As kids, my sisters and my closest friends were raised to respect the elderly.  In fact, even those kids who were considered “ill-bred,” usually, gave the “old folks” respect.

Now and then, when my mom took my sister and me across town to visit different relatives, we would drop in on an elderly cousin, whom I shall call Cousin Malinda.*   Although Cousin Malinda had a great sense of humor, patience and generosity, her personal hygiene left much to be desired.    Her outer garments were always clean, but she apparently didn’t waste much soap and water on her body.  She didn’t smell so good.  Much to our discomfort, as soon as we entered her house, our cousin wanted to give us kids a hug.  My sister and I had complained to our mom many times about our cousin’s body odor (not that we used the term “body odor”), hoping our mom would find a way for us NOT to be hugged, but our mom told us to just hold our breath. 

To add to our misery, almost always before leaving our cousin’s house, Cousin Malinda begged: ” Would one of you girls tie my shoes, please?”  Oh, no!  My sister and I would look at our mom, who gave us one of those whoever-didn’t-do-it-the-last-time-get-to-it looks.  Groan!  One of us would go over to our cousin, bend down and tie her shoes while trying desperately (and unsuccessfully) to hold our breath during the task.  Gasp!

But in spite of her unpleasant odor, we really loved our cousin, and we loved to hear her sing.  Cousin Malinda sang in the church choir on Sundays, and when my sister and I saw that the choir was going to sing Guide Me Oh Thou Great Jehovah,” we were excited. This was a song that allowed our cousin’s voice to stand out, a voice that church members couldn’t praise enough.  The choir sang the first lines: “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, Pilgrim through this barren land. / I am weak, but Thou art mighty; Hold me with Thy powerful hand …”

The choir and organ then remained silent while our cousin and a male member of the choir sang the next lines as an a capella duet:  “Bread of Heaven, Feed me till I want no more.  “Church members waved their hands, stood up and said amen.  The organ and choir then joined in and repeated the last line:  “Bread of Heaven, Feed me till I want no more.”  This choir-a cappella-choir sequence was followed for the remaining stanzas.

My sister and I grinned and elbowed each other, then looked at our mom.   She smiled back at us, knowing how proud we were of our cousin.  Although as kids, my sister and I didn’t quite comprehend what the term “alto” meant, we were “pleased as Punch” to hear the congregation and other members of our community praise our cousin as “that wonderful alto.”
*”When Malindy Sings” is a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Peggy Tarr

Peggy Tarr has been a columnist for the Evanston RoundTable since its founding in 1998. Born in Bruce Springsteen's hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, she graduated from Rutgers University with a degree...