Sep. 7, 2010

My Parents' Dance Lessons, 1945

by Alison Townsend

In the story my aunt tells,
this is how they met. It's
September, the war just over,
the air crisp as the creases
in my father's khaki pants,
bright as his Bronze Star,
pungent as the marigold
my mother tucks behind one ear,
the night they both sign
up for dance lessons
"the Arthur Murray way"
at the Statler Hotel
in downtown Philly.

He's there to meet girls, of that
I am certain, and she's there
for romance, though I don't think
that's what she would say,
both of them looking for something
as intangible as the cigarette smoke
that rises in old, deckle-edged photos—
everyone tough, glamorous, vampy.

Perhaps there are dance cards?
Or maybe partners are assigned?
The truth is, no one really knows
about the moment when their glance
catches and snags across the room,
a fishline pulling taut as they
place their feet on Murray's
famous "magic footsteps," and start
the slow luxury of reeling one another in.
Music spills from a scratchy
Victrola as she places her hand
on his shoulder, feels the slight
pressure of his palm against her back,
and they begin to move together,
her hesitant steps following
his over-enthusiastic swings,
until they are both lost in
"The More I See You" or "I Don't
Want to Walk Without You Baby,"
the future stretching out before them
like a polished oak dance floor.

I don't know if they went back
for more lessons, or how they learned
to dip and twirl and slide together,
though I once saw my father spin
my mother completely around—her skirt
flaring out around her like the bell
of a silk lamp shade—just monthsv before she died. It's their story
after all, the one with a secret
hidden deep inside it like all
love stories—bigger than we
are or will ever be—music
from a Big Band coming up
in the background, playing
"You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To,"
while our parents swoop and glide
in the spotlight, keeping back
just enough of the story to make us wonder.

"My Parents' Dance Lessons, 1945" by Alison Townsend, from The Blue Dress. © White Pine Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Jennifer Egan, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1962) and raised in San Francisco. She's the author of books including Look at Me (2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and The Keep (2006), a best-seller. Her most recent book came out just this past June. It's called A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), and it received a rave review on the cover page of The New York Times Book Review.

A Visit from the Goon Squad begins:

"It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vault-like door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman's blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand — it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously ("I get it," Coz, her therapist, said), and take the [expletive] thing.

'You mean steal it.'

He was trying to get Sasha to use that word ..."

It was on this day 99 years ago that the poet Guillaume Apollinaire was thrown into jail in Paris for stealing the Mona Lisa, which had gone missing from the Louvre two and a half weeks earlier.

Only Apollinaire was not the thief. Parisian authorities were at a loss for leads, and Apollinaire was an easy scapegoat: He was a foreigner, born in Rome to a Polish mother, and he was a radical who ran with a bunch of Bohemians. Besides, he was a brazen art critic, and he professed contempt for traditional art. He even once said that the entire Louvre should be burned to the ground.

So on this day in 1911, Parisian police arrested the poet for theft of the Mona Lisa and they threw him in jail. They held him there under interrogation for a week. He said that maybe his friend Pablo Picasso was the thief. The authorities arrested Picasso and brought him in for interrogation. Both men were soon released, with no evidence against them.

The Mona Lisa remained missing for more than two years, and then the an Italian man named Vincenzo Peruggia called an art dealer in Italy and offered to sell him da Vinci's lost painting. When arranging the meeting, Peruggia told the art dealer that he only wanted to bring the Mona Lisa back to Italy, where it rightfully belonged. That, and he wanted $100,000.

The art dealer notified authorities, Peruggia was arrested, and the Mona Lisa made its way back to the Louvre in Paris.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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