In honor of National Women's History Month, today's Frolic is dedicated to the late, great Ms. Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song.
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It is a breezy spring afternoon in 1952, Mama walks across the Court Street bridge, her pleated skirt ruffling in the wind. Daddy pulls up to her by the curb, in his orange MG roadster, and offers Mama a ride home. She doesn't know him except for the fact that he and his family live in the neighborhood. She's heard he's smart, and she thinks he's good looking. He attends the public high school, and Mama goes to a private girl's school. Daddy is gregarious and confident. He's the President of his senior class, and the Captain of his baseball team. Mama is quiet, and reserved, and prudent, but she accepts his offer, and hops in the convertible, two-seater.
And Ella croons smooth, easy, jazzy notes.
It is 1954 and Daddy leaves Mama with a diamond on her finger, flies out to Korea and Japan. Two years later, he returns with colorful kimonos, wooden Geta sandals, a black lacquered jewelry box, and a pearl ring for Mama. They dance every Friday night at Rhodes on the river. They jitterbug into the moonlit night, until the dance hall locks its doors.
On a hot summer day in 1957 Mama and Daddy are married. They live in a small apartment in the city. Daddy goes to college on the GI bill and Mama writes curvy, longhand characters for the businessman. Daddy drives their only car to class and Mama takes the bus to work.
And Ella taps and scats—doo-wap-dee-do-do, sham-dingly-dee-da, shabu-dee-do.
It's January 1963 and a pregnant Mama changes the cloth diapers of three bare-bottomed babies. She pins clean white sheets at their hips and returns to the stove top where a stew simmers in the Dutch oven, and glass bottles sterilize in a pot of boiling water. She stirs their dinner with a wooden spoon and dreams about slow dancing, and a jitterbug, across the dining room floor.
Daddy teaches History and English at an elementary school and in the evening drives to college, in a bigger city, to study for his Master's. Before he leaves work he calls Mama at home, in the new colonial, to see if there's anything she needs from the market. Mama no longer works in the businessman's office. She is bloated with baby, and tired, and stays home with the clamorous children. She keeps mixing up their names. She turns on the Hi-Fi and tries to smile.
And Ella swings and sweeps and tisks—so-lo-wee, no-no.
It is June, 1968 and five scruffy children set up a carnival in the backyard. Scrap boards from Daddy’s workshop are hammered together, holes dug in the sand, and croquet balls lined up for tossing games. Daddy's jostling his push reel mower around the azalea bushes at the edge of the lot. Mama comes out of the colonial and yells into the yard, "It's time!" Daddy stops pushing his mower, leans it against the wood fence panel, and runs to Mama. They go inside and then come out again with a pink suitcase. Daddy helps Mama into the long, white Buick and they drive quickly down the street and across town to the hospital, where she delivers her last child.
When Mama returns the next day, the house is clean and Grammy has made pork pies for lunch. Mama walks in with the baby boy, and Daddy steps in behind her, carrying her suitcase. They spend the afternoon setting up a swingy seat that sounds like a metal noisemaker when cranked, and a woven bassinet in their bedroom. They take a long nap with baby. They are too tired to jitterbug. For dinner, Daddy serves green beans from the can and a ham Grammy had basted all day. They make beds and bathe the little ones. The eldest helps dry her youngest sister. The children pinch and poke the sleepy, golden-haired baby boy.
And Ella sways and hushes.
It is Christmas, 1993. All the children have graduated from college, moved out of the colonial, and are working. Some are married. There's no longer the patter of little ones toddling through the house. Daddy's retired from teaching high school English and his part-time job at the bank. The six children—spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends—are home for the holidays. Turkey roasts in the oven and wine is poured in cut crystal goblets. They visit relatives and unwrap too many gifts.
When the grown children leave, the house is quiet and feels too big for Mama. Daddy and Mama go to the movies, and out to dinner with friends. They take island trips and Daddy builds a lakeside summer home. They marry off a few more children, and hope grandchildren are not far behind. They smile and sing the oldies, and fly off to Europe. They jitterbug and twist, and rock slowly, closely, along the dining room floor.
And Ella hums and lilts and floats.
It is the Millennium. Mama and the children bury Daddy. They gather together at the old colonial. They cry and write poems, collect pictures and choose songs for the choir. They remember Daddy's smile and the way he hit the ball with a wooden bat, and how he danced the jitterbug. They remember dinnertime jokes and tales, and the sound of the table saw in the basement. They can still smell the sawdust. They remember years of grading papers and banging nails, working multiple jobs. They recall family vacations that were more like school field trips, because Daddy was always teaching. They compose, or imagine—because they cannot write, they cannot speak—a eulogy.
They watch the casket lowered into the dark ground and the tumbling, trailing roses gathering in a heap upon the coffin.
And Ella sings the blues.
And everybody knows Daddy would have liked that. He would have liked it very much.