One day Babe and I were discussing why some

people we knew were so unhappy and cranky.

I asked her, “Okay, so why do you think I turned out

so happy?”

“Because you take after me,” she said.

That’s when the idea of Never Sit If You Can Dance

was born. I’d been a seventies-bell-bottom-wearing,

Ms. magazine-writing daughter who was sorely disappointed

with my stay-at-home-housewife mom. She

seemed so behind the times. I’d look at her and think,

Lord, I do not want to turn out like that!

But, half a century later, this baby boomer has

lived long enough to realize how seriously I underestimated

her. Maybe we weren’t members of such

different generations after all. She might have had

stewed rhubarb and tomato aspic salad in her fridge,

while I have organic kale and soy milk in mine, but

maybe, in more important ways, we’re much closer

in spirit than I thought. And at ninety-five and a half,

she’d put up with me long enough to hear me start

singing her praises publicly in a Houston magazine.

I called Mom “Babe” because she asked me to—

she disliked her given name, Gladys. Besides, Babe was

fun to say, and it suited her. She was the youngest in

her family, the baby. But even after she’d outlived three

sisters, her husband, and everybody else, the name still

fit. She was some Babe.

I’m especially delighted that in this Instagram

age, a woman who never touched a computer or

owned a cell phone or played solitaire on an iPad had

wisdom—earned from a lifetime of living—that has

turned out to be timeless.

Probably nobody is more surprised than I am

that, stitch by stitch, I embroidered Babe’s pronouncements

into life lessons. And many of these lessons

weren’t necessarily even spoken until we sat down

together, and I asked about all that dancing she and

Dad had done. That’s when she blurted out, “Never sit

if you can dance.”

If I’ve been successful, I’ve communicated her

grace, her wit, and her playfulness. (“Let’s goof off

today” was one of her favorite sayings.) Taken together,

these lessons show there’s a celebratory life waiting for

each of us—if we embrace it.

As you come to know Babe, you’ll see that she was

no Goody Two-Shoes. She drank, danced, and stayed

up very late. She was so much livelier than most mothers

I’ve known. And since I frown on manuals telling

me which fork or word to use, this is not that. Instead,

these lessons, defined by love, rather than by prohibition,

are stories about what worked pretty well for

Babe. They are about the simplest, most basic things:

how to get along with other people, how to make a

marriage work, how to make life more agreeable.

I got such a kick out of focusing on Babe that

I had no intention of having much of a presence in

these pages myself. But as her stories unfolded, they

naturally evolved into mother-daughter stories. How

could they not? And, again, why should I have been so

surprised? Because Babe’s lessons show not just how

she lived, but the impact her attitudes and ideas had

on me and the others lucky enough to have known her.

It’s been said that our gifts are not fully ours until

we give them away. I wrote this collection as a gift

for Babe and for all mothers everywhere who laid the

groundwork that shaped us, even if we didn’t exactly

recognize it or appreciate it—or them—at the time.

Babe gave me these gifts, and in this book, I’m giving

them to you.




Neither of my parents pursued any activity that

today would qualify as exercise. Theirs was

many generations before Jane Fonda’s “feel the burn!”

workout videos, before isometrics and aerobics, before

Lululemon and Under Armour, before they even knew

that regular exercise was good for them. And, as my

father would have told you, he was too damn busy

making a buck to take up idle, elitist pursuits—like

tennis, golf, or, God forbid, skiing—that are a waste of

time, not to mention money. Whizzing down a mountain

on boards—what’s the point of that?

Babe’s specialty was the standing backbend.

Although I never saw her execute one, she explained

that she’d put her fingers on the wall behind her and

climb down the wall backward. “My back was flexible,”

she said. “That was my most important exercise.”

And she could arm-wrestle. It’s curious how

someone so ladylike, someone who preferred blouses

with ruffles, didn’t look anything like a wrestler,

and never honed her skill with wrist-strengthening

exercises would invite anyone to a bout. In between

hands of pinochle or gin rummy, she’d challenge

someone new, and it had to be someone who wasn’t

wise to her trick. She’d push her cards aside, place

her right elbow on the card table at a ninety-degree

angle, fist up, place her left hand across her upper

arm to steady it, lock it with her opponent’s, and—

wham!—before they knew what had happened, their

wrist would be pinned down to the table, and Babe

would bask in another moment of glory. Take that,

Jane Fonda. The success of her trick relied on the

element of surprise, coupled with a natural technique

in which she leveraged the strength in her shoulder.

And Babe—who had no gym routine, no personal

trainer, no arm-wrestling coach—always won.

Years later, as I lifted free weights to maintain

what bicep-forearm strength I had, Babe’s naturally

powerful grip puzzled me. But then maybe I was puzzled

by Babe’s many strengths in general. Her physical

stamina—and not just with arm-wrestling—amazed

me. How she could stay up so late, as long as there were

friends to socialize with, while I was an early-to-bed,

early-to-rise person who was happiest when I could

also sneak in a delicious afternoon nap? I was a napper;

Babe never napped.

The only exercise Dad mentioned was jumping

jacks in the sixth grade, and it was those jumping

jacks that cut his education short. Very short. According

to Dad, the teacher, who was a man, yelled at him,

criticizing how he was executing the jumping jacks.

“If the instructor didn’t think you were doing it

right,” said Dad, “or doing your best, he had kids bend

down and touch the floor, and he’d whack ’em. Hell,

I was about as big as him—maybe a little bigger. If he

was gonna whack me, I’d whack him.” Dad resisted

hitting the teacher and instead exited that elementary

school, and never returned. (Though later in life, as

a self-trained engineer, he felt hamstrung by having

shortchanged his education.)

Just because Dad lacked formal training, educational

or otherwise, didn’t mean he was physically

inactive. Every Christmas he’d climb the tallest

evergreen tree in our backyard in Seattle—it was at

least two or three stories high—and top it off with a

five-pointed star outlined in white lights. Imagine

my dad—six feet tall, thirty-five years old, muscular

but bare-bones skinny because, as he said, he ate to

live, rather than living to eat—scaling those prickly

Douglas-fir branches. First he found a toehold; then

he placed a foot there, found another branch to perch

on, grabbed a handhold, and hoisted himself up—all

while carrying that huge star and dragging a long

extension cord while as Perry Como crooned carols

from an outdoor speaker: “I’m dreaming of a white

Christmas. . . .”

His nervous wife and his two little kids were

staring up from way down below. And now I wonder,

how did he know how to do that? He certainly never

trained on any indoor climbing wall. If my husband,

Ed, or I attempted such a feat, we’d break our ankle

before we reached the first branch. (As crazy-scary as

that incident was, it imprinted me for life: Christmas

isn’t Christmas without lights outside. And whenever

we hang lights—or a more agile friend hangs them for

us—there must be holiday music blaring loudly, the

cornier the better. Our lights end up looking hokey

and just right.)

My parents didn’t even know how to swim, except in

a pinch Dad could dog-paddle. But, boy, could they


One of my favorite black-and-white photos from

a family scrapbook was of my parents dressed up

to attend a dance at the Washington Athletic Club

in their courtship days. Mom was wearing a graceful

black, floor-length gown, an unusual choice for

someone who clearly favored color. At twenty-seven,

she probably thought it made her look sophisticated,

and it did. That languid dress was clingy enough to

show some curves, and her auburn hair was done in

deep finger waves, a flirty hairstyle that was popular

back then. Dad was wearing a black tuxedo. Imagine

that: Dad—who ended up favoring one-piece, babyblue

polyester jumpsuits from Penney’s—at thirty, and

courting Babe, was dressed to kill in a gorgeous black

tuxedo. That photo captured a man and a woman who

were clearly a hot couple. They looked so fresh and

young, so glamorous and romantic, so pre-children.

Since Babe had also told me that Dad sometimes took

a room at the Washington Athletic Club, over the years

I nagged her to tell me if she’d ever stayed there with

him before they married. “You can tell me, Mom. It’ll

just be between us.” She never said. What she did say,

which was so disappointing and unsatisfying, was, “I

think that’s private.”

Every Saturday my mom and dad, before they

were my mom and dad, went to a dance hall, often

the Trianon Ballroom in downtown Seattle. Babe said

it was beautiful, with polished hardwood floors, and

it was so packed that on Saturday nights you could

hardly get in.

“We never went anywhere that didn’t have an

orchestra. It was first class all the way. You would’ve

liked that place,” she said to me.

When I googled the Trianon, which is located

in what is now a hipster area north of Seattle called

Belltown, I learned that the dance floor had accommodated

five thousand dancers.

“Pa always had a corsage for me.”

“You danced with a corsage?” I said. “Didn’t it

flop all over the place?”

“Once in a while, but he never came without one.”

Babe said that everyone in their crowd was a

dancer, a smooth dancer, and they danced to beautiful

music, not the “junk” people listen to today. If, as

the saying goes, dancing is sex standing up, then my

parents and their friends must have had a really good

erotic time gliding around those beautiful ballrooms.

Her crowd did the foxtrot, the swing, the two-step,

but nothing jumpy like the jitterbug or boogie-woogie.

Babe said that sometimes the dance hall had a Charleston

contest—“but we weren’t Charleston people.”

Their marriage and the arrival of my brother,

Jimmy, and me coincided with the passing of the bigband

era and the closing of the dance halls, but our

parents kept dancing. At home. Babe and Dad were a

popular couple, and by then they had the largest house

in their group—not large by current standards, but

big enough by post-World War II, 1950’s, middle-class

standards—so the parties were always at our place.

Dad had turned a daylight basement into a rec room

with a highly waxed, green linoleum dance floor that

he’d glued down tile by tile using a disgusting, black,

tar-like adhesive. That danceable space was where my

brother and I skidded around in our stocking feet,

and where I cradled my new baby sister, Wendy, as

I danced her to sleep. That’s also where the adults—

young couples with young children, hardworking and

hard-partying—danced and drank and smoked and

celebrated into the wee hours. That was my instructional

template for being a grown-up: gather a bunch

of friends, some aunts and uncles, coworkers, and

neighbors; roll up the rugs; and drink and dance.

“Your dad and I definitely never sat and just

drank alcohol,” said Babe.

“Well, so what did you do, if you didn’t just sit

and drink?” I asked, reverting to my best professional

interview style. Neither of my parents were easy to

interview; they would glare at me, knowing I already

knew the answer. But I needed them to say it in their

own words.

“We danced!” she said, as if I were an idiot for

even asking. “Never sit if you can dance.”

When Herb Alpert and his trumpet blasted onto the

scene with the Tijuana Brass and The Lonely Bull, Babe

wore a bias-cut, flared taffeta skirt, which she’d sewn

herself, that swayed when she danced to “Whipped

Cream” and “A Taste of Honey.” By then Dad had

installed a handy beer keg in the kitchen, and the

adults stayed up even later.

Babe and Dad’s party drugs of choice were drinking

and dancing—D & D. Dave Barry, in writing about

his parents drinking and partying, said, “My parents

and their friends probably would have lived longer if

their lifestyle choices had been healthier.” As you’ll

see, Babe lived a very long and full life, and she and

her friends worked hard, played hard, and had a lot of

fun. What’s healthier than that, Dave?

I pretty much caught Babe’s sassy sense of rhythm and

enthusiasm for dancing: in elementary school I raced

home to dance with Dick Clark’s American Bandstand

on our black-and-white TV.

That was also when my least favorite aunt, the

one who’d worked her entire life as a secretary at the

Trick & Murray office supply store, got tickets for the

two of us to attend the Elvis Presley concert at the

Seattle Rainiers’ baseball stadium. How Aunt Dell, of

all people, got those tickets, and just a few rows back,

I’ll never know. When Elvis took the stage in person,

right in front of us, with that lock of dark hair falling

over his eye and his guitar slung suggestively over his

pelvis, and sang “Hound Dog,” the place went wild.

Like everyone else in that packed stadium, my Aunt

Dell and I stood on our chairs and screamed. As Elvis

gyrated his hips to “Don’t Be Cruel,” we jumped up

and down and danced in the aisles.

I never saw Aunt Dell so uninhibited and joyous.

Often she had a sour frown on her face, and she usually

complained to her sister, Babe, when they went

out, “Why is everyone giving you compliments?” It

was only after reading Dancing in the Streets, by Barbara

Ehrenreich, that I understood my aunt’s one-time

transformation. Ehrenreich had been writing about

teenage girls at rock-and-roll concerts, but she might

as well have been writing about Aunt Dell: “The crowd

mania unleashed something in girls who individually

might have been timid and obedient.”

By my freshman year at the University of Texas,

during the legendary Texas-OU weekend celebrating

one of the biggest rivalries in college football, I was

having crazy fun at a fraternity party. The first in my

family to go to college, there I was, down on all fours

on a beer-soaked dance floor, “gatoring” to the Grateful

Dead’s “Gloria.” I’m not sure that’s what Babe had

in mind when she advised, “Never sit if you can dance.”

Being Babe’s daughter, I guess it should be no surprise

that in stressful transitions I turned to dancing.

During the divorce from my first husband, the one

I only refer to as the “bad husband,” and the one

about whom I never reveal how long we were together

because it makes me look like such a slow learner, I

line-danced. I ended up so dizzy from twirling and

spinning that I had to excuse myself from the line to

gather my bearings and catch my breath. But I was

grateful for the self-loss, and the self-rescuing I experienced

dancing with a line of strangers.

After the death of my second husband, the man

who thought I was lovable and whom I believed, I

signed up for swing lessons with the Dance Doctor

in Santa Monica. But the lessons were too decorously

choreographed, too contained, too formal, too much

like following doctor’s orders—foot-ball-change—and

in high heels. I craved something—else!

That’s when I stumbled upon Fumbling Toward

Ecstasy, on Sunday mornings—a time slot I was having

trouble filling. Fumbling turned out to be improvisational,

trancelike group dancing, also called 5Rhythms.

In a large warehouse transformed into a dance space, I

entered another world—a feverish world—where hundreds

of people gathered to dance for the dance of it.

After seventeen years of a good marriage that was now

gone, I clung to Fumbling to escape being isolated in

my too-silent house with only one small dog (sorry,

Charmlee) for company. It was always high-quality

entertainment—a woman in a pink leotard was an

awe-inspiring professional dancer, a Chinese man

in an orange, ankle-length, pleated skirt glided by

as smoothly as an ice skater, and a belly dancer was

swathed in layers of purple edged with tinkling bells

and bangles. Since I had no idea what I was doing, I

appreciated it when the director said to me, “Anyone

can fumble. You can’t get it ‘wrong.’”

One of my nephews asked, “Is that like a Sundaymorning

rave? A mosh pit for adults?” Maybe, I said.

Sometimes the music was cranked up so loud

that I was transported back to the craziness of frat

parties at UT. But those were called Friday-night keg

parties, not Sunday-morning trance dancing. I was

so thrilled with Fumbling that I even took Babe. By

then she was in her late eighties, and I got her a chair

so she could watch from the sidelines or join in if she

wanted to. Afterward she said she didn’t understand

why people didn’t dance with partners, or why some

men—some of them wearing long skirts—danced with

each other. She wasn’t judgmental, just puzzled.

Flash forward. I no longer spent my Sunday mornings

dancing like a dervish, and Babe was no longer dancing.

In her nineties, she was walker-bound, and she

was not reconciled to her fate. One day when we were

going through the old photos, we came across that

dreamy one of her and Dad before they went dancing.

“I’d give anything if I could dance,” she said. “My feet

aren’t suitable now.”

Although Babe had managed to avoid all major

health problems, she suffered from peripheral neuropathy,

a nerve disorder where she lost feeling on the soles

of her feet, an ironic malady to beset someone who had

loved to dance. The condition destroyed her balance and

created an urgent need for her to cling to her walker.

Since the walker was red, we called it her Ferrari.

“People should dance more and sit less,” she said.

I told her that her gorgeous Trianon Ballroom

had been converted into an office building.

“That’s kind of awkward,” she said.

I wondered if any of the office workers at the

Trianon on Third Avenue in Seattle knew they were

working in what had once been one of the largest dance

halls west of Chicago, the kind where giant mirrored

balls rotated on the ceiling and couples fell in love.

I did not tell Babe that all signs of her popular

dance club were long gone, and that the historic Trianon

dance hall now housed a gym.

When Ed and I married in 2009, I asked Babe to walk

me down the aisle. Dad had died years earlier, so Babe,

my only living parent, was the natural choice.

“You’d better ask someone else,” she said. At

ninety-two, she was turning me down. “I don’t know

if I can.”

“Of course you can,” I said, trusting her lifetime

of resiliency and spunk.

The “aisle” was a dirt path on a rugged mountaintop

at a nature preserve located in the Santa Monica

Mountains. The afternoon of the wedding, some of

Ed’s six grandchildren, dressed in colorful cotton wedding

sweaters, flew kites from the windy mountaintop.

I wore a red bridal gown (see Lesson 10: Don’t Be Drab)

with a train that a friend said fluttered in the breeze

like a flame. The beautiful mother of the bride was

dressed elegantly in a hot-pink Chinese coat with a

mandarin collar. Her Ferrari was decorated with so

many colorful flowers, it looked like a moving bouquet.

After the flower girls scattered petals down

the aisle, and the ring bearers made their way to

the canopy where Ed, the groom, was waiting, the

string quartet struck up “Penny Lane.” A gasp passed

through the crowd as our friends realized that Babe

was walking me down the aisle. Everyone stood and

cheered and clapped. And Babe—never sit if you can

dance—danced at my wedding.