by Sharon M. Kennedy
When I was a youngster, the kitchen radio was always tuned to the only American station we could get during the daytime, WSOO-AM. I remember trying to dance to the music of Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Red Foley, and lots of other country singers. Whenever the mood overtook me, I would slide across the linoleum floor until my anklets were no longer bright white. My attempts at mimicking Ginger Rogers were pathetic, but that didn’t dim my desire to dance.
One summer day Mom got tired of watching me whirl around the kitchen with an invisible partner. She decided it was time I learned the proper way to waltz so I would be ready if a fellow ever had the courage to invite me to a school dance when I was older. Most of the boys were afraid of me because I had a tendency to speak my mind, but no matter. You know what mothers are like. We have great faith in our children’s prospects. So Mom shook the flour from her hands, put a blueberry pie in the oven, and took off her apron. Then she took my hand.
Sharon and her mom (circa 2001)
She started with a basic step much like a square. Once I learned the simple concept of moving my feet in the right direction without looking at them, we advanced to more sophisticated steps. When she was fairly certain I wouldn’t trip over my feet or get mine tangled up with hers, she suggested I take off my shoes. She said nobody could glide across the dance floor in a pair of clodhoppers. For the safety of her feet, neither of us had removed our shoes at the beginning of our lessons. By lesson five, she was pretty sure I wouldn’t trample on her toes so off came my saddle oxfords.
Although we have no pictures to prove it, when the music started and Mom’s arm was around me, I realized she was teaching me something I would love for the rest of my life. I have no idea what songs the DJ played as we waltzed across the floor. I only knew I never wanted to stop dancing. The heat from the woodstove didn’t bother me. I ignored the jeers of my siblings. I tried my best to follow Mom’s lead. My movements must have been awkward, but she encouraged me whenever I took a wrong step. She knew nothing would hinder my determination to learn to waltz.
We didn’t just slow dance. We didn’t stand in one spot and sway to the music. Mom wouldn’t have called that dancing. I have no idea how or when she learned to waltz, but she was an expert. Many times during that summer she waltzed me around the kitchen when she heard a favorite song. Lots of them were sad ones like “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Nobody’s Darlin’ But Mine,” and many others but there was no sign of sadness in her eyes. She loved country music so even if the songs brought memories, they must have been tender ones.
Time flew by, Mom taught me more intricate steps, and we danced more often. It was the summer of 1958. I was only 11 years old, but even at that young age I couldn’t keep still when I heard a song I liked. Maybe I was trying to dance away my blues and keep loneliness at bay. I was alone much of the time with only my dolls and Nancy Drew books for company. My sister was four years my senior and didn’t share my interests.
As summer passed and September signaled the start of another school year, I don’t remember dancing very often. Homework took precedence, Mom’s chores increased, and the magic of summer was gone. Although the radio was always on, there wasn’t much opportunity to waltz across the floor. In those days, there wasn’t a radio in every room so it was only our kitchen that had been our ballroom. With winter fast approaching, dancing seemed a frivolous pursuit. There was wood to stack in the shed, hay bales to put around the outside perimeter of the house, milk cans to be brought in and kept filled with water for household needs, and dozens of other tasks to make ready for winter.
My 11th summer was one of the happiest of my childhood. As a teenager, I occasionally took Mom’s hand and asked her to dance with me, but by the 1960s much of the music we loved was replaced with a new generation of singers and a new genre of music. It was impossible to waltz to rock and roll, and Mom wasn’t interested in doing the Twist, the Mashed Potato, or the Monster Mash. If a DJ played a song we remembered from the previous decade, all the lovely memories came rushing back. Mom held out her hand, but instead of her taking the lead, it was my turn.
The other evening “The Prisoner’s Song” popped into my head. It’s one we often danced to. As I listened to it on YouTube, it brought back visions of the past. One of the nicest things about technology is with the touch of a key we can hear the music of a bygone era and be transported back in time. I saw myself in Mom’s arms in the house of my childhood that is no more. I saw the brown radio that was always atop our refrigerator and Puff, our housecat, sleeping on a stack of wood by the stove. I saw Gram in her cot, smiling as she watched us waltz across the floor. All the memories came back like a sweet spring rain watering a parched and barren land.
Only once in my adult life did I have a dance partner. He was Yorgo the Greek who tried to coax me to stay long after my feelings for him had fled. We took lessons at a Detroit studio, but it was too late to salvage the relationship. That was over 45 years ago and I still have not found anyone willing to hold out his hand and ask me to dance. So I do what I did as a youngster. I dance with myself and cherish my invisible partner, my dear departed mother.
If your mom is still with you, treasure her. A piece of your heart will go with her when she’s gone. As she ages, hold her close and dance with her. She might not recognize you, but her spirit will know she’s in the arms of someone who loved her when she was young and healthy and who still loves her now that her youth and memory are gone. If she’s in a wheelchair or confined to a hospice bed, play her favorite song as you “lay your cool hand on her brow.” You might not get another chance to show her how much you love her.
Happy Mother’s Day to the woman who gave us birth. Cherish her and may she rest in peace if she has left this world.