Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Jitterbug

One of my earliest and fondest childhood memories was watching my mom and dad do the Jitterbug. They were good. And I was in awe.

I believed that they had won some championship when they were in high school. They were champion Jitterbuggers. This may have been entirely something I just wanted to believe, and even as a young teenager, watching them at my Bat Mitzvah or a cousin’s wedding, I would banish the thought that I should check to make sure this was true.

They were championship Jitterbuggers. They won the Carrie Kaufman Championship. That’s all that counted.

But I wasn’t alone in my awe. People would actually pull back on the dance floor to watch my parents; much, I thought, like people pulled back to watch George Bailey and Mary Hatch doing the Charleston before falling into the pool.

My parents were movie star Jitterbuggers. And it was a wonderful life.

They tried to teach me a few times. It didn’t take. Here’s the thing about dance: it’s incredibly sexist. When two people dance together, one has to be the “boy” and one has to be the “girl.” So when my parents tried to teach my brother and I to Jitterbug, I would inevitably have to be the “girl.” And it’s not that I didn’t really want to be the girl. Well, it’s not totally that I didn’t want to be the girl. It’s that the anchor, the real talent of this Jitterbug team, was my mother. I didn’t have a chance of being that good. It was easier to be the boy. But my parents couldn’t get their imaginations around it. So the nights we tried always ended with me not learning how to Jitterbug.

But I was still in awe.

My children are dancers, and they’re pretty good. They are “serious” and they plan what year they’re going to be on So You Think You Can Dance. This is encouraged by my mother, who may never have been a dance champion, but who wanted to be.

I have seen the feeling I had for my parents’ Jitterbugging in my children’s eyes. But it wasn’t for dance, it was for singing. One of my most cherished memories as a mom is singing to them as they took a bath, and watching them fall completely silent as they stared at me with awe.

I am a champion singer. I’ve won the Dixelaney Championship. That’s all that counts.

My children don’t think I’m a very good dancer. This may have been encouraged by my ex, who always laughed at me when I danced. I suspect the laughter could have been because I dance with abandon, and my ex doesn’t do well with abandon. But I am completely open to the prospect that I may not be a very good dancer.

So my children were wondering the other day how they got to be such good dancers. I’m holding back the information that their sperm donor’s brother is a choreographer. TMI on the sperm donor for now. So I told them that grandma and grandpa were dance champions.

They were in awe.

So last night, when my parents arrived for their week long Dixelaney Birthday and Chanukah visit, the girls asked them to Jitterbug for them.

Let’s stop and do some background here for a second. You may have noticed that I have been writing about my parents’ Jitterbugging days in the past tense. They were great Jitterbuggers. They’re now in their early 70s, and while there are plenty of people in their early 70s who can dance, if not all night, then at least half the night, my parents aren’t them.

My mother, for about 30 years now, has been dealing with a muscle tissue disease in the Lupus family. That’s apparently about as specific as one can get with Lupus. She started off with Raynaud's Syndrome which is still prominent. My father jokes that she’s an All-American: her fingers start out white, turn red and then turn blue. I worry about her when she comes up during December. It’s cold in Chicago. It’s not cold in Las Vegas, where they live and where I grew up. But their granddaughters are here. And their granddaughters were born just days before Christmas. My mother hasn’t missed a birthday yet. Blue fingers be damned.

But it’s not just the fingers. This is a muscle tissue disease. The heart is a muscle. The lungs are a muscle. She has a pacemaker and is frequently short of breath.

She does not Jitterbug. Anymore.

Here’s the thing, though: you wouldn’t know my mother was sick just by looking at her. Yes, when we are out (usually, with my daughters, shopping), she will occasionally stop and hold onto something, or someone, and catch her breath. On what she calls her “bad days,” we have to use the handicap sign so she doesn’t have to walk so far into the store or restaurant. But any suggestion that perhaps we should stay home, that she should rest, is met with a blank, uncomprehending stare. Why in the world, she seems to be thinking, would you even suggest that?

My parents go out all the time. My parents go out more than I do. My parents, as older people, go out more than I ever did.

Shortness of breath be damned.

My father is another story. He has been strong as a mule all his life. His only issue is that he’ bit overweight (come on, my dad READS this blog) and has developed type 2 diabetes. Still, he has never been on insulin and doesn’t do much to watch his food intake and it hasn’t bitten him in the ass in the way something like that can scare the hell out of you. At least not yet.

This summer, he had back surgery. Spinal stenosis, to be exact. When he checked into the hospital, the nurse asked my mom about the last time my dad was in the hospital. Her answer was, “Never.” Which is why it was surprising that he had some trouble recovering. At one point, he passed out, and my mother had to grab a phone to call an ambulance while trying to hold him up.

And then, a couple of weeks ago he got the flu. He couldn’t seem to shake it, and today, after traveling to Chicago, he was pretty logy. I have certainly seen my dad sick before. But I’ve never seen him stay sick.

I am trying not to worry about this. I am trying not to think that all the years of not watching his blood sugar and not losing weight are catching up to him. This could be just a really pesky flu. But maybe it will at least scare him into making some changes.

OK, let’s get back to the Jitterbugging. There are few things in the world more important to my parents than their granddaughters. Aside from each other (they’re coming up on their 51st anniversary), I’m not sure there’s anything or anyone more important to them than their granddaughters – including me. (OK, maybe my brother. They always loved him best.)

So when the girls, excited by my nostalgia, and wanting to make a connection to their own passion, asked my parents to Jitterbug for them, Bernie and Barbara happily complied. With a caveat to the girls that they wouldn’t make it through the whole song, we found a version of “In the Mood” on YouTube, and the three of us watched them.

They were good.

And I am still in awe.


  1. That's how parents are. They give without caution. It's a beautiful thing.

    And that's also how parents are. All of a sudden they're older than they ever were before. It's so scary for us, their children.

    Because the thing we want more than any other thing, is that they be around for us forever. And they can't give that.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Johanna, you said it so eloquently, and yet it still makes my heart hurt to think about. Thank you for sharing.