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
“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.
NEVER SIT IF YOU CAN DANCE
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
“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.