A Mother's Advice: Take Dance Lessons

A motivational story of how dancing lessons changed a woman's life.

By Kathryn Slattery, New Canaan, Connecticut

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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.

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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…”

Adapted from Kathryn Slattery's memoir Lost & Found.

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This excerpt sounds just exactly what is happening with myself and my daughter. Every word I say she hears something else. WOW! Should have known it is not just the 2 of us. Have often heard that the Mother-Daughter Relationship is the HARDEST relationship. God help us all.