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Mourning into Dancing
By Walter Wangerin, Jr.
ZondervanCopyright © 1996 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Guest
Uninvited, unappreciated. Feared, in fact. Abhorred! There comes to any party, at any time, one who causes such dismay and hatred that the people respond by not responding at all: they ignore her.
They know they can't command her. The silent part of their souls knows that she controls, and she is not kind. She'll do as she pleases. So they pretend that she isn't there, that she's not anywhere. That she is not. And this is the marvelous thing: they succeed! Though she continues to stand beside them, breathing against their necks, they dance their fervid, grinning dances, by motion alone denying her presence until she touches them, one by one or two by two, and the game is up, and the dance is done, and none can refuse her. None. And then her name is on the lips of those whose dancing she destroyed.
Her name is-
* * *
For her sixteenth birthday my daughter decided to give herself a surprise party.
I guess she got tired of waiting.
This child is the youngest of four, adopted by her mother and me in August 1974, when she was eight months old. Her birthday is January 9. Her name is Talitha.
Her mother said, "I'll help you."
The child sighed. "I can handle it," she said.
She can handle anything. She's in high school.
Her mother said, "At least let's work on the guest list together."
"The guest list. The invitations. I'll save you time by writing the invitations for you."
Talitha rolled her eyes. I could have predicted that. A parent gets only so much credit per month per teenager, and Thanne had used up all her credit since Christmas. She'd have to earn more before this child would admit the authority or wisdom of her mother again.
"Ain't gonna be no guest list," said Talitha, much exasperated by parental intrusions. "Ain't gonna be no invitations," she said. "You just put the word out: It's a party at Talitha's, Saturday night, and kids come."
Poor Thanne. So dumb and so helpless. "But how do you plan? How do you know who's coming, then?"
"That," said Talitha, "is the surprise. Surprise party? Get it?" The kid pronounced this wonderful pun without a hint of humor. She actually meant it.
Besides, parents are distinctly unfunny, the teenager's burden.
Thanne said, "But what if strangers come?"
"Ain't no one here I don't know."
"What about liquor? What about thieves? I don't want anyone strolling through my house with plans to come back at night."
"Ain't nothing we can't handle, Kenya and me." Kenya is Talitha's girlfriend, stronger than she and as certain. "Relax, Mom. Me and Kenya can handle anyone and anything. Any thing."
She believed it.
I believed it. Talitha is as bold as they come. When she was an infant, I said her skin was the color of caramel and she as soft. Now I say the color is brass.
Ain't nothing we can't handle, Kenya and me.
Truly, truly: for example, midway into evening, three girls and a boy rang the doorbell, none of whom I'd seen before. When I opened the door they marched past me in single-file, saying: "Bosse." That's the name of the high school. "Bosse. Bosse," dead-faced, as if handing me their tickets. They marched, without my greeting, without my direction, straight down to the basement. Within two minutes, while yet I stood in the doorway, they marched up again, single-file and dead-faced, straight out of the house, Talitha and Kenya immediately behind them like prison guards with truncheons. "You," they called after the boy, "can come back whenever you wanna. Leave your sisters behind!" Absolutely no embarrassment in their voices. None.
To me, before they returned downstairs to the dance, they said, "Them girls'd steal us blind. No one would find their purses tonight."
Me and Kenya can handle anything.
I believed it.
Until there came the guest they had not anticipated, one whom they scarcely conceived of, whom they absolutely could not comprehend nor ever would control.
But they prepared for that party in a sweet, self-confident oblivion.
They sent me to the store. I didn't argue. Talitha said, "Get twelve big-bottle Cokes and eight pizzas." I didn't discuss the figures or the choices. I didn't argue. "Oh," she said, "and two black lights." No, I didn't dispute the lighting: I was saving the little credit I had with my teenager for more serious issues-especially since her mother had spent all her credit, and one parent, at least, ought to seem a little bit wise in the world, somewhat in authority.
Thanne heard the "black light" thing. Thanne said, "Talitha, I refuse to let you dance in a room too dark to see in!"
Talitha rolled her eyes and sighed, but said nothing.
I could have told Thanne that her parental word was weak, that it had spent its force for the month.
Three weeks earlier, by a single word, she revealed the deficit with her teenager. After a night out, we, bland parents, entered the kitchen to find Talitha sweating, Talitha rolling out the most enormous hunk of dough I've ever seen: it drooped down all four sides of the butcher's block.
Casually Thanne said, "What are you making?"
Talitha, laboring: "Coffee cake."
Thanne, smiling with genuine humor, unaware of the importance of the conversation: "Oh! Well, that's three coffee cakes for sure."
She said, "Three."
And Talitha, freezing above a blob of dough the size of a bean-bag chair, said: "The recipe says one cake. This is one coffee cake."
If Thanne had said nothing, that much dough would certainly have become three cakes. But the single maternal word, three, made it one, one absolutely, one as a statement of teenage independence. One!
See? Thanne's credit was clearly exhausted.
Talitha (ain't nothing I can't handle) covered her dough with butter and sugar and cinnamon. She turned it over on itself, then brought the ends around in the shape of a croissant as huge as a human hug. She removed all the grates but the lowest one from the stove, and stuffed the oven with her cake. She baked it at low heat for nearly two hours, grimly, with a droop to her eye that declared a magnificent self-assurance and contempt for mothers, generally.
And it worked.
That is to say, the coffee cake-greater and grander, more glorious than the thrones of many parents-baked clear through. Now, finally, Talitha cut it in three parts. With one she fed the marching band of her high school. With one she fed her family through a month of breakfasts. And one she froze-which we have since eaten in various manifestations. We have had french-toast-coffee-cake by Talitha, a victor who gloats long in victory.
When, therefore, she asked for two black lights, I let her mother do the fussing, let her mother remonstrate, while I myself-I did not argue. I went forth and bought, failing black lights, two dim bulbs, one blue and one green.
And thus was the basement lighted.
And I was not altogether surprised by the effect. Talitha had been right: once one's eyes adjusted, one could see. Dimly, to be sure. Dramatically, the faces emerging from deep shadow. But I stood downstairs in the midst of the music, at the edge of the dancing, and I could see, and I began for a moment to wonder:
Perhaps the girl, so smart in few things, was smart in many. Perhaps, as she declared in her own swaggering manner, there was nothing she could not handle.
I watched her. For nearly an hour I watched the dancing in our basement, and I was moved by the beauty of our children, and I loved them, truly.
Excerpted from Mourning into Dancing by Walter Wangerin, Jr. Copyright © 1996 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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