From around fifth through tenth grades I was part of my church’s handbell choir. (If you have never seen handbells before, check out the Wikipedia article and this video.) I started in the children’s group. and then in seventh grade moved up to the adult choir. At that point, there were two of us young people there; everyone else was at least around our parent’s age. Handbell Guy’s mother, as well as mine, were both part of the choir. This was not a problem, except for the occasional time when the adults got a little rowdy and completely mortified Handbell Guy. Take note that neither of our mothers nor most of the choir (except us) were exactly “small”. These were middle-aged women and men, who generally had the extra rolls of softness to go with their years.
Our group would perform generally one Sunday each month at one or both morning services, depending on scheduling. Our standard apparel was what I call the Standard Concert Outfit — black pants or skirt and a white shirt. Sometimes we would change things up. Once we were doing something with a calypso beat, so we all wore Hawaiian shirts (never mind the geographical confusion.)
If we performed on Pentecost, which is a bigger deal in the United Methodist Church than it is most other places, we would wear red for the fire. And sometimes when we just felt like being visible, we would all wear bright colors. As it so happened, we were performing that upcoming Sunday, so at our Thursday night handbell practice we asked our director what we were wearing that particular Sunday. The exchange between the ringers and the director went something like this:
“So what are we wearing on Sunday?”
“That might be a little chilly in the sanctuary!”
Of course, by “nothing” she meant “nothing special”. However, everyone quickly started laughing and riffing on the idea. “Better make sure we have our music stands at a good height!” “What about using the table covers as dresses?” Handbell Guy’s mother, one of the larger members, added, “We’ll just use some strategically placed bells!” and held her two bells up over her chest, and then below, like some sort of musical bikini. My mother raised an eyebrow and chimed in, “You’re gonna need bigger bells!”
The noise sounded like someone set off a bomb in the room. Handbell Guy was utterly mortified at his mother and looked like he wanted to hide beneath the table. Everyone else, including me, was laughing so hard we were crying. Handbell Guy’s mother was beet red from laughter, (and probably a little embarrassment.) Even our serious members were laughing. Handbell Guy’s brother, who was reading at the other end of the hallway and down the stairs, came by to poke his head in and ask what on earth was going on. It took five full minutes to regain some fragile semblance of order and return to practicing. It was short-lived; all someone had to do was mention, “bigger bells” and we would all crack up again.
And that was how “Bigger Bells” became the pseudo-obscene running joke for a church handbell choir.
The summer I turned ten, my parents and I added two adorable kittens to the family. My previous cat had pretty much ignored me when I played the piano. Kitten one, Licorice, the sleek, black-and-white cat, had similar lack-of-interest in the piano, but his brother, Shadow (white-and-black) followed me everywhere, and piano practice was no exception. I would be sitting on the bench, playing a song, when he would jump up on my right side, walk across the keyboard as I was playing, and then lie down on the lower register. I think I shooed him off at first, but he kept coming back with single-minded persistence — four times in quick succession, once — so I just let him be. Of course, this meant there was an annoying low-pitched echo to everything I played since the lowest strings were undamped, but he was so cute I didn’t mind overmuch.
It became a little more annoying as Shadow grew. Still he would jump up on the bench on my right, walk across the piano, and lie on the lower register, but he kept growing longer (and fatter) and covered more keys. When he really wanted to make his presence felt, he could stretch nearly to middle C. I would have to reach under him to play the lowest notes of some songs. This did not discourage him in the slightest, at which point I would usually just kick him off. This minor setback never seemed to deter him resuming his perch the next time. Occasionally he would jump up and stretch out on top of the piano, knocking several pictures off in the process, but that was not his preference. He had his special spot, right at the end, and that was that.
The most memorable time, though, came a few months after the kittens had arrived, when they were just reaching that adolescent male cat stage. My dad was in his chair, watching TV. My mom was in the kitchen making dinner, though she had stepped into the room to ask my dad something. I was at the upright, practicing. Shadow, as usual, jumped up beside me, walked on the keyboard, stood dead center, and MARKED THE PIANO RIGHT BETWEEN MY HANDS! Confident he had just claimed his territory, he immediately jumped off, leaving a frozen, very stunned ten-year-old with a cat-urine puddle on F4. Oh, the look of shock mixed with utter horror on my face. It didn’t help that my parents both thought it was completely hilarious. They got the piano cleaned up and disinfected, me calmed down, and the special snip-snip vet appointment scheduled the next day.
I never felt quite the same about the piano after that. Shadow successfully claimed it as his own; I was just borrowing it.