My dad had a day job selling tires at Sears but at night, after dinner, he’d take his trumpet or his trombone or both and head out the door to a dance hall somewhere near Hastings, Michigan, between there and Battle Creek or thereabouts. It was the fifties and I was a very little girl so I didn’t know where he went, just that he went. He played at dance halls to make money, I knew that much, because he was saving up to buy his own business. So, it wasn’t about his ‘art’ or being a musician. Since the Depression, his horn had put food on the table.
I was used to seeing him go. It seemed okay to me. It was what he did. He came home from Sears, loosened his tie, picked me up and sat me on top of the refrigerator. From there, I’d listen to him and my mom talking, my sister and brother coming in from outside, smell the macaroni and cheese in the oven or the bean soup in the big kettle on the stove. It would be getting dark outside but the kitchen glowed. It was a magical place, our kitchen.
Then after dinner, after we’d all pushed back from the table and taken our plates to the kitchen, my dad would cinch up his tie, put his suit coat back on and say, “Well, I better get going, Ginna,” Ginna being short for Virginia. And Ginna, known to me as Mama, would take off her apron and fold it in thirds, tell us all to say good night to our dad and shoo us off to put on our pajamas. “Get ready for bed,” she’d say. It was her blessing over us, a caress as sure as if she’d cupped each of our faces in her hands.
I never knew this until many years later when I’d gone to Texas to visit my older brother on what would end up being very near the end of his life but my dad’s dance hall career ended one night due to my mother “putting her foot down.” This seemed momentarily preposterous to me, first that she would put her foot down and second that my dad would respond by quitting something he wanted to do. But she did and he did. It was something about either running the car off the road coming home in the early morning hours or enlisting my brother who was about 15 at the time to fill in for a drummer who was sick. Or maybe both. My brother’s telling of the story decades later emphasized the latter. That he was 15 and playing at a dance hall had stuck with him.
I just saw a post on Facebook about an old dance hall near Hastings, Michigan, and wondered if my dad or maybe even my brother had played there. Was M-37 where my dad ran off the road? I can see him driving home, late at night, my brother asleep next to him, the car’s headlights reflecting off the cornfields, maybe the windshield wipers keeping a beat. He was doing what he needed to get by. To get us by. I never told him but I loved him for that.