On a good day she claps. On a better day she hums. “Da di de hmm hmm hmm, da di de hmm hmm hmm.” Trained nurses ignore the sounds and smells that would bother most people. The residents are not so gracious: “Shut up, Margaret. Or sing something else.” Then she sings louder. Did she think they said encore? Mom only knows one tune. “DA, DI DE hmm hmm HMM…” Her eyes stare through me, vacant, but somewhere. Where does her mind travel?
I clip Mom’s pearls around my neck…the perfect accent to my emerald taffeta dress and white pumps. I practice walking gracefully and hold my arms around his neck as if he were dancing with me. The waltz isn’t as easy in dress shoes. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. The jitterbug will be near impossible. This is the first year I’m allowed to wear high heels. Until now, Mom and Dad always said: “Sorry Margie, you’re too young for heels…sorry Margie, you’re too young to wear red…sorry Margie, you’re too young to date.” Sorry this and sorry that. I can’t wait to be married and make my own decisions.
Guess the Spring Formal at St. Luke’s warranted high heels and a date…they couldn’t say I had to go alone. They were already engaged at sixteen. And they know Ronny; we’ve been neighbors since I was five and he was six. Ahh…Ronny…goosebumps spread across my arms even though my forehead drips with sweat. It’ll be hot, dancing in the ninety degree heat wave.
The doorbell chimes, and I shiver. I dreamed of this night…descending the stairs like Grace Kelly in a ball gown, and watching Ronny melt. I’m not the type to stop traffic, but Ronny stares at me. I know he’s the one. I’ve known since he held my hand as we rode the Ferris wheel together in sixth grade, and he said: “I know who’s the prettiest girl at school.”
I waited for the punch line.
I smiled then and now as I remember.
Her hands feel so delicate, her paper thin skin revealing every vain. “Mom, you gotta eat something; you’re losing weight.”
“Where’s the filet mignon I ordered?”
“Are you joking? This isn’t a five star restaurant, you know.”
“Why not? There’s a lot of people who’d like that.”
“You’re right…but for today, it’s meatloaf.”
The gymnasium is transformed into a romantic ballroom. Purple and blue streamers hang from the ceiling; balloons are tied to every chair; the lights are dimmed; and a band plays songs by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Ronny looks so handsome in his pin-striped suit and green bow tie. His hair is slicked back just right. “Shall we dance?” he asks.
After dancing the jitterbug and lindy, we drink gallons of lemonade and enjoy a slow waltz. His arm rests across my back, locking us together; I’m secure in his arms. Da di de hmm hmm hmm…I try not to count out loud, just hum to the beat to keep in step. Ronny hasn’t stepped on my toes once.
He leans in close and whispers, “Will you marry me?” The music stops in our little circle.
I whisper back, “Of course…I couldn’t imagine loving anyone more than you.”
Ronny walks me home; it’s not the end of a beautiful night—it’s the beginning of my life with him.
Before another resident yells shut up, I wheel her out of the dining room and back to her room. Here she’s quiet. She doesn’t talk or hum. Maybe she prefers having an audience—even if they boo at her. I brush her brittle white hair and wash crumbs off her face as she stares out the window. Gold-trimmed clouds frame the sky. Is that what she sees? I pop a disc in the CD player I brought, so she could listen to Nat King Cole…maybe sing a new song. I kiss her wrinkled cheek. “Goodnight, Mom.”
I stroke the soft edge of her cheek and know I’ve never seen anything more beautiful. “If only Ronny could’ve made it back home to see you; he just had to survive one more flight mission, and he’d be home. Anyway, he was sure you were a boy, so I won our bet. He’d like your name, Rhonda, and spoil you…I’m sure.” I scoop her wiggly body in my arms, holding her hand in waltz position…and dance. Da di de hmm hmm hmm.
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