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PRIVATE LIVES

There were three churches in the small Mississippi town where I grew up, and every summer my friends and I were expected to attend Vacation Bible School at all of them. No ecumenical lesson was involved. Our parents simply considered it good manners.

The summer I was 8, things had gone along as usual at the Methodist Church Vacation Bible School. Then someone decided it would be a great idea to present a short play on the last day of Bible school and invite our parents. All I knew about the play was that it had something to do with a family in ancient Jerusalem, and that we were to wear our bathrobes in order to approximate the ancient family's clothing.

My part was fairly simple. I would walk onto the stage sometime near the end of the play and present a tray of unleavened bread, a bread, I discovered, that was pretty much flat. How or why it got that way none of us seemed to know. But it was mentioned in the Bible several times and the older students, who were writing the play, said it was probably the thing to serve. What we needed was an unleavened bread expert.

We all agreed that "Miss Birdie," as she was known, qualified. Miss Birdie, a short, plump matron with a demonstrative personality, was famous all over the county for her prize-winning Parker House rolls. It was assumed, therefore, that she also would know exactly how to make unleavened bread.

The morning of the play, we assembled in the church basement. We were all wearing our best bathrobes _ several of which, I noticed, had pictures of cartoon characters stitched onto the pockets. I longed to have Bugs Bunny or Wonder Woman on the pocket of my "ancient biblical costume," but all I had was an embroidered, pink bow.

"More tasteful," my mother said.

I figured that a family who ate flat bread probably wouldn't have cared all that much about taste.

Just before the play was to begin, Miss Birdie walked in holding a large Coca-Cola tray. Her round face wore a secretive smile as she pulled back a white linen napkin to reveal a number of miniature Parker House rolls. Having decided that she simply could not allow us to eat flat bread, Miss Birdie had, with one sweep of a Fleischmann's yeast package, bypassed several thousand years of Hebraic tradition. We all swooned forward to capture the delicious aroma of still-warm rolls while yearning to eat our "unleavened bread."

Everyone began to take their places for the play except for me. I was to remain in a room just outside the one where the play was to be given. Upon hearing my cue _ "Behold the unleavened bread!" _ I would enter, carrying my tray, and pass it around to the others.

As the play started, I could hear parts being said, but I could think only of the lovely smell rising from the tray. I soon discovered there were more than enough of the tiny rolls needed for the play. I thought it might be wise to try one, just to make sure Miss Birdie was up to her usual standard. She was. It was the most delicious, buttery piece of perfection I had ever tasted.

I ate another roll, and another, until the only thing staring back at me from the tray when I looked down was a picture of a smiling blond lady holding a Coca-Cola bottle.

Suddenly, I was a scared, yeasty, bloated mass of guilt. Then I heard those terrible words: "Behold the unleavened bread!" I had no idea what to do.

Vaguely, I remembered my grandmother, an avid Sunday school teacher, always talking about people "girding their loins as they marched forth into battle." And so, girding the sash of my bathrobe as tightly as I could, and picking up the empty Coca-Cola tray, I marched forth into ancient Jerusalem.

At first, the playmakers greeted me with smiles of anticipation and delight. But when the empty tray was spotted, the looks quickly changed from dismay to hostile accusations. One of the older boys spat out in a fierce whisper: "Where are our rolls?"

"I ate 'em," I said, and burped.

"YOU WHAT?!" ricocheted down the line of actors.

The audience sat unaware of what was happening, except for Miss Birdie. She kept leaning forward in her seat and adjusting her glasses, staring at the empty tray and looking extremely puzzled.

As I started to serve the "unleavened bread," somebody whispered, "What are we supposed to do?"

"Pretend," I whispered back.

I still don't know how I made it down that line. No firing squad ever had colder eyes. Even my best friend, Julia, gave me the look she usually reserved for grasshoppers and her little brother, Robert Earl.

I finally got back to my place on stage, but I knew I was ruined for the rest of the summer. With Presbyterian Vacation Bible School only two weeks away, the best I could hope for was to become bedridden with a nice summer cold.

One afternoon years later, when I was a first-grade teacher and my class was preparing for a holiday party, I decided to make a last-minute check on all the refreshments stored behind a partition in the classroom. Just as I rounded the corner of the partition, I was met by a startled first-grader. He looked up at me with terrified eyes, and I noticed his entire face was covered with the sticky remains of a cinnamon roll.

"It's okay," I said. "We'll wash your face and hands. Nobody will ever know."

"You're not mad?" he asked, shaking with relief.

Mad? I smiled. He was like kinfolk.

Dolores Scales lives in St. Petersburg. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.

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