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Growing Up Adventist: Singing Special Music


The summer I turned four The Sound of Music came out. Theaters were forbidden, so naturally none of the Good Adventists would admit to having seen it, but word of the Family von Trapp penetrated even our closed society, and family musical groups became all the rage. Such groups were known simply as “The Dave Swanson Family,” or even more simply, as “The Singing Andersons.” These groups achieved some degree of local fame and sometimes even went on tour to other Adventist churches less than a Sabbath Day’s Journey away. 

A few families cut records, which they marketed before sundown on Friday nights at Missionary Volunteers and after sundown on Saturday night at Vespers. More of the groups got reel-to-reel tapes of church services where they provided special music, spliced them together, and distributed them to their friends, gratis.

When a family friend asked Momma if we girls and Matt could sing special music for the Young Adult Sabbath School class Momma, flattered, said, “Of course. They’ll be happy to.” She did not consult us. 

Pam was mortified at having to sing at the Junior High students, many of whom took pleasure in tormenting her. Marie didn’t want to sing, either, though she denied that it was for social reasons. She put a lot of effort into seeing to it that no one dared to torment her. For me, the thought of standing up in front of anybody, even without actually trying to sing, was terrifying, though I was flattered to have been asked. My illusion that this was the start of bigger and better things didn’t last long; Pam saw to that. “We can’t sing,” she said bluntly. 

“We can, too,” I retorted. “Sally and I sing like Deldelker.” 

“No, you can’t,” Pam said again. “None of us can. We’re flat.”

I looked down at my chest. “So what?” 

 “We can’t stay on key,” Pam explained, “and our voices wobble.”

“Deldelker wobbles,” Sally said defiantly.

“You’re not Deldelker,” Pam said. And that was that. She took organ lessons; she knew. We sounded lost, lonely, and ragged, piping out high notes and chanting monotone through the chorus with none of Deldelker’s round, fruity tones. We had the wobble down pat, though. Every night after worship, Momma drilled us. 

“Sing them over again to me

Wonderful words of life

Let me more of their beauty see

Wonderful words of life

Words of life and beeyooty

Teach me faith and d-o-o-o-o-t-y

Beautiful words, 

wonderful words, 

wonderful words of li-hi-hife

Beautiful words, 

wonderful words,

wonderful words of life.” 

Momma glared. “Sing nice. At least try to follow the tune. Now sing it again.” 

We sang it again, sighing heavily between stanzas, yipping out the li-hi-hifes like lovesick coyotes, injecting Deldelker’s wobble when we thought we could get away with it. We sang the wonderful words of life over and over again until we were letter perfect and the words had lost all meaning, and then we sang them some more so we wouldn’t forget them before Sabbath. 

The Thursday before our debut Momma loaded us into the car and drove us to a Wicked woman’s house. She had agreed to be our accompanist, but she looked no more pleased about the arrangement than we were. When we filed in her front door I tried to spot something I could clearly identify as Wicked, but it was just a tiny old house, both a little nicer and a little messier than ours. I wouldn’t have suspected she was Wicked at all if I hadn’t known she was divorced and wore miniskirts. 

She sat down at her organ and thumped out our introduction. We straggled in on the third measure. Momma made us start again until we all came solidly in on “SING them ovER aGAIN to ME…” 

The Wicked woman stood up and said, “That’s enough; they’re as good as they’re going to get.” And we were, which was too bad.

“They’re going to laugh,” Pam muttered. 

“So what?” Momma shot back. “They laughed at the Lord.” 

Friday night Momma wound pink spongie curlers into our hair. When she finished with the rollers Momma swathed our heads in scarves and hairnets, and threatened us within an inch of our lives if we lost even one roller. 

When I pulled off my hair net the next morning three rollers lay in it. I scurried to the bathroom mirror. Straight muddy blonde hair dangled over my right ear. Pink rollers clung to my scalp above my left ear. Momma poked her head into the bathroom, took one look, yanked the curlers free, ran a comb through my hair, wound my hair around her finger, sprayed it hopelessly, said, “That’s the best I can do,” and turned to Pam, whose bangs were smooshed. When we were done she looked at us, tight-lipped. Our hair had become an Act of Outright Defiance. We could have had pretty curls, like she and Sally did. We just hadn’t tried hard enough. “Sing it through just once more,” Momma said. “Just to be sure.” We started half-heartedly. “Not like that,” she interrupted us. “Like you’ll sing it for the Young Adults.” We started again, floundered. 

“Sounds like you didn’t make’em practice enough,” Daddy observed, jingling the car keys. “Sounds like they spent too much time playing.” 

“You kids get in the car,” Momma said. At church, she herded us down the long flight of crumbling steps to the school, where the Young Adults worshipped. I was too frightened to relish the fact that I was skipping Sabbath School, something I had long yearned to do. 

Momma opened the door to the Young Adults’ Sabbath School room. Her friend smiled, said “hello,” then announced, “Today we have a special treat.” “The Dan Parkhurst Family will sing ‘Wonderful Words of Life’ for us.”

And it hit me. We were a musical group. The Dan Parkhurst Family stumbled to the front of the room. They darted a quick glance at the lanky bepimpled boys lounging in their Mandarin-collared shirts, and at the teased-and-hair-sprayed girls in their miniskirts, go-go boots, black eyeliner, and white lipstick. 

The Wicked woman teetered over to the piano. She shimmied onto the stool and spun it experimentally. She pounded out our introduction, and we were….ON. 

“Sing them over again to me…” we whispered. “Wonderful words of life.” The Young Adults were silent—poleaxed by five tone-deaf children in a single family and the Wicked woman’s tiny skirt. 

We stared at the floor, our mouths opened. I assume sound came out; it could not have been good. Momma’s friend hustled us out the door when it was over. We had been granted our five minutes of fame, and squandered them. 

On the way home after church Daddy asked, “How did it go? Did you remember all the words?” 

“Yes,” Pam replied. 

“See, you can do it if you try,” Daddy said smugly. 

“But we were awful,” Pam burst out. “We sounded awful.”

“So what?” Daddy asked. “You did your best.”

“But we were awful,” Pam muttered sadly. “They laughed.”

Marie folded her arms and set her jaw. “I’m never doing that again,” she announced. 

“Yes, you will,” said Daddy. “The church is full of people who won’t help out because they can’t do something perfectly. If you’re asked again, you’ll do it again, young lady.” 

Perhaps the truest measure of the Dan Parkhurst Family’s musical career lies in the fact that we were never, ever, invited to sing anywhere again. The moral of the story lingered on, though. No matter how painful we found a thing, we could not say “no.” 

Bodie Parkhurst lives in the Pacific Northwest with her son and two formerly feral cats. “Wonderful Words of Life” is excerpted from her memoir, On Fire For the Lord and Other Scalding Tales.

Note: Some names have been changed for reasons of privacy.

Look for more more Growing Up Adventist stories in the run-up to this year’s Spectrum/Adventist Forum conference in San Diego, California, October 2-5.  If you would like to share your story or know someone who has an interesting story, please send a note to expressing your interest.

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