There was always music in the house. The light low glimmer of orange yellow light from the stereo seemed always in the background like a porch light at a front door or how a horizon sometimes looks at early dawn just before the apex of the sun begins to rise.
It didn’t matter really where the silver knobs on the sleek silver Pioneer Stereo where set or the slim red vertical line on the horizontal radio dial—rock (now classic rock), light jazz, R and B, Disco, Pop, Soul or the Oldies from the Twenties to Thirties to Forties to Sock Hop, what would later become the basis for rockabilly—we always seemed to be dancing in our small three bedroom household of four.
You wouldn’t have guessed that my father, my dad, with glasses, bald in full trimmed beard, a beatnik child of poetry, literature, music, Dylan Thomas and Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg and T.S. Elliot and lover of real jazz, the kind that’s difficult to listen to, that mental kind where talking about it was akin to singing the Blues, Charlie Parker’s sax, Johnny Coltrane’s trumpet, Bill Evans’ piano all had their own unique voice which did more than just sing or play music. Their instruments, their tools, embodied souls, intellects, intellectual arguments, imagery of a city, peoples, conversations, noise, traffic, hardscrabble lives standing on dusty corners or in burnt out alley ways, a lit cigarette, a diner near because it had to be and it had to be past midnight—way into the night where the blackness seems to rest for awhile before the turning to dark blue then dark gray just before the colors arise.
But he could dance, “shag” as they called it. This little 5 foot 7 and three quarters of a man with my mom’s 5’8’’ frame could “cut a rug.” We, children, could see it in their subtle movements, even their walks…the tapping of a toe, beat of a pencil, slight bob of a head, the saunter from our small living room to the larger kitchen, or their walking along a beach, hand in hand, bikini clad and draw strung swimsuit.
They would take the time to dance in front of us. Were we there? And seeing the two, hand in hand or rather hands in hands, bop, slide in their socks on the polished wood floor, bring each other close than far apart and twirl, dad always the show stopper, was a beautiful and natural thing.
Natural is a keen word for it. For my mother being Mexican-American from a border town in Texas had a natural swaying, light footed, sashay that brought a room to their feet, off of their plated dinners, off from their bar stools, up from the sofa and recliners, out of their lawn chairs, up from their blankets strewn along the sand and out from under pool umbrellas to whatever makeshift dance floor lay under them whether made of linoleum, wood, sand, carpet or concrete.
I’m not implying she was the life of the party, but she became Shaman with rattling beads, tilting hips, voodoo doctor with shaking staff, beat maker, rustler, bass line to every party.
When that feeling in her soul met her hips, suddenly the mood of the room altered. Music not just filled the air, it became the oxygen for bodies to move in rhythm, for bodies to relax, glide, become in sync, as these inarticulate spindles, some fat and short, others long and tall, Crew cutted or long haired, flowed into one intoxicating trance.
A form of happiness filled the air from a simple saunter to center stage wherever that may be—a kitchen, grassy spot near a picnic table, near a stove, an empty dance floor surrounded on three sides by men in tuxedos, carnationed lapels, and women in long white, silky dresses.
As an infant, I suppose I learned to crawl, dance, then walk in that order. After standing, my hips and hands would bump and grind before I could balance full steps and a march. It’s funny how music can do this to you as if humming a song or singing were as natural as breathing—our bodies tell us to move in such contortions—not doing so is a fight against its will, an unnatural act.
When I was an infant, I am sure my mother would rock me in her arms for the simple joy of putting me to sleep, As a child, I would then be able to reach up to her hands. She, slightly bent over, while holding hands, would take me and dance the time away—mid-afternoons, Sunday evenings. She would dance with my younger sister, too, but I seemed bent on learning the moves: Fox Trot, Two Step, Cha Cha, Swing, Samba, Salsa, while my sister took to Scottish Highland Dancing and all that tweed and sweaty woolen socks. I never liked these stiff dance moves, feet like swords clambering against one another, the volley of a war: two legs flailing against two crossed rods lying in the shape of an “X” on the floor. It all seemed a panic.
A good bit of years were spent on Sock Hop dances in middle school for they were all in vogue twenty years beyond their time. So dancing with a partner was key, the looping and interloping of arms, the back to front and back again, under over, figure eight, hands behind backs, side by side—and when we attended Latin music festivals or dances especially in high school even at a church every so often, the wider circle of old and young dancing arm in arm, me with my mother, just another tandem, lent itself to one large phalanx of folk, dancing in a grand clockwise circle, the force, the centrifugal force, turning the entire crowd, like a gyro, round and round in one concentric shape sometimes oval, sometimes evolving into an ellipse.
I finally found by ninth grade a dance partner who became my girlfriend through high school and my early college years. It was all so serious until it wasn’t. She had been raised similarly. We were off and gliding at teen nights, homecoming dances, frat parties, and the annual college Carnation Ball. I admired her for her delicacy, grace, memory of so many moves, smile, and in no time she would be leading the tangle of people into one corpus, doing the Electric Slide or Hustle. I never minded playing second fiddle to her. It really was something special to see her lead. I know my mother and father chaperoned a few and never noticed them, but sure would have liked to have seen their expressions now.
Funny, earlier when “the bump” moved in and slow dancing developed as a stark contrast to the Fifties jumping and jiving, when we began, as partners to get really close to songs from Chicago, “when time goes on, I’ll be around…” or Led Zeppelin, “and “there’s a lady that’s sure all that glitters is gold…” as these slipped into the charts, dancing suddenly became scandalous. This transformation had teachers and chaperones barging in between teenagers’ bumping and thumping hips. The two sexes’ bodies and private parts had never gotten so close, in fact touch, with ever increasing frequency, closer and closer until the music stopped. It was a middle schooler’s form of foreplay, an introduction to the mating ritual.
Dancing offered such an opportunity to show one’s internal spirit without any uneasy talk or forced banter. You didn’t even have to look at one another, just move your feet, touch and go, touch and go, a ceremony of souls bouncing to the gentle four four time. Such interludes of disruptive cadences or bridges. The syncopation of beating hearts, which belied a slight tease or eroticism, via whatever athleticism one might have. It was all such a balancing act, by way of a conversational, interpersonal, mute dialogue.
It fit or it didn’t. Such delicate hands were warmed—a feeling of electricity, common vein with blood flowing through it—or a coldness smacked you in the face, immediately, hands shrinking away, fighting to reconnect in time to a missing beat, a desperate wait for the song to fade. The desperate looks away.
I suppose this is what I remember most about my mother despite her and our later setbacks due to the divorce, economics, health, absent mindedness and carelessness, a lifetime of it—and our caring for her, my wife and I for nearly a decade, living through the slow decline to the inevitable.
She also had such vivid dreams, and as she shared them with us we were left to unravel the puzzles, where we sought a message, there had to be a message beneath the facades, plateaus, and multi-dimensional walls of the landscapes. Trying to peel back the layers was a first a game, then troublesome, and sometimes just right scary.
“I was at this railway station. I must have been ten or younger, just a little kid. I was wearing the most beautiful dress, pink, cotton, that came below my knees, with a frilly collar and white design of some kind, an elevated pattern on my back in co-encentric triangles, with a smaller similar pattern on the front and at the hem. People, all kinds of people were getting on and off the train.”
“Didn’t your dad work for the railroad?” I said.
“He did and that has nothing to do with it. Haven’t thought of him or it in a long time. Maybe it does,” she continued.
“I’m painting all these flowers, all kinds of petaled flowers, of all shapes and sizes along the wall inside the station. They’re just letting me do it. I keep painting. People keep looking saying, “hay que lindo,” and I just keep painting, each flower different to the other, every color I can think of, every pot of paint as I dip somewhere, different colors, some I’ve never seen before.”
“The owner, or Manager of the depot comes by, in a clean suit, like the old days with an engineer’s cap, you know those circular bonnet caps with a bill, in black comes up to me and tries to give me money for my work.”
“Here, please take this money. It is so beautiful.”
“I don’t want your money, I say. I don’t want your money.”
Then I reach back to the wall and take a flower from off the wall painting–it becomes real, and I hand it to him. He smiles and moves on. I then begin giving everybody flowers.”
“That’s a pretty moving story, mom.”
“But then I’m inside the train and I don’t know where its going, but its moving, and again, I’m painting on the inside of the train walls, right by the seats, and handing flowers to everyone again. Isn’t that strange?
The story saddens me because I think of her giving of herself, her beauty, her love to others as she paints on the walls of the station first, then inside a moving train. “I don’t want your money, sir,” and wants nothing in return but just to share her beautiful soul with others.
“This big black spider just kept coming at me with a diamond in his hand. It had six sides, and was the biggest and brightest one I had ever seen. Light emitted from it though it was probably just reflecting the light shone on it from above, in such an array, sparkling, it made my eyes hurt. But the spider toyed with it, held it close and it scared the crap out of me just looking at it and its hairy arms. Then I woke up not out of fear but in my dream I was crying but when I awoke I wasn’t.”
I need just one picture from the trunk full of bent shoe boxes of photos.
You would think it would be of us dancing in the living room with both of us smiling at the Polaroid camera. However, it is from a much earlier time where she and my father attend some gala event. A wedding? Anniversary? Ball?
Everyone is smiling and full of gaiety in the Roaring Twenties sense. Set on cardboard stock, and somewhat faded from wear rather than from aging of the monochromatic black and white colors, they are seated at a rectangular table, photo taken from the head of the table.
It must be from sometime in the mid-fifties, before marriage, before children, full time careers, suburbia, commuting, camping trips, Ocean City summer week long holidays, sports—too many Football, Basketball, and Baseball practices and games to remember, their verbal fights in the car, his drinking, their shouting at one another over the sound of the television, the breaking of plates at dinner, suitcases and clothes thrown down the stairs, a car screeching down the driveway and the cigarettes, the smoke filled kitchen and ongoing stench of cigarettes throughout the house, and the right leg over left pose she had that seemed set in stone, cigarette in right hand, right elbow resting on the right knee, hand akimbo balancing the butt between her two fingers, curlers in her hair, those sponged ones the color of Bazooka Joe bubble gum, and the smell of Clairol hairspray, mixed amidst the Pall Malls. And then the loans, mounting debt, loss of home, changing jobs, changing apartments, her complaining, “your father,” the hospital visits, the moving out and into the elderly homes, then our home, then carrying her up and down the stairs which even though now was nearly a decade ago, all seemed to go so quickly.
In this picture at this particular table that night, the photographer asked everyone to “Look over here!” It was their table’s time before he moved onto the next. “Smile!” “Click.” The lightbulb flashed just before it all…
just before the band started playing…
Image from Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/24980972917507308/