I was reminded yesterday that it was Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday. I grew up with Ella playing on scratchy LPs as I danced around the den on top of my father’s feet, listening to him sing off-key.
My father had eclectic taste in music, and he clearly felt it was one of his greatest parental obligations to introduce us to all of it.
Music, for my father, was more than a song. It was a story.
He would play the staples of his college days–The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel–and tell us the story of the anti-war movement, the drug culture, and the sexual revolution. He would play Broadway show tunes and tell us about political corruption in Chicago, the gangsters and bootleggers of the 30’s, or wartime in London. He would play Motown and tell us of growing up in the south and how music changed his generation’s views on race. He would play some new band and remind us that songwriters are the poets of modern society.
And sometimes he would play Ella and we would just dance. There was no story he needed to tell. Ella sang love like no one else could.
He wasn’t the greatest dancer but he taught me that dancing isn’t really about the steps you know. It’s about knowing your partner. Knowing when to lead and when to support. When to brace and when to bend. And when to just enjoy the moment.
When it came time to choose a song for our dance together at my wedding, Ella was the natural choice: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” A nod to our past, to those early days dancing on his feet, and a reminder that nothing could ever change the bond between us.
My father adored Billy from the moment they met, before we even started dating. He thought Billy was smart and funny and thoughtful. But mostly, he loved the way Billy loved me. The way we loved each other. Perhaps he felt a twinge of nostalgia as we stood at the back of the church, arm in arm, but neither one of us had any delusions he was giving me away. He couldn’t have if he tried.
The doors flung open and the sounds of brass swirled around the vestibule. I started to leap forward, vibrating with excitement. He softly put his left hand on my arm, and whispered “wait.”
It wasn’t because he wasn’t ready. It was because he knew I wasn’t. He wanted to stop me so I could catch my breath before I flew through the moment instead of living it.
He was right. A decade later, I barely remember all of those details that were so damned important at the time. But I remember that moment. The pews creaking as everyone stood up and craned their necks around, the weight of every past heartbreak lifting from my shoulders, the giddy anticipation of reaching the end of that long aisle and the beginning of my future.
Mostly I remember the feeling of my dad’s hand on my arm. I can feel it still, even though he is no longer here. And that is enough. Some days it is everything.
Later we danced. I didn’t have to stand on his feet anymore, but just for old time’s sake, he whispered with a smile “stop leading Cameron…”
So I dance with my boys every chance I get. We dance in booths at restaurants and in the middle of convenience stores; we dance at crowded parties and in our den when no one is watching.
I pick them up and swing them around and duck under their arms as they twirl me until we are sweaty and dizzy and tired.
I’m a terrible dancer but they don’t care. It’s not about the steps we know. It’s about the memories that will make them smile long after I’m gone.
The way you sing off key
The way you haunt my dreams
No no they can’t take that away from me