When the warm sun slipped into the gray spiderweb of winter, our church presented a live nativity starring children in the congregation. Every year, I was an angel in the chorus, standing with a gold garland halo and muslin robe atop a metal folding chair behind the shepherds. Mary, mother of Christ, was reserved for pretty girls, who wore a sky blue robe complete with a sash, veil, and a rubber baby Jesus wrapped swaddled in a burlap sack.
I was shy, disliked bright stage lights making me sweaty. In the 2nd grade school play, I was cast as, the lead “Catie the Caterpillar." My teacher told my mother, “Beth’s so sensitive, she’s made for the dramatic!” When I turned down the roll, I was recast as an extra. Showtime, I hid behind the curtain in a red ant costume with pipe cleaner antennae, instead of in Catie’s magical garbage bag cocoon, transforming with a pair of brilliant Eric-Carlesque butterfly wings.
At ten years old, my luck ran out and there was no escaping the lead role of Mother of Christ. Esther with a lisp, our Mary veteran, came down with a flu, as well as David McKay, our Joseph that year. In a rural Connecticut cinderblock church with less than 100 people, there weren’t any replacements.
“We have enough angels, so we need you to be our Mary” said Mrs. Melissa, my Sunday school teacher, who would sometimes let us make our own butter by shaking a jar of cream together until each kid’s arms were spaghetti, and we’d spread it on saltines as a snack.
“Do I have to?” I asked in vain.
“At least you get to be Mary. Pam is going to have to be Joseph,” she said as my stomach tumbled down an imaginary alpine slide of Noooooooooo!
“We’re having a girl Joseph?” Pam was a year older, and I resented her for being better at soccer than me, for living in a yellow Victorian house downtown that was straight out of "Pollyanna,"which I was sure she didn’t appreciate nor read. She had a blonde bowl cut, came to church with a chocolate milk mustache leftover from breakfast, wore past little league t-shirts and JNCO jeans, and skateboarded everywhere. Hidden in the pit of my jealousy, pushed down deep, was growing girl crush on her.
What if I refused to be in the play? What if I hid in the storage closet past the bathroom where they kept the volleyball nets and Easter crosses? Or maybe, like in "Little Rascals," a couple kids could stand on top shoulders and pass as adult Mary and Joseph?
Already I was noticing a pattern in my life for the awkward to spiral into mortifying. Like months earlier, when I shouted “Holy crap!” after catfish barbs shocked me through my net at Lake Hayward while fishing with other church kids. My mother yelled across the beach, “Language Elizabeth!” and put me on time out on our picnic blanket in the middle of the crowded beach. Then and now, no escape.
From across the room, Mrs. Melissa gave me angry eyebrows that said, “Find your costume, swaddle that rubber baby doll, and get your singing voice ready.” Dread built as we donned our decades-old costumes wafting basement smells. The shepherds lined up with staffs from the churchyard maples, Wise Men stood with bedazzled dollar store paste gem boxes filled with imaginary frankincense and myrrh. I envied the angels' gold heads and yards of white as they led us to the sanctuary. I carried rubber baby Jesus as Pam walked beside me down the center aisle, past our parents, to the small stage set, layered with fresh straw from a horse stall.
Through the classics, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” my face felt red. I looked down at doll in the trough manger and was almost certain there were former marker scribbles scrubbed from the hard neck. The donated doll’s eyes, the kind that were supposed to open and close, were stuck permanently open, bright and sparkling blue, vacant and unaware of the play. I wanted to switch places. I felt sorry for Mary, having to sleep in the itchy hay, no extra robes to change into, stuck with a baby.
As we droned to the final song, Pam pretend-sang, as she had the whole time, mouthing words with no sound. The congregation joined in to bolster us forward into a thunderous applause. As we began to exit the stage, Pam came up beside me and offered her arm at the center aisle. I wanted to refuse, but instead looped my arm through hers, with Baby Jesus in the crook of the other, and walked as fast as possible to the end of the aisle, where I freed myself.
Back in our Sunday school classroom, I put Jesus on the table, and pulled off the robe and veil, a parachute of hot air beneath. I felt a sense of womanhood: birth, sweat, child, and I didn’t like it. Worse still, walking with Pam, a girl Joseph, the center aisle where people could see through me, like a quartz crystal. See that I never wanted to be Mary. And maybe Mary never wanted to be Mary, but she didn’t have a choice. Neither did I.
“Great job!” My mother congratulated me afterward.
“I hated it,” I mumbled. My mother growled back quietly,
“Drop the attitude. You won’t have do it again.” I hoped it was true. Maybe the next year I’d come down with the flu or go back to being in the sexless angel choir. Become the omniscient narrator: a voice heard, not seen. Or maybe we’d be snowed-in by a blizzard so bad everyone would forget the year two girls played Mary and Joseph. White out how we linked arms, and my face, hot with shame. Bury us deep in the snow until we melted into tulips, blooming soft and pink, whatever we were told to be.