A Mother's Advice: Take Dance Lessons

A Mother's Advice: Take Dance Lessons

I couldn't be optimistic about dancing with two left feet.

When my widowed mother moved in to the in-law apartment attached to our house, I wasn’t so sure it was going to work out. There had always been something unsettling about our relationship. I loved my mother, but we were different in so many ways and I could never completely shake the feeling that she wanted me to be someone that I wasn’t or that I was somehow a disappointment.

Now Mom was 88, and it was hard to believe that she had been living in the apartment for 10 years. Her macular degeneration had advanced to the point where she was legally blind, and she could no longer drive a car or recognize faces. You’d think I would admire the optimism and courage with which she faced this latest challenge. And I did. Most of the time. But old habits die hard, and no matter how much I tried to change, too often I found myself irritated or impatient with her—and disappointed in myself.

One morning the two of us stood in the mudroom that separated our two back doors, as my mother waited for a friend to pick her up to go shopping. She was talking about my husband, Tom. She was very fond of Tom. But that day she repeated a phrase of hers that always bothered me. “You’re so lucky to have found him, Kitty,” she said, as though I had chased him down and snared him.

“Well, actually we found each other,” I corrected her for what was certainly not the first time. “That’s how I like to see it.”

“You know, Kitty,” she went on, “these are the best years of your lives. You two kids should do everything you can to make the most of them."

“Uh-huh,” I replied, only half-listening. Why does she insist on calling us “kids?" And this wasn’t the first time she had told me that these were “the best years of our lives.” It was as though the previous 25 years of marriage barely counted.

Determined not to go there, I changed the subject. With our own two kids off at college, Tom had recently surprised me with ballroom dancing lessons. Tom and I could do a rudimentary slow dance, and we could more or less hold our own dancing to a wedding DJ. But we didn’t know how to waltz or do the cha-cha or spin and swing to the jitterbug. “Guess what,” I said. “Tom says he wants us to take dancing lessons.”

“Dancing lessons!” my mother cried, her eyes lighting up behind her thick glasses. “What a wonderful idea! You two are going to love dancing.” She and my father certainly had. As a little girl I remember peeking through the balustrade, watching the two of them dance to Benny Goodman or Peter Duchin on the record player in our living room. It used to embarrass me back then, the way Mom went into a girlish dip at the end of a song. She would look at my father with dreamy eyes and sigh, “Oh, John,” and he would respond in his best Ralph Kramden voice, “Baby, you’re the greatest!”

“I don’t know,” I said. “We’re not like you and Dad.” Seventh grade was the last time I had attempted ballroom dancing. Mom was the one who decided to sign me up for cotillion classes. I had never felt so out of place in all my life. I was about two heads taller than every boy. They stepped on my toes and their palms were sweaty. I couldn’t wait to get home and tear off my little white gloves. “It’s Tom’s idea and I’m going along with it,” I said.

“I can’t wait to hear all about it!” A car horn honked. My mother’s ride.

“Don’t expect much,” I muttered as she went out the door—my feeble attempt to diminish not only her expectations but my own.

The first dance lesson was mortifying. Just like seventh grade, I was self-conscious and awkward, even with my own husband. I placed my left hand on Tom’s shoulder, and extended my right arm. He rested his right hand on the small of my back, and put his left hand in mine. So far, so good. But when we moved it was all wrong. “Left-two-three. Right-two-three...” the instructor intoned. But whose left? Whose right? Tom’s or mine? “Back-two-three. Forward-two-three…”

I felt like an idiot. Plus, I was getting hot. I stuck out my lower lip and blew a blast of cool air under my bangs. Ballroom dancing was not for me. There was nothing fun about it. My feet didn’t do what they were supposed to do and my arms were as rigid as a toy soldier’s. I couldn’t wait to get out of the studio

“What do you think?” I asked Tom in the car, massaging my aching toes.

“I think you need to get yourself a comfortable pair of shoes,” he said.

We’d taken home a CD with a mix of music to practice with. Initially I resisted, but Tom insisted. The next night he pushed aside the coffee table and overstuffed chair in the sunroom to clear the hardwood floor. “Do we have to?” I asked.

“We’re supposed to,” Tom said.

I thought again of my parents swirling and twirling in our living room and Mom with her coquettish dips. When it came to dancing, she was a natural. I was not.

Maybe it’ll be better without the instructor staring at us, I thought. Maybe I won’t feel like a geeky seventh grader again. I put my hand on Tom’s shoulder and looked down at my feet as they shuffled in a clumsy box step. “Left, two, three…right, two, three.” I thought of Mom with my father. They could dance but things weren’t always perfect for them.

I recalled the time just before Tom and I got married when I desperately needed to have a real heart-to-heart talk with my mother. I had been battling an eating disorder and I wanted her to know. I needed to tell her but was afraid of her reaction. Summoning up all my courage, I picked up the telephone and called her. I explained what I was going through. There was a long, long silence. Then she said, “You’re not going to tell Tom about this, are you?”

Now I looked up at my husband on our makeshift dance floor. Tom had never flinched when I told him about my bulimia. With his support and prayers I had managed to conquer it. Tom’s love and faith were constant. I knew for certain he loved me. It wasn’t a question of luck. It was something much deeper than that. I was blessed.

“Hey,” Tom whispered to me on the dance floor, “you’re good.”

“No,” I said, “it’s you.” 

For a moment the two of us were lost together, without any awareness of time or space. We were really dancing. We could really do it. Mom, I thought, I see why you loved to do this. It’s so much fun…so romantic. And there in our sunroom, in my husband’s arms, with the music on the CD, I felt I could forgive her for all the things she said over the years that I had found hurtful. I could see how in her own way she wanted the best for me. A happy marriage, someone I could always depend on, someone to dance with. All the precious things that she had lost. I closed my eyes and prayed—a simple, silent prayer for my mother.

The next morning I bumped into Mom outside her back door, waiting for a friend to pick her up to go to a Ladies’ Guild meeting at church. She wore a leopard-print silk scarf draped around her neck and a wide black belt cinched around her waist. “How are the dancing lessons?” she asked.

“Not bad,” I said.

“Are you two practicing?” she asked me.

“You must have heard us in the sunroom,” I said.

She smiled and her eyes got a faraway look. “Remember, Kitty,” she said, “it may not always seem like it, but these are the best years of your lives. You two kids should do everything you can to make the most of them.”

The old familiar words. This time, though, they didn’t sting. Yes, maybe I was lucky—lucky to have these last years together with Mom. A chance to redo the past, a chance to heal from lingering hurts. The years wouldn’t go on forever. She wasn’t getting any younger and neither was I.

“Yes,” I said, “we’re doing our best.”

A car horn sounded. Her ride. "Bye, dear." As she descended the concrete steps, she gripped the white wooden handrail and her lips moved slightly as she counted each step, like me counting my dancing steps. Before getting into her friend's car, she turned and waved to me. Even though I knew she couldn't see me, I waved back.

About Kathryn Slattery

Adapted from Kathryn Slattery's memoir Lost & Found.

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