her purple swirly dress and beige apron, Grandma settles her generous backside on the piano stool. ‘Let’s sing some carols,’ she says and begins hammering on the keys.
In joyous and rousing strains, we sing our way through the black hymn book’s carols.
I like singing and can’t help but join in. Then I remember. Be still. Be quiet. Maybe only big people can sing. I glance at Dad. He’s singing, eyes closed. My brother next to me barely opens his mouth. He fidgets. Not a good sign. I’m meant to follow my brother’s example, aren’t I?
But I love singing. I love Christmas carols. I raise my voice and sing. Everybody’s happy. Everybody, except Richard sings. I check my cousins. They’re singing. Must be alright to sing if my cousins are singing. So, I keep singing.
A pause. Grandma dabs a hanky on her brow.
Mum pipes up. ‘Well, surely that’s enough singing. The children want to open their presents.’
‘What’s wrong with singing some more Christmas carols?’ the odd lonely guy from church asks.
Mum points at the mantelpiece clock from the Fatherland. ‘I just think it’s getting late for the children.’
Dad blushed and cleared his throat while the other grown-ups looked from my mum to Grandma.
Grandma looked down and wiped her hands on her apron.
Was my mum being naughty?
I reckon they’ve got the wrong person being the naughty one. Who’s the one who’s always told to sit still, be quiet and not sin? Me, of course.
I stand up and say, ‘It’s alright. I like sinning.’
‘She means “singing” carols.’ Grandma’s tummy jiggles up and down as she chuckles. ‘Yes, it is getting late. Let’s open the presents. And Lee-Anne, since you are the youngest, you can help your mother hand out the Christmas presents.’
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2016
Photo: Christmas Wonder — me, 18 months © C.D. Trudinger 1964