I get this little tinge of expectation every time I go to the mailbox. It’s a dog-level expectation. No matter how many times I walk away disappointed, I still return the next time with a measure of hope.
Much like our old black lab, Sadie, who for years, and in vain, chased the chipmunks in our back yard. Though the chipmunks would always have a head start, always accelerate faster over short distances, and always make it safely back to their headquarters beneath the base of the basketball hoop, Sadie would invariably gather her poundage (which ranged between 80-102.5 in her mature years) into a full sprint, chase them back to HQ, and then feverishly paw and snort while the chipmunks mocked her from a safe distance (because chipmunks are, you know, punk bastards). She’d scratch at the base for literally minutes, oblivious to our calls, until we’d have to drag her away by the collar as she craned her head over her shoulder, let-me-at-‘em-style, all the while dog-growling the equivalent of “You wait. Next time, f*ckers. … next time.”
Like Sadie, no matter how often I return empty-pawed from the mailbox, I still think, there’s always a chance, as I stroll across the sidewalk and open the latch.
A chance for a letter, or a card. Or just something that catches my eye.
It rarely happens. And, it doesn’t take much. Karry will confirm that I’m nearly giggly when the Clipper Magazine arrives every month.
Couldn’t tell you the exact day, whether it was a weekday or weekend, but I do remember it was February 2016 … when I spied … THE CATALOG.
I remember plucking it from the bottom of the daily pile, and mindlessly scanning its pages looking for a single listing … from a lifetime ago.
That had no business still being there.
But, I’ll be damned … there it was.
Sanders: Intro to Ballroom.
A smile took over my face. Not the immediate, in the moment, oh-that’s-funny grin that burns off as spontaneously as it erupts. But the one that kindles itself from a sweet memory triggered unexpectedly. The kind that sort of wells, then breaks gradually and stretches wide … hangs around for a little bit, and leaves its warm echo even when your cheeks return to their normal resting position.
And, just like it did when I first spotted the very same listing in the community college winter catalog twenty years ago, it sparked an idea ….
The late-90’s version of the idea was to twist my then-new bride’s arm (a precursor to my stepping on her toes) into signing up for the once-a-week evening course at Trinity High School.
My reason went deeper than trying something new and fun with my best friend, though that was a piece of it.
I wanted to ceremonially close a chapter.
I’d just relinquished the drum chair of the 10-piece, little-big-band style group that I’d played with, alongside my trumpet-playing father, since I was 14 years old.
Without exaggeration, it was my dad’s lifelong dream to raise a dance musician.
He’d tried hard with his first four children, producing two tremendous piano players, but wasn’t able to coax either of them onto a bandstand. Though I never confirmed this with him, I’m inclined to believe that among my Dad’s first thoughts when my 39-year-old mom gave birth to me, 10 years after the birth of my closest sibling (I was, um, a bit of a surprise), was, “yep, a drummer.” A secret that I believe he kept to himself until I came home one day from seventh grade and he summarily informed me that he’d signed me up for lessons. And not only that, he’d already given the teacher marching orders that I was to be taught a myriad of styles, ‘not just rock.’ My curriculum was to include foxtrot, cha-cha, rhumba, waltz, samba, bossanova, and swing.
And that was that.
For the record, I’d never expressed any previous interest in the drums.
Yet a couple years later, I found myself spending my weekends riding in vans with musicians 40 and 50 years my elder, and entertaining senior citizens in dancehalls across southwestern Pennsylvania playing selections from the Great American Songbook.
And pretty much loving every minute of it.
I still loved much of it when I finally quit 14 years later, after I’d started playing with a couple rock groups. I just wanted to try something different.
Dad was cool about it. He understood. He’d played with countless bands throughout his life. Knew the feeling when it was time to move on.
I had no intentions to even look over my shoulder, until one day I was mindlessly thumbing through a community college catalog when one listing in particular caught my eye.
Sanders: Intro to Ballroom.
And I knew on the spot that there was one thing I had to do before closing that chapter in my life.
Karry was a trooper.
We were horrible (at first), but it was a blast.
In no small part due to our instructors, Ron and Ruth Sanders. To the 20-something version of our selves, they were this totally adorable older couple. It was obvious that they’d been teaching the course for some time. Their teasing, corny jokes were well-rehearsed and in the fashion of an old married couple … about the female always following the lead of the male, about trusting the male’s sense of direction around the dance floor, about the perils of ‘spaghetti arms.’ But, man, were they something to watch. I believe Ron was a stone mason (or did similar hard labor with his hands) for a living. Yet his dance posture was impeccable. He was the picture of elegance and grace as he rose up on his toes and led Ruthie (as he called her) and her signature high heels across the high school cafeteria’s floor. It was obvious that they just loved dancing with each other. The highlight of each class was during break, when they’d put on a song and show us how it was done. We’d just watch in awe and with the biggest smiles.
But they were most gracious instructors, too, and coached us up on our foxtrot, cha-cha, rhumba, waltz, samba, bossanova and jitterbug. The toughest part for Karry was following my lead. She likes to be in control of things. Plus, she knows I have no sense of direction, and was (rightfully) dubious of my ability to navigate a circle.
It only got a little oogie those couple lessons when Ron and Ruth broke out the Lambada (the ‘forbidden dance’). I remember Karry and I dissolving into tears of laughter seconds into our first attempt, after I tried to look seductively into her eyes.
But gradually we got better and a bit more comfortable with all the (other) styles, deepening our arsenal with enough moves to soften the more mechanical edges of our technique.
Until we deemed ourselves more or less ready to take it to a real dance floor.
And dance to a certain little big band.
And, for me, to experience my Dad’s playing from the civilian side. For once, to be among the entertained, and not the entertainers.
I remember we picked a Saturday gig in Monessen. Can’t remember if it was a VFW, or an Elks, but I distinctly remember it bore that indescribable scent that all those old great halls have … that remains to this day among my favorite smells in the world (it’s like a built-over-decades building cologne of beer, smoke and men over the age of 50).
I didn’t tell my Dad we were coming.
I remember how happy he was to see us (incidentally, I don’t think there was ever a time when he was not happy to see Karry). How big a kick he got when we told him we’d been taking lessons for the sole purpose of coming to a gig.
I remember being the youngest ones on the dance floor.
I remember the band’s repertoire giving us ample opportunity to try out (read: exhaust) every step in ours.
I knew every song by heart.
I remember time standing still as Karry and I swooshed around the floor to Dad’s Harry James solo on “You Made Me Love You” … remember Alice, the singer, dedicating Nat King Cole’s “Love” to us, and working up a jitterbug sweat to “Woodchopper’s Ball,” which I discovered was just as fun to dance to as it was to play.
I remember kissing Karry a thank you on the night’s last foxtrot, ‘C’est Si Bon,’ before the band broke into their theme song, “I Still Get A Thrill.”
I remember a great Saturday night spent dancing with my best friend to my Dad’s horn.
I couldn’t imagine a more perfect close to that chapter in my life.
I hadn’t had occasion to recall that sweet memory until that cold afternoon in February, last year.
I was taking a few days off in the aftermath of Dad’s funeral, and couldn’t separate the flood of memories from the music he taught me to love. The daily walk to the mailbox had suddenly become bittersweet, as my dogged expectation was now rewarded with handfuls of cards and handwritten letters of love and condolence (that I’ve kept ever since in a drawer next to my bed). Until one day I spied a community college catalog peeking from beneath the pile, and, mindlessly began thumbing through the pages.
Sanders: Intro to Ballroom.
Couldn’t believe it.
And just like it did decades before, it sparked an idea.
I knew on the spot that there was one thing I now had to do before closing another chapter in my life.
But it didn’t feel right to ask Karry for an encore. It simply wasn’t a practical idea in the present circumstance, given schedules, given everything else she juggles in the unrelenting, herculean effort to keep the machinery of our existence functioning.
… I had a daughter.
And, like my father before me, a responsibility — to ensure my child’s education included the finer points of the foxtrot, the cha-cha, the rhumba, the waltz, the samba and the jitterbug.
A little arm-twisting ensued (a precursor to my stepping on her toes).
But, like her mother before her, Em was a trooper.
And it was a blast.
In no small part due to Ron and Ruthie. For the record, the intervening years had only added to their adorable-ness. They were telling versions of the very same jokes, still poking fun at the man’s sense of direction, still warning against the perils of “spaghetti arms.” And aside from Ron having a slight tremor in his right hand, and Ruthie occasionally having to pause to rest a sore knee, (though still defiantly rocking her super high heels), they remained a sight to behold in each other’s arms gliding across a cafeteria floor.
We were the youngest couple in the class (Emma, of course, by decades).
Though she’s a five-night-a-week dancer, Em found herself a bit out of her comfort zone. When it comes to her dancing, she’s used to being in control. Letting me lead took a little getting used to. Nonetheless, she was very patient with me.
However, I was surprised at how much I remembered, with a little refresher.
Her skill and my recall made us pretty quick studies, not to mention the darlings of the class.
The only slightly oogie part was the one session where Ron and Ruthie made us switch partners, and Em found herself coupled with a 50-year-old dude, an exchange that could not end quickly enough for her.
Aside from that … by the end of the class, we found ourselves fluent in Foxtrot, and cutting a reasonably mean jitterbug (our favorite).
And I’m proud to say, when it comes time for her wedding reception, my little girl will be able to educate her newlywed husband on the fundamentals of the polka.
The experience was the perfect reminder, with the perfect company, at the perfect moment, that loved ones who leave us never (ever) leave us. And that what they’ve planted in us are seeds for us to plant in others.
And so the best lives on.
The Great American Songbook.
Fathers and sons.
Wives and daughters.
And a chapter I now plan to keep open, and adding to, for years to come.