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Memoir

Cha Cha Cha

On this drab December day, heavy patches of snow shrink to reveal brown grass and gray pavement. I look away from the window and contemplate a photo of my oldest brother Issi’s wedding in Iceland in 1969. The bride’s parents stand in dark clothes with serious faces angled slightly down and away from the camera. My new sister in law, Arndis, wears a Cheshire grin and a lacy white dress hemmed well above her knees. My brother’s face is eager and thoughtful, hair cut short around his broad forehead. The buttons of his dark suit nearly burst with contained energy. My mother alone wears color—an emerald green dress and matching satin shoes. Her brunette hair is swirled into a luxurious bouffant, and a half smile plays on her lips. Tense beauty and unpredictable fire shine from this photo.

What was she thinking that day? At 43, she was mother to seven children and lived far from her island home. She traveled from Washington D.C. with only her youngest children–me and my four-year old sister—to attend two weddings. Just a few weeks after Issi’s small ceremony, my brother Finn had a big wedding. My sister and I gazed at this other bride, all elegance and grace in her satin gown. Her name, Alla, was easy to say and confirmed what we suspected, that she was everything. She hugged us and spoke to us with a clipped accent. During the reception, my sister and I drank our very own bottles of coca cola and ran shrieking down long hallways. These brides and my grown-up brothers were almost mythical beings to us, wild creatures living in the distant land that was my mother’s first home.

As clouds hang in the winter sky, I contemplate the stillness in Issi’s wedding photo, the retrained movement. Arndis wears a white veil, a soft fold of lace over her dark hair. Mamma’s green dress has a faint checkerboard sheen and long sleeves that widen, kimono-like, around her arms. Shining earrings dangle half way to her shoulders. A hint of tension in my mother’s fingertips suggests a delayed impulse to reach up and smooth her hair.

Was it on that trip, and in that green dress, that she taught me to cha cha? Did she kick off her shoes to dance in full, fluid motion?  Her hips swayed as she counted for me, one-two, cha cha cha. I glued my eyes to her until my ears and feet started to work together in imitation. She swiveled toward me, then away again. Leaning over, she tugged my fingertips to the music until my feet began to listen. Then she dropped my hands and danced by herself in a cloud of perfumed happiness.

Forty-five years later, under the fairy lights at Denver’s Mercury Café dance floor, a partner asked me, do you cha cha?  I don’t know, I replied.  I do know that I was taught once. He led me in the cha cha, and I followed without thought or effort, my mother’s lesson still alive in the bottom of my feet. And though her ashes were scattered in the Gulf of Mexico years earlier, there was Mamma, sitting alone and resting her elbows on a small round table. Her lips were tinted mauve, and her eyebrows penciled into supple surprise. She looked at her bubbling diet coke, then back at me. In the music, I heard her tinkling laugh, the erupting happiness that sometimes made her cover her mouth with the back of her hand to hide her imperfect teeth. Soon, I was laughing, too, as I danced and danced.

By Jenny-Lynn

I live and write in Denver and Fairplay while taking classes at Denver's Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Former therapist and dedicated cyclist, my essays have appeared in Pithead Chapel, Dreamers Creative Writing, and The Colorado Sun.

15 replies on “Cha Cha Cha”

Lovely! An evocation the result of dance, your mother’s lesson alive still in physical memory, more tactile and elegant than Proust’s infamous madeleine. Your descriptions of this photo—your mother’s hands suggesting a delayed impulse to smooth her hair before the camera’s flash—wonderful.

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I love this. Your description of your mother in the photograph has me staring at it for the longest time and seeing what you see: the tension in the hand, the half-smile. I feel that little girl’s devotion to her dazzling mother, dancing “in a cloud of perfumed happiness.”
So lovely!
‘.

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Very Nice Jenny-Lynn
I too found myself going back and forth between your writing and the photo so that I could see what you saw; be helped to see what I had missed. I wanted more: your brother’s pocket square, your mother’s knees, the melding of your seemingly co-joined in-laws.
Lovely indeed

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Yes, Todd, there’s so much more there! And a lot that isn’t visible, like whether Mom’s ex-husband was close-by during that photo, and what that might’ve been like for everyone. I have so many questions for my brothers, and need to get busy asking them. Thanks for reading and commenting—it means a lot!

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Really love this in depth exploration of the wedding photo as well as your writing about your experience as a much younger sister around these “mythical” older siblings. (Favorite line: “Her name, Alla, was easy to say and confirmed what we suspected. . .” ) Seems like your brother and mother have very similar smiles in the photo–but very different thoughts behind them!
I think the second half of the writing could be turned into another whole story?

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I so love how you are remembering the beautiful moments. It is as if you are sifting the sands and allowing the rocks to fall away leaving only the love. You are so beautiful. xoxo “Be kinder to yourself. And then let your kindness flood the world.” Pema Chodron

*Wendy Berger, LPC* confluencewellness.com

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