I can’t swear that I was actually in the annual Christmas pageant at the Hungarian Reformed Church in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1982. I can conjure a hazy memory of my childhood self on stage, wearing a homemade shepherd’s costume and doing my best to look sore afraid, but who’s to say that I’m not thinking of 1979, or 1984? Maybe if we’d worshiped at a WASP-y church in Princeton, some tech-savvy dad might have recorded the whole thing on his new Betacam, but early adopters were in short supply below Cass Street. Most of our congregation had fled the Old World after the failed revolution of 1956, real-life Cold Warriors who liked to eat kifli and drink Tokaji and expound on the evils of communism. Men like that didn’t buy video cameras just so they could record Sunday School plays.
Things will be different for my kids. We’re documenting everything, so when they win an Oscar someday, they’ll be able to bring clips of their earliest acting gigs to all their talk show appearances. At the very least, they’ll never have to wonder where they were or what they were doing at any particular point in their childhood. The handy date stamps on those digital videos will take care of that.
Before this year’s Christmas pageant, my wife issued each of us an assignment like we were planning a bank heist. Our oldest daughter was in the production, so her only job was to remember her lines. I was responsible for videography. My wife undertook to handle the still photography herself.
That division of labor was fair enough. Taking video was more demanding than snapping pictures, but our tacit understanding was that my wife would assume primary responsibility for policing our youngest daughter, Penny, who had declined a place in the chorus of angels in favor of a seat in the audience with us. That was the only way that I’d be able to shoot a proper movie. I’m not sure that Scorsese pulls off that tracking shot in Goodfellas if he’s trying to reason with a 5-year-old on his set.
When we took our seats in the chapel, I leaned down toward Penny and asked, “You’re going to be good during the show, right?”
She just stared at the floor and kicked the back of the chair in front of her.
“Right?” I repeated.
“I cannot,” she replied, with a heavy, resigned air, as if she regretted the fact that I had asked the impossible of her.
Before I could educate her on the nature of free will, one of the other parents stepped up and announced the start of the show. I trained my lens on the second-grader playing Caesar Augustus and zoomed in on his face as he proclaimed that all the world should be taxed. It was a lovely opening shot.
My wife tapped me on the shoulder and pointed toward an empty seat in the front row, letting me know that she was planning on abandoning us for the sake of finding a better vantage point for her pictures. I gave her a quick nod, and she tiptoed away without a word. Our little girl’s demeanor seemed tranquil enough.
No longer outnumbered, Penny immediately launched her opening gambit by announcing, “Daddy, I’m hungry.” Her voice was only slightly louder than normal conversational level, but in that quiet chapel, she might as well have been shouting into a bullhorn.
“We’ll eat right after the show,” I whispered back, hoping that she’d take my cue and lower her own volume in turn.
If anything, her response was even louder, and veered into a whine. “I’m hungry now. Just give me a snack, please.”
I appreciated her use of the p-word, but it didn’t change the fact that I didn’t have any food. I told her as much, and repeated my promise to take her to lunch immediately after the pageant.
“Where are we going to eat?” she asked, still not whispering.
“We’ll go that nice Mexican restaurant over by the …”
“I hate Mexicans!” she roared.
I was reasonably certain that she was professing her distaste for enchiladas rather than championing any sort of xenophobic worldview, but I couldn’t be sure that the rest of the audience had taken it in the same spirit. Doing my best to hold the camera steady, I twisted so that I could survey the crowd behind me. To a person, they all looked to be doing their best to pretend that we didn’t exist.
I exhaled and turned back to the performance. Meanwhile, Penny had removed her right shoe so that she could play with its Velcro strips. I was skeptical of the shoe’s value as a long-term distraction, but by my reckoning, we were only minutes away from my older daughter’s star turn. I offered up a silent prayer and asked the Lord to let peace reign just a little bit longer.
Affirming His well-documented sense of humor, He just about granted my request. I was treated to a whole 45 seconds of blissful silence before I felt a tiny finger poking into my thigh, followed by the sound of a little voice whispering, “Daddy?”
“Good job using your quiet voice, Penny,” I replied, embracing the opportunity to dispense some positive reinforcement. “What is it?”
“Do they have a potty here?”
“Yup. In the back.” I pointed vaguely toward the corner of the room.
“Take me to the potty, please.” Her volume had increased somewhat, but remained within acceptable limits.
My older daughter was going to take the stage at any moment. “Okay,” I told Penny, “but can you wait just a minute? Your sister is about to …”
She cut me off. “I have to poop!” she announced, loud enough for everyone within a 10-seat radius to hear.
“Okay,” I repeated, straining to keep my own voice at a whisper. “As soon as your sister’s done with her part, we’ll go.”
A ragtag group of shepherds began to make their way toward the altar. Once they were in place, my kid would give them the Good News and I would have my documentary footage. I only needed another half-minute or so.
It was as if Penny sensed that her window for disruption was closing, because it was precisely then that she chose to deliver her coup de grace. With my attention focused on my viewfinder, I didn’t notice that she’d stood up on her chair until she started yelling, “I! NEED! TO! POOP! NOW!” punctuating each word by thudding the sole of her shoe against the top of my bald head, Nikita Khrushchev-style.
Judging by the raucous laughter echoing around the chapel, the audience had abandoned their pretense of politely ignoring us. I looked down and saw the offending Mary Jane, which Penny had dropped into my lap before she’d taken a flying leap into the aisle and scampered away. Only then did I remember the camera in my right hand, which was still rolling and which I’d managed to keep pointed more or less at the stage. Of course it didn’t matter, because the performance had ground to a halt while Penny skipped around the chapel in her one remaining shoe. “C’mon, Dad!” she called. “This is fun!”
From across the room, my wife just smiled and shrugged. Feeling the eyes of the entire congregation on me, I set the camera down on Penny’s empty seat and went to collect my child.
Once we’d reached the sanctuary of the restroom, I began peeling off the layers of Penny’s special Christmas outfit. As I struggled to wriggle her out of her tights, I could hear the pageant through the door. I was pretty sure that my eldest was in the process of proclaiming the birth of the Savior to the world, but the sound was just muffled enough to make it impossible to tell.
I had barely gotten Penny situated on the toilet when she hopped to her feet and started pulling up her underwear.
I eyed her with suspicion and asked, “You didn’t go yet, did you?”
She shrugged. “I don’t have to go anymore.”
“Hold on. Maybe you should just wait a second and see.”
“No thank you,” she replied.
Maybe I should have scolded her, or made her sit there a while longer, but it all seemed so futile. Our match was over, and I’d lost. I simply knelt next to her and did my best to get all of her bows and ribbons back into their places.
We emerged just in time to catch the finale, a rousing chorus of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I made my way back to our seats and saw the video camera, sitting uselessly where I’d left it, devoid of any record of my daughter’s performance. For all I knew, she’d just served notice that she was the next Meryl Streep, but her achievement would live on only in the memories of those who’d witnessed it. If you’re reading this, M., I apologize for not preserving your performance for posterity. I suppose that the true nature of live theatre has always been ethereal. At least the microphone picked up a few choice bits that we’ll be able to work into Penny’s wedding someday. And I’m pretty sure there’s a way to date stamp those still photos.