By: Marilyn L. Davis
She didn’t so much live life as look at it; detached and distant, it was safer. Who knew what could happen if you committed 100 percent to the experience? Life taught her to be cautious; there were snakes in the woods, sinkholes in the stream and mean nasty people in the church.
Her mother wanted her to be more outgoing and social, but in her opinion, what her mother wanted was for her to become silly. When her mother would give her examples of how to behave, she honestly judged the examples of correct behaviors as fake.
Amanda Jenkins giggled. Julie Arnette tittered. Martha Brown did the unthinkable for her; she guffawed. No way was she going to start giggling, tittering or even attempting to guffaw.
She wasn’t inclined to pretend. It took too much energy, and she tried making those noises once while looking in the mirror in the hall. She didn’t like how her face looked like a stranger.
But she did enjoy watching those girls at church services. How they seemed to find anything funny when there were boys around. But as far as she could tell, the boys weren’t doing anything funny. In fact, most of the time they were doing something dumb. Why would anyone laugh at dumb?
She tried to have this conversation with her mother and only got more advice that didn’t make sense. “Honey, you’re right, but that’s how you begin to catch a man.” Fish she got; men she didn’t. But in Eufaula, Alabama, you had to get a man.
Monday mornings seemed to be louder than any other day at school. Girls would group by the lockers; all were straining to see the class ring and oohing and aahing about how great it was to be going steady. They just reminded her of the hens in the yard when she’d throw out the corn; flapping and clucking and jostling to get the corn.
She usually stayed at her locker a little longer to listen and watch. She didn’t get involved; mostly because she didn’t see the point. She had never been on a date and felt left out, and that irritated her about herself. She knew to get a date; she’s have to act like Amanda, Julie, and Martha, and she couldn’t bring herself to be phony.
Then she’d remember about false pride. Was she being too hard on her friends? Sometimes she thought so, but they just seemed to have a switch that turned them into girls she didn’t know when the boys were around.
Her 15th birthday was coming up and her mother wanted her to have a picnic-dance in the field behind the house. Her father agreed to bush-hog the area, string lights, and make sure all the cows were in the barn for the night. He was sorry he couldn’t do anything about the pigpen, but everyone in Eufaula had pigs and other smelly creatures, so it wasn’t a big deal.
What was a big deal was she didn’t know how to dance. She went to a dance at school once and stood by the bleachers in the darkest area she could find. Watching and wondering how the other girls made their hips move like they did. She could feel the music in her body and her toes tapped in time, but hips and arms and head seemed like too much.
After she got home, she asked her mother about dancing and her mother showed her moves from the 40’s when she was a teen-ager. They weren’t the same and she wasn’t going to be old-fashioned, so she never went to another dance. Now she wished she’d at least learned to move her feet with her dance coming up.
She asked Amanda, Julie, and Martha if they’d come over and teach her to dance. That seemed like a huge concession to her, but she wasn’t going to be standing on the sidelines at her own dance. Each girl brought her favorite record and they tried to teach her, but she kept remembering the pastor talking about the provocative swaying in church and she just couldn’t bring herself to sway. Martha asked her what was wrong with swaying, and all she could think of was that it was enticing. Martha laughed and said, “Well, my mom says we have to entice boys to get them to notice us not car parts.”
On the morning of the dance, her mother wanted to wash, curl, and fix her hair in a style that didn’t even resemble her. And the dress was finally ironed. Her mother had cooked the starch and had the dress rolled up in the refrigerator for two days and now it seemed to stand at attention it was so stiff, and it scratched more than usual, but it did seem to show off her slender figure. She’d never thought about having a figure, except Amanda mentioned it when trying to teach her to dance, that she didn’t have to worry about fat rolls jiggling when she danced like Amanda did.
Dressed, fussed over, and cautioned not to disturb any of her mother’s efforts, she sat at the kitchen table an hour before her guest were scheduled. Her daddy was still gathering up stray cows, and her mother was loading a wheelbarrow with more food. She’d never seen them more focused on a get-together like they were for this, and she felt guilty for not appreciating all their efforts, but she was just afraid she couldn’t even enjoy the party.
Just when she thought she’d run away to the creek, there was a knock at the front door. Since she was alone in the house, she got up, tugging at the irritating waistband of her dress and opened the door. She was surprised to see John Foster standing there. He was always so quiet in classes that he was easy to overlook, but there was no doubt that he was glad to see her. He thrust a brown wrapped present into her hands and said, “I’m here for your party. I’ve never been to one before. I’ve learned to dance.”
All that before she could even say, “Hello”.
She wasn’t sure if she should send him to the pasture where the party was going to be, or if she should invite him into the kitchen. She opted for the kitchen and they sat in awkward silence until her mother came in and asked about his folks. John told her mother that his mom was glad he was socializing. She thought he looked embarrassed saying that, so she leaned over and told him that her mother was behind this social occasion.
John said he didn’t care who arranged the party, he was just glad he could come. Her mother got a peculiar look on her face and said, “I’ll leave you kids to talk” and left. She thought her mother was trying to signal some secret message to her, but she wasn’t sure of the meaning, so she sat, uncomfortably fussing with the dress and wondering how long those curls would stay in place before they started falling. John looked at his shoes and finally blurted out, ” I saw you in the library the other day.”
Not knowing what else to do she told him that she liked the library with all the knowledge that the authors shared, and how her grandfather donated books when the family was finished reading them. John told her that he got one of the family books and her name was in it, so he knew what kind of books she liked.
It finally dawned on her that John looked smitten, or bitten, she couldn’t remember what her mother called it, but that if a boy looks at you like he’s just seen you for the first time and smiles a lopsided goofy grin, that’s when you knew.
Well, John did look goofy. But he also looked safe and familiar and she remembered some book reports he gave in class and she liked the same kinds of books, so she risked asking him which dances he had learned and would he teach her before everyone got there and she looked foolish.
John jumped up and grabbed her hands, and for a split second she thought she felt like she did the time she stuck her finger in the electric socket. Odd. But then it passed, and John told her to put her hand in his, and her other hand behind his neck. She’d never been this close to a boy before, and he smelled different than when she practiced with Amanda, Julie, and Martha. It was like the new mown hay, and the hair tonic her dad used, and then she realized there was a minty smell by her ear when John told her to relax and that he would lead.
He moved her out from the table and put pressure on her waist, and for once, she didn’t even notice the scratchy material. This felt fun. Now, she’d never thought of a feeling as fun, but this was. She tilted her head back and realized that it was like she was seeing John for the first time, too.
She didn’t care that her curls were drooping, that her dress made crinkly noises when she moved, or that she stepped on John’s shiny shoes. All she knew was that she understood why girls twittered and giggled and it was the most amazing feeling.
Her mother and father came in and stopped short, smiling and laughing and saying, “So, you’ve gotten the party started early.”
That party is what started a love affair between your grandfather and me. We’ve had sixty years of surprising each other, loving each other, and raising children. You are the youngest member of this family, and we want you to understand that you are valuable, unique, and when you want to learn to dance, we’ll teach you, but we’ll also teach you about fishing, books, growing up on a farm, and recognizing smitten when you see it. And we’ll share the picture of your mom learning to dance, too.
You’ll understand this quote as you grow in our family:
“The groove is so mysterious. We’re born with it and we lose it and the world seems to split apart before our eyes into stupid and cool. When we get it back, the world unifies around us, and both stupid and cool fall away. I am grateful to those who are keepers of the groove. The babies and the grandmas who hang on to it and help us remember when we forget that any kind of dancing is better than no dancing at all.” ― Lynda Barry,
Love, Nana Jane
Sometimes, we have a character living in our head, and we finally give them voice. Sometimes, we write what we wished we’d said at the time. Sometimes, age gives us the wisdom to put into words what we didn’t know at the time.
Nana Jane is one of the characters that now resides in my head, for all the reasons listed. Besides, I just like the name, Eufaula.
I would encourage all of you writers to give your characters or alters a voice and then submit to Two Drops of Ink. We are always looking for touching and teaching posts.