The Band Played On

October 5, 2011

There’s a song in my head since I woke up this morning. I haven’t heard it since I was a little girl, a long while now, but it’s still there. Just as clear as a bell. I know every lyric and I am taken back to a time when I twirled in sock feet across the slick top of my grandmother’s living room coffee table. She had an old record, so thick and stiff it was like glass. I loved the sound of it, the hissing and scratching when she’d put it on the enormous record player, the needle touching down with a little gasp before the music would start. And then, I’d watch my grandmother’s face. One breath, two. No matter how many times I made her play that song, or how she protested and begged me to settle for a different tune, no dice. Because none of her other records did what this one could do. With the first strains of that melody, the corner of her mouth would lift.

Magic.

There was a story in the song. It was simple: a boy and a girl, dancing, thrilling to one another. That was enough to make me love it. And trust me, I didn’t need an excuse to get up on that table and perform waltz after waltz, all dolled up in my grandmother’s square-dancing slip, delighted with the way those skirts billowed out around my little legs. I knew my grandmother was smiling at me. I was a little queen, then. But she had another smile, a secret smile, one I’d never seen before. It puzzled me and bothered me and made me dance harder and wilder, trying to pull her attention back to the wonder of me.

For the first time, I must have realized the woman in the little farmhouse – the person I thought I knew everything about, whom I believed had set her days to revolve solely around our family – had lived a life before us. Each time she played the waltz, I caught a glimpse of that girl. A stranger. A mystery. A pure wonder.

She taught me to make biscuits. She taught me the Lord’s Prayer. She taught me other things, too, like how to manipulate or regret decisions. She was quick to laugh, quick to judge, full of such pride in her family and weighed down with sorrows for brothers she couldn’t redeem. She loved her work, but never felt she was a smart woman. She loved her husband, and they were a gruff pair. She could work like a man in the summer garden, always lamented that she couldn’t grow a rose, and she never missed an epidsode of ‘Dallas,’ come Friday night. I knew all of this and I remember her that way to my children.

But today, I’ll put on a waltz. Because I know the corner of my mouth will lift, so like hers. And my daughter will wonder. She’ll watch me and weigh all the things she understands about my life against all the things she fears and hopes for her own, and she will tuck away the seed of what my grandmother’s waltz taught me.

She had a secret…

The Band Played On

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