The Jitterbug

by Elise Hempel

L1252I just got back from a quick trip to Chicago, where I attended the funeral of a childhood friend's mother, who died in her sleep at the age of 93, survived by her husband of 65 years. I have many memories of my friend's yellow ranch-style house on a quiet side street in suburban Chicago – the neat, clean living room where their Wurlitzer organ stood, the large picture window that faced the cemetery, the basement with its foosball table and stacks of board games we'd play, my friend's bedroom she had once been so excited to make over herself, painting a big purple psychedelic design across her wall. But I have very few memories of interactions with my friend's parents; somehow they always seemed separate from us – her mother putting out a plate of cookies, perhaps, then heading off to sew, her father reading the paper or watching a ballgame in the den, leaving us to do whatever we wanted. My main memory of her parents, I suppose, is that they were both always neatly dressed (skirt, slacks), both always kind and nice, and both always cheerful – two people who fit together well, a combined aura of goodness and stability over the house, over my friend's childhood.

And that was the aura over the visitation and funeral service this past Wednesday and Thursday, with the TV-sized electronic picture frame and its continuous loop of photos, as well as all of the traditionally framed photos around the room – photos of family vacations in Michigan, of my friend's parents in a wedding party together before they were married, of my friend's mother in 1951, posing in her own wedding dress she had sewn herself, complete with satin buttons. For those who don't believe in auras, there was the tangible presence of my friend's 90-year-old father – stooped and small now, more white-haired than when I'd last seen him decades ago – who steadfastly sat in the first pew before the open casket festooned with yellow flowers, unbudging from that final view of his wife. It was impossible to leave the visitation and service without dwelling on their partnership, on the idea of a marriage lasting 65 years.

Impossible, too, to leave the visitation and funeral without thinking of my own parents, who divorced in 1975, after 20 years together. I don't know what other people saw when they looked at my parents as a couple before then – whether my mother and father seemed to “fit,” or if there was, at times, a noticeable tension between them – and I wonder whether their divorce came as a surprise to others, or if, after hearing the news, our neighbors nodded their heads at what they'd suspected all along. Before our own relief when Mom and Dad finally divorced and the household tension was gone, I remember their quiet wars – the rising and falling of some vague discussion in the kitchen, and then my mother heading to their bedroom and shutting the door, sequestering herself in there for some time, crying perhaps, emerging sometime later without a word, the three of us keeping our eyes glued to whatever show we'd been watching on TV.

I do have one particular memory, though, of my parents as a couple who fit with each other, who once had, however briefly, what my sister calls that essential combination of “clicks and sparks.” My memory is this: They've taken the three of us to some place (a VFW hall?) that has a band. We're all sitting at a long table, or possibly on risers. A song comes up that they both recall, and they stride out into the crowd and take each other's hands. And then they begin their matching hops and kicks, their spins in perfect sync. Somehow they know how to do it all – the turns, the swivels, even her lift into the air, her daring sweep beneath his legs. Of course, I could be just imagining some of this, but I remember my feeling of amazement that night as I watched my parents suddenly doing the jitterbug, suddenly “stars.” No need to think about it. No hesitation. Old skill resumed in an instant, with just a few notes of a song, some sort of trust still intact. Not the long, steady memories my friend must have of her parents together, but something. This little glowing cameo I keep and pull out every once in a while to look at. Not a gaze but a glimpse.