|Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage|
Yesterday my son, Steve Elders, escorted me to the touring musical Dirty Dancing, set in the summer of 1963. I had tears break rolling down my cheeks at every other scene. To revisit that period awakened in me such vivid memories of my own emotional turmoil that summer. When I saw the movie during the summer of '87, right before I went to Belize as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I'd had the same reaction.I've written about 1987 before...but here's what happened the summer I turned 26, another retrospective. This is a a story I wrote on my 70th birthday and revised many times since.
Another Fine Day
“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” –Robert Frost
The morning I turned 70, I sipped pomegranate tea and reminisced about other landmark birthdays. I’d celebrated my 50th with escargot at an award-winning French restaurant in
right before I joined the Peace Corps. On my 60th I’d hiked over moonlit trails
with friends in the Hash House Harriers.
Now I was tucking another decade behind me. Did I fear aging? Hmmm. Only one birthday ever scared me, my 26th, when I thought I’d have to relinquish my dream of becoming a writer.
I’d finished a student teaching assignment at a school that subsequently hired me to teach English and journalism. My then husband had been jubilant.
“It’s wonderful that you’ll have a steady job,” he’d said. “Teachers get good retirement pensions and solid medical coverage.”
How I’d scowled at his well-meaning comment! I might as well have been 70, instead of merely 26. Goodbye to youth and dreams, bylines and best sellers. They’d be replaced by lesson plans, bulletin board exhibits, and report cards. Now I’d be a grown-up with a full-time grown-up job. Reality had tackled and wrestled me to the ground. I’d become a stereotypical respectable middle-class wage earner, abandoning forever the hope of living my dream as a wild-hearted Bohemian writer.
All the time I’d been accumulating credits towards my teaching credential, I’d thought of myself as a promising young writer, even though I’d been married since shortly before my eighteenth birthday, and two years later had become a mother. Now I felt the hot breath of middle-age on my shoulder, and I believed then, as Yogi Berra had once remarked, that my future lay behind me. Since I’d written my first poem in seventh grade, I’d seen myself as a budding Edna St. Vincent Millay. Instead, I was destined to become a hair-in-a-bun drudge.
On that eve of that long ago birthday, our beloved Dodgers weren’t playing, so my five-year-old, Steve, and I didn’t spend our evening as we usually did, glued to the radio. He went to bed early, and I picked up my novel. For the past week I’d been reading Herman Wouk’s classic Youngblood Hawke, an indelible portrait about staying true to a writer’s dream. I’d been nearing the last chapters, and couldn’t put the book down.
I finished the final page shortly before dawn, crept up the stairs and crawled into bed, tears trickling down my cheeks as I envisioned the parade of gray days of my future. I shuddered, picturing myself correcting papers, diagramming sentences, and brushing chalk from my drab schoolmarm clothing.
When I awoke, I turned on my favorite radio station KRLA as The Chiffons burst into their rollicking “One Fine Day,” a song with a message of hope. I brightened. Maybe somehow I’d find a way to continue to write. Maybe I wouldn’t have to give up my dream altogether. That night Warren Spahn finally beat the Dodgers on their home turf, breaking a losing record that stretched back over a decade. Maybe that was a sign. After all, Spahn hadn’t given up hope. Then we all piled into the old Chevy and went to the drive-in to see Bye Bye Birdie.
Any day, I concluded, could be one fine day.
The night I turned 70, Steve phoned me. I explained how I’d been remembering that earlier birthday.
“Yes!” he exclaimed, “I remember how cute Ann-Margret looked with the credits rolling across her face at the end of that movie. And it’s funny that the Dodgers lost that game to Spahn on your birthday, because that was the year they went on to sweep the Yankees in the World Series.”
As it played out, I taught for only three years, and then segued into another career as a social worker. Eventually I joined the Peace Corps and saw more of the world than I’d ever hoped. And as the years passed, I continued to write and to publish.
I never become a novelist, as I’d anticipated. Somehow I’d lacked the discipline to set aside the requisite chunks of time. Nonetheless, I stole evenings here and afternoons there. I wrote and sold articles and essays, book reviews, travel pieces, and author interviews. I never ceased to be delighted when I saw my byline in newspapers and magazines. The thought that somebody might be enjoying something I’d written continued to inspire me. With each submission, I kept my dream alive. It didn’t matter that I’d never written fiction or that my name never made a best-seller list. I had clippings galore.
So on this birthday I savored my special day, my fine day. I fed the dogs and cats and transplanted the zinnia seedlings. Every year I’d plant those seeds, and hope they wouldn’t get nipped by a late frost. I paused frequently to marvel at the myriads of butterflies fluttering around the poppies and delphinium in the front garden. The garden teemed with life. So did my spirits.
Later, I lost a game to my second husband at cards. “Happy birthday,” Ken chirruped, plunking down his second gin hand. I opened his gift, a crystal unicorn, rampant over a sapphire blue heart. I touched up my pecan-hued hair and sprayed myself with honeysuckle. I donned a navy dress with a splashy flowered border, and coaxed Ken to photograph me in the garden by the scarlet Asian lilies, flowers against flowers.
We drove to town where he treated me to an Early Bird Supper at the Oak Street Grill. I savored every bite of my lemon garlic salmon. In the evening we watched Jeopardy, read the local papers, caught the results show of So You Think You Can Dance, relieved that our favorites had made it through another round.
Then shortly before midnight, I sat down at my computer and finished an essay I’d started earlier, about how writing, like sowing zinnia seeds, calls for an act of faith. You put your words down on paper, just like you plant seeds in the soil, and hope they’ll bloom and that somebody eventually will find them entrancing. I’d seen a call out earlier for stories on gardening for an anthology. I submitted mine.
Since then I’ve had over a hundred true stories accepted by a variety of anthologies. So I don't doubt that indeed I am a writer. I’m not haunted by the ghost of failure. Bohemian? Maybe mildly…I've recently embarked on a new adventure
Ken died a few years ago. Eventually I realized it was time to tackle another dream. I've moved back to
California, a radical downsize, to a tiny apartment. Though I miss
the zinnias, I can admire roses and pansies in December in the gardens of my
senior living complex. As a bonus, I now have more time to write.
So at long last I'm determined to devote this coming year to short stories…yes, finally, fiction. If not now, when? But I won't abandon creative non-fiction. My 78th birthday now looms on the horizon. I’m betting it, too, will be one fine day. I know I'll write about it. I'm still wild at heart.
Thank you, Steve Elders, for the fabulous Christmas gift of taking me to revisit the summer of '63, when it really was still morning in America. Or, as he tells me, "before it turned into mourning in America."