Tonight I sat behind a crazy woman.

I’ll call the woman in the pew in front of me Angie.

My first cue came when, from the corner of my eye, I saw Angie talking to the woman next to her. I looked up to see that Angie’s neighbor continued to read her program, never noticing that Angie was mouthing words, not making a sound, perhaps not even mouthing at her neighbor. I wasn’t sure who she was addressing.

Then I noticed the hair, tangled mats woven into a greasy almost-up do. I had seen this do before, sculpted by hours of a drunken head collapsed into a pillow.

My heart sank in the memory, but I knew this wasn’t my friend. She had drowned her heart in vodka, and, five years ago, her matted head had collapsed one final time, lifeless, in a bed of debris and neglect on her kitchen floor. I stared at Angie’s matted head and inhaled, pulling the air deep into my abdomen. I didn’t detect alcohol or neglected hygiene.

Angie lifted both arms, fists clutching the program, then slammed her hands into her lap. She was anxious. She turned around, looked past me to the doors then up to the mezzanine balcony. She mouthed unvoiced frustrations. As she lifted her gaze to the ceiling, surely some of those silent words were angry obscenities. Was she cursing God? She faced forward towards the empty choir risers then plopped deeper into the pew.

Who was she?

A grandparent? A parent? The latter seemed unlikely, yet possible

Angie must have looked at her watch. She looked closely at the program again, then emphatically pointed to the information on the front. A silent scream: “7:30 pm!!!” Probably followed with something like: “This is ridiculous! You’re late! You’re supposed to start at 7:30!” I looked at my phone. It was 7:30 on the nose. Angie stomped her feet like a toddler having a hissy fit, and slammed her back into the pew with a harrumph.

Maybe she was a member of the music department. A former choir director? She was anxious for this show to begin.

Angie’s clothes were crumpled and aged but didn’t have the stains and grime of the frayed pants and shirts my dead friend wore during her last days. Angie’s outfit was only slightly untidy, missing the belt, probably cloth, that should have been secured by the five wide loops along the waistline of her polyester jacket-shirt.

The watch again. This time Angie beat her fist in the air, and her neighbor seemed to notice her for the first time. She scooted away from Angie, closer to the man to her left (I’ll hazard to say her husband) and whispered something in his ear. He craned his neck in time to see Angie talking to the program, scolding it for the lies it told, right there on the front page.

Angie turned to look past me again then turned forward and, with an audible huff, crossed her arms. The concert should have started three whole minutes ago! Shaking her head, she wiggled against the hard pew as if to adjust cushions, then slammed her fists into her lap once more.

I made a mental note to pay attention after the program.

Did Angie have a child, grandchild, or friend in the Women’s Chorale? Perhaps a son or grandson who sang alongside my son in the Glee Club? I realized I wanted to know.

Angie stretched her neck high when the organist appeared. She gestured a well-it’s-about-time and sank back into the pew. Her neighbor scooted further away, wedging herself into the protection of her husband’s underarm.

The rows of heads gave a start when the organ pipes burst into chords of import and ceremony, a cantabile by César Franck. The deep lines around Angie’s mouth lifted, her shoulders settled; she sank into the warm waters of the music and muffled steps of the choristers as they filled the sanctuary.

An Interfaith Service of Thanksgiving

The service began with a welcoming that was followed by a hymn of Thanksgiving.

Crazy woman in a pewAs we all stood to sing, I peered over the pew: a large orange purse and yellow lace-up flats. Angie joined in song, out loud and with enthusiasm. I was growing fond of her.

The opening prayer was from the Islamic tradition, read by a short young woman in a hijab. Angie read along in the program, mouthing the words. She looked up with a smile as the prayer ended.

A Hebrew folk song followed the Islamic prayer. We also enjoyed a Zulu folk song, a Shoshone love song, an Iroquois prayer, a Jewish litany, Christian hymns, silly and serious poems. Angie laughed out loud for the “A Turkey Speaks” poem. We gave thanks for the harvest, thanks for the bounty, thanks for the sun, moon, and stars. Thanks to God, thanks to the Earth. We lifted the thanks and praise of many faiths.

I know I’m a little crazy, but I cherish both difference and connection. I felt grateful for this gathering that honored the prayers of other faiths, lifting them in voice and song. I felt thankful for this assembly in a place that was safe to be the other, a space where we could celebrate differences and find connections without fear. I was thankful for Angie. She carried the intensity of her frustration and anxiety for the late start (4 minutes!) into her enthusiasm for the songs and prayers that were offered during the program. And I enjoyed them more for it.

The program concluded, we applauded and began to disperse. I watched Angie. She went up to one of the members of the Glee Club, she smiled, spoke to him, and patted him on the shoulder. They didn’t seem like family. Nothing was clear. Maybe he didn’t know her. Maybe he did. I had paid attention, but, as Angie padded through the crowd and out the doors in her yellow shoes —different, brave, unafraid— I realized that even after making mental notes and scribbles, I had no idea who she was.

I also realized I was being watched. My neighbor looked from my gaze that followed Angie to my hand that held the program covered in scribbled notes about Angie. I’m sure she went home and told someone: “I sat next to a crazy woman tonight.”

© Copyright Pennie Nichols, 2016. All Rights Reserved