I was at the annual Women’s Retreat last weekend and we started telling stories. There’s always a certain combination of personalities that, when you get them together, provides the kind of therapeutic laughter that makes the stress just pour out of you. This was our tenth retreat and we think we’ve got the technique down pretty good. We offer massages, nature hikes, canoeing, dynamic worship and a great speaker. But the best part of the whole weekend is totally out of the planning team’s hands; and that’s the people who come and provide the laughter. Anytime I get a chance to be in the same room with Phyllis Hock I take it because there is guaranteed laughter. Women like Phyllis may not fully appreciate what a ministry they have in their ability to make us all find the fun in life. But it wasn’t Phyllis this time, it was Linda Peavy. We started telling stories of times we almost got kicked out of church. And this was as adults, mind you, not when we were children.
Linda and I raised our kids together. I babysat her two boys every afternoon for a while until I went back to work. In fact, her youngest son was in my daughter’s class in the first grade and was madly in love with her until she had her hair cut. After that, he moved on to the next little girl with long black hair, eventually marrying a woman with long black hair. We had a group of friends from church who would periodically get together for a glass or two of wine. We’d all bring our kids and let them play with each other while we relaxed and enjoyed the peace and quiet. I threw a party every Christmas Eve and we’d have some snacks and liquor for a couple of hours then all go to church for the midnight service. We were just a big extended family who not only laughed and drank together but worshipped God together. And now we were retreating together and sharing stories of our grandchildren along with stories of when we were younger.
Linda started out telling the story of the Sunday her son farted during the prayers of the people. Most of the people I was praying for wouldn’t have cared if the kid farted but we had one of those stern Calvinist ministers back then and he was the kind who would, and did, correct kids right in the middle of worship. I don’t know for a fact, mostly because I didn’t pay a lot of attention, but I’m pretty sure he believed firmly in the totally depravity of mankind. And Linda and I were prime examples.
It really wasn’t the farting that set us off, it was Chris' astonished expression. It wasn’t one of those smelly ones, just a little “toot.” And it wasn’t even that loud but Chris was so startled by it Linda commenced to laugh right there in the longest prayer of the service, the one time the entire sanctuary was absolutely silent. To her credit, Linda didn’t make a sound but when I saw her whole body shaking, I lost it. When I started, my whole family went off and pretty soon the whole pew, not just the people, the pew furniture, was shaking. To make matters worse, we were right in the middle and on the front row, right under the preacher’s nose and we knew it. Then our friend Kit, sitting behind us, saw what was happening, though I’m not sure how, because this was the prayers of the people and we’re all supposed to have our eyes shut and communing with the Lord and all. Maybe Kit’s mother forgot to teach her to close her eyes during the prayers of the people. When she and her son saw us shaking the pew, they commenced to laugh, too. Fortunately for all of our souls the laughter was limited to just those two pews or we would have all gone to hell for sure.
Linda got me into a lot of trouble in those days when we were trying to mature into the dignified and solemn matrons we are today. The next thing I knew it was Christmas Eve and the same group of us were all sitting in the cry room at the back of the church gasping for air between gales of laughter. Our Christmas Eve party had become a tradition by this time. We may have had a little too much fellowship that year because we got to church late. But that may have been our saving grace. The church had a glass enclosed, sound-proof, “cry room” at the very back of the sanctuary. Because we were late we just all staggered into the cry room and plopped ourselves down.
That year the choir had chosen to wear casual clothes instead of their regular choir robes. One of the most pompous and conservative old guys in the church sat there in his regular spot in the back of the choir wearing a beige turtleneck sweater. I’m sure he thought it was a festive touch but it made him look stark naked. Naked as a jaybird. Birthday suit naked. Wrinkled old man at a nudist colony naked.
The instant our group saw him we burst out laughing and laughed and laughed and laughed. We laughed right through the lighting of the Christ candle. We laughed through Martin Luther’s classic sermon and the ringing of the bell and all of it. We didn’t stop until church was over and we staggered back out into the Christmas night. If there was any question of the total depravity of mankind, we removed the doubt that year.
But I have to say that the hardest I have ever laughed in my life was at the viewing when Emma Grantham died. I can’t blame Linda for that one; it was Kit who was my bad influence that night.
In our defense, it was late and it had been a busy day for both of us and you know how giggly you get when you’re tired. Emma was old and ready to die. The viewing of the body was one of those social obligations that our mothers taught us to do. You go sign the book so the family will know somebody cared about dear old Emma. You peep in at the dearly departed, say goodbye to them and go home.
But this time when we walked into Williams Funeral Home there was a huge crowd of people in the building and we were carried along in the traffic of mourners. I thought to myself at the time that I didn’t know Emma had so many friends. As we walked along, Kit leaned over to me and whispered out of the corner of her mouth, “Jane, I don’t know any of these people.” We finally wove our way though the crowd and got up to the casket and looked in. After a minute of standing there looking into the casket, I quietly announced what we both knew, “Kit, we don’t know the deceased.”
With that, we lost it. We both burst out laughing. But we knew how bad it would look so we quickly covered our faces and tried to pretend we were overcome with grief. All we could think of was how to get out of the building as fast as we could. But because of the crowd, it seemed like we were going in slow motion. Gales of laughter came bubbling up as we desperately fought through the crowd. We stopped at the first Kleenex station we found and got handfuls of Kleenex to cover our faces. Somehow we went through a wrong door and ended up in the kitchen which only made us laugh harder but we took the opportunity to pick up a few paper towels to reinforce our Kleenex. After a while I was laughing so hard I had tears rolling down my face so I decided I could use this to my advantage and moved the Kleenex from my eyes, still covering my mouth, as if to say “see, I’m not laughing, I’m really crying.”
When we finally got outside we sat on the curb right there at Main and Glenbrook and just Who-Hawed. I've never laughed so loud and so hard in my life. Then who should we see but our friend, Linda, looking solemn, serene and dignified as she waited to go see the real Emma. It was Linda’s golden moment of being the perfect adult as she looked down on us there in the gutter holding our wads of Kleenex and dissolved in our wet spasms.
I think that was the last time Kit and I went to a viewing together. Come to think of it, we don’t sit by each other in church anymore, either. It’s just better that way. God knows.