Sunday, June 28, 2009

Driving, Dancing, Dad

As a daughter who enjoys a deeply bonded relationship with her father, a memory springs to mind now, on the eve of my wedding anniversary; a memory concerning a tradition I imagine might be perfunctory for some, but that for me was anything but: the father-daughter dance. I remember, in the months leading up to the wedding, agonizing over what song we should dance to. Whose idea was it, finally, to choose a song by Alan Jackson? By default, I assume it was my idea, but I can't remember the notion actually coming to me; it's possible he made the suggestion. Really, it seems just as appropriate (emotionally, if maybe not technically accurate) to say that we found the song together, both of us owning the idea equally. My father had been a fan of Alan Jackson since way back. I remember being college age when I first borrowed his album, Don't Rock the Jukebox, and heard Jackson's accented voice and his clever lyrics, humorous and soulful, for the first time. I appreciated his songs, but I didn't follow his music on my own. I leaned toward Patsy Cline later on, then abandoned country altogether for a while. But country was how my father grew up, and some part of it—cornbread and chicken!—was undeniably my legacy to claim, too. The song we danced to was a song called "Drive," and it tells an intergenerational story of parenting and the way a parent and child can feel as a certain exhilarating freedom of control, of transportation, is transferred. The song's narrator recalls how his father taught him to drive—first a plywood boat, then a hand-me-down Ford—and then how he in turn taught his daughters. He imagines the girls, grown, thinking back and remembering with a smile:

It was just an old worn out Jeep
Rusty old floorboard, hot on my feet
A young girl, two hands on the wheel
I can't replace the way it made me feel
And he'd say, "turn it left and steer it right,
Straighten up girl, you're doing just fine"
Just a little valley by the river where we'd ride
But I was high on a mountain
When daddy let me drive

My father taught me to drive, too. We had some mishaps (including barreling in reverse through a closed garage door—don't ask!), lots of stalling on hills when I was learning a manual transmission, but he was patient and encouraging, and the words of the Jackson song capture perfectly how I felt when he gave me these keys to a more independent life. Of course this was always about more than just driving a car, which is why my next big life transition, this shift to being someone with a separate family life (no matter that our nuclear family would never suffer for it), was such an appropriate moment for this particular song. So, this was it. I couldn't recall having ever danced with my father before—though perhaps we did once, at some adult function I attended when still a teen or even preteen—and the wedding would be such a public performance, I decided to sign up for a series of private lessons at a dance studio on Broadway in the West 60s. I used half the lessons with my father, half with my husband-to-be (who, bless him, has two left feet and not much sense of rhythm on a dance floor). It was a series of four Tuesdays, in the afternoons. Our instructor was a young Russian dancer—the kind who was a pussycat, but also very proud of her reputation: she played the role of the strict Russian dance mistress to the hilt. She taught us a modified swing, and I can still hear us counting in fours: right, left, back-step . . . right, left, back-step . . . We worked on a routine that lasted the duration of the song, and at the wedding, nerves perhaps had us leaving out one step along the way, but otherwise the dance was perfect. I am willing to bet that if we were tossed together on a dance floor today and the song put on, we'd have that kind of muscle-memory to carry us through even now. Of course time has passed, and we've both aged somewhat. Neither of us is in the shape we were in back then, and my dad has since had knee replacement, so maybe the actual dancing wouldn't work out as well. It doesn't matter, though. The memory is there: of those Tuesday afternoon sessions we both looked forward to so much, and of the big day, when to be completely honest, the best dance of all was the one I did with my father—all the more valued in being a unique opportunity—a dance to a song called "Drive".

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