She’s there in old family films, her tan legs kicking just a bit higher and straighter than all the other Aunts in a kick line. They’re laughing but something about her face, about Aunt Lucy’s face, as she dances is transcendent, even during a silly little fake dance, trying not to run into the BBQ grill while kids in swim suits run around them. She doesn’t see the backyard filled with family or smell the smoke. When she dances, Aunt Lucy sees something else, and it makes her smile wider than all the other Aunts.
My father tells stories about her, and dancing is always in them. Walking to dance class in the snow carrying her dance shoes wrapped in newspaper in case they somehow fall into the wet slush. She danced in wet shoes once and ended up with dozens of tiny blisters. Dad broke them for her, with the sadistic glee that only a little brother can have. She went back to class the next day, moleskins on her feet and her shoes half dried.
She danced through school and high school, danced with the boy she loved at prom. There are pictures of him, before he was Uncle Jimmy, with a goofy ruffled shirt under his prom tux. I wonder if she danced the night she left him, danced before she told him it was all over, that she loved dancing more than she loved him. Danced and then left on the train to New York City, with poor Jimmy standing by the platform saying he would wait forever.
He didn’t wait forever.
She ended up near Broadway in a shoebox of an apartment shared with three other girls. Dad saw her there, once, before he shipped out to Vietnam. She was so happy, he said, as if happiness was the saddest thing that could happen. So happy to dance in a little off Broadway show and wait for her big break.
And then that big break happened, that audition that finally went right. She got the part. Giddy with it. Dancing not just on stage but in front of hundreds of people. So happy she sent Dad a telegram and called home to say she’d get everyone tickets to come see her.
Dancing on air on her way to the first rehearsal, where they showed her the door to the dressing room and she saw all those other women, and a few men here and there. Everyone getting naked together. And suddenly, she couldn’t do it. Couldn’t strip down in front of everyone and have some man she didn’t know help her into a costume. She’d grown up in a small town that valued modesty. She just wanted to dance, not be naked in front of all those people.
So she took the train home, and found Jimmy again. Made him Uncle Jimmy, and then made my cousins. She only danced in the backyard kick lines, and sometimes in the kitchen on Saturday nights when we kids were supposed to be asleep. She always looked happy when she danced, but I always wondered if she thought she’d made the right choice. Happy wife and mother, modest to the end, or dancer on the stage, I always questioned if she picked the right one. I asked her once, about dancing, to see if she remembered everything my father did. Her voice was quick and unsentimental, “I went to New York once, but they made you change in a great big room, so that was that.” Then she did the dishes as if they were somehow more important than dancing.