Ask her to save a dance

Pete called me at my apartment, looking for my mom. We share the same name, unusual for a mother and daughter, and typically I would say annoying as well. In this instance, however, and forever after, I’m glad for all the screw-ups with social security, banks, credit reports, hospitals. Because of the name, I got to talk to Pete.

“Cathy?” a gentle voice inquired, filled with something beyond concern. I said yes, but I knew I didn’t know the voice. I waited, not knowing the question to ask. “I’m an old friend of your mother’s,” he added. “Oh, yeah, that happens to us all the time. Don’t ever name your child with the same name,” I joked. It was an old line I routinely gave because I really do feel you should give your child their own name, from experience. When I think back on this day, however, I appreciate it. I would ultimately have the chance to step into my mom’s world, her self, the real person you don’t get to meet inside your mother.

“I can give you her number, she’d love to hear from you. She doesn’t have much contact with old friends.” When I thought about it, she had no contact with old friends. Around prom time each year, she would fondly remember her own prom and talk about her childhood friend Carol Sue who she went on a double date with. Her own date was her first boyfriend, but my siblings and I never got any juicy details. I think we all just assumed there were no juicy details, it was Mom, after all. The guy she went with ended up being a friend, he never married and in the early 1950s, in my mom’s world, that meant he must have been interested in men, and nothing came of it. My Dad was the next guy she dated, and it’s obvious how that turned out.

“Oh no, please don’t call her, I don’t want to bother her.” I assured him it’d be no bother, but I sensed something else in the tone of the conversation. “You are the youngest aren’t you? I’ve kept up with your mom and your family through the years.” My curiosity was peaked. “What did you say your name was?” ”Pete Golden.” It was him, talking to me, wondering how my Mom was doing, and not wanting her to know. Suddenly, I got it. “I’ve heard about you. My mom has always talked about you through the years.” This older man with the kind voice was suddenly 17-years-old, and very, very sweet. “She has? I’ve tried to keep in touch, but sometimes it was hard. There were times it was hard to hear what was going on, with your father and all. I wanted her to leave.” I knew I was really going to like Pete, with the kind voice. I asked him to tell me all about him. He was a retired professor from Juilliard, a playwright whose plays had been shown on Broadway. He asked about me. I told him I was an editor at a weekly newspaper, I had been a reporter since college, only four years earlier. “We’re both writers,” he said. “I could have been your father.” I was hooked.

Pete and I talked several times after that first conversation. We became old friends. I always enjoyed his stories about my mom. Suddenly she wasn’t my mom, she was a real life young girl, just like me. She had a friend, out there, who cared about her enough to call up her daughter 40 years later and ask questions. He asked about all of my siblings by name. He wanted to know if my mom was happy. He still didn’t want to call her himself, but he did ask me to pass on a message. He wanted her to attend their 40-year school reunion which was approaching in the upcoming months. I called her, she was delighted. It took a few approaches to get her to say she would attend the reunion, she wasn’t normally the type. He asked me to tell her if she would just save one dance for him he’d leave her alone after that. She said ok. “He has always been supportive. He sent flowers when my parents died. Your father never knew, he didn’t pay attention to things like that.”

I kept checking in with my mother, to make sure she was still planning on going to her reunion. She had never returned to Manhattan after moving to New England when she was 30. She had grown up rollerskating the streets near the college where her father, an Irish immigrant, worked as a janitor. He had pointed out a man on a bench at the college one day and said his name was Einstein and he was the smartest man in the world. Her city, where a girl could wander around and see interesting people and take the train out to Coney Island on her own was gone. She had lived in a building of mixed nationalities and the adults looked after her. The couple who owned the Chinese laundry, her Jewish friend’s family. Her many aunts and uncles spoiled her. They were all gone, and she didn’t recognize her own neighborhood anymore.

Her small family of three had moved to upstate NY when she was a senior in high school. Her father had missed the farm life he knew as a boy in Ireland, and they left everything and everyone she knew behind so that he could leave the city. Did Pete leave the city and travel to Port Jervis to attend her prom, or was it her junior prom before she had to move? The only old photos of her before she was married were of this prom. She was always sure to tell me the dress was red because the photo was black and white. She was lovely. Did she hope that she would marry this boy with the nice voice? Her stories of that time were so carefree. Those carefree stories were done in 1953 when “they moved her out of the city,” as she puts it, and “ended her life.” My mother knew how to talk about her feelings, some stories you heard over and over again. However, some you never heard, I’m beginning to realize. “Can you imagine it, leaving the city for that small town?” just might have been code for, ‘I had fallen love, and no one could explain to me why he didn’t love me back, why I left everything I knew and understood.’

After one lonely year of being a new student, of which there are no stories, my mom went to nursing school at a state college and learned to care for babies until she had her own. She met my father her final year and was married before she graduated on New Year’s Eve.  My father got along great with my grandfather, who had opened an Irish pub. My grandfather would die within a year from liver failure, with her first child on the way. She would often recount to me how she felt having a baby, that she would never be alone again. Of course Pete sent flowers. Their lives went in very different directions, but neither had the marriage that she had thought was an entitlement of being young and alive in 1958.

She was never consistent with any friends. She occupied herself with her growing family. So when he called me and pressed for her to make the trip and dance with him once at their reunion, I begged her to go and see her old friends, including Carol Sue who she thought might still be alive. She said she would go. I relayed their questions back and forth. When the phone rang and my mother said “Pete died, cancer,” it all made sense. She couldn’t say anymore and hung up. Some things are so obvious after they’re done. He never told me. I was proud of my mom for having a friend and promising to be there. I wished I’d known when we were talking but, didn’t he tell me? He had asked for one more dance and promised he’d finally leave her alone if she would just say she’d come to the reunion. This man was a playwright who had never had a family. He said he could have been my father. In a different reality, I would have grown up knowing this man who studied and taught at Julliard and had plays on Broadway. In another reality, I could explain where my writing came from, from my father the play wright.

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