By Mathina Calliope
When my father turned 64 a few years ago I gave him a playlist especially for him. I labeled it The Happy Birthday Daddy Salsa Primer. Salsa—the dance and the music—was a fierce passion of mine but unknown to him, and I hoped he would enjoy discovering something both new and important to me. But at the party we threw for him, my mother thought I was giving him instructions for dance rather than an introduction to music—an insensitive gift for a man with a bad back. From across the living room, I saw disappointment pinch her face before she rolled her eyes and looked away. It was subtle, but it rent me.
What passion for dance my mother might have held had died one night in the fifties when her father, turning into the driveway on a darkening Upper Michigan evening, spied her youthful profile in the warm yellow rectangle of her bedroom window. She was dancing in front of the mirror. I imagine her twirling, or lifting her arms over her head and letting them drift down, like silk parachutes, to her sides. Until, that is, my grandfather burst through the door, belt in hand. In his household, dancing was a sin against God.
Dancing was okay by my father, who loves many kinds of music. Alas, his family did not genetically endow him with that crucial dance prerequisite, rhythm. His clapping hands seldom sync with the beat.
Beyond the fear of God or having two left feet, my parents shared particular reservations about salsa, and especially my passion for it. For a pair of church-going Midwesterners, the word passion alone might have been worrisome enough, never mind that the passion taking hold of me was for a sexy Latin dance. A number of salsa specifics troubled them. One: To them, most of the salsa men I had dated were unsuitable. (In fact they all had been.) Two: Salsa was a nighttime activity, and many late nights out might put my job in peril. (In fact I regularly rolled in late.) Three: In my mother’s misconception, night clubs were run by gangs and other persona non grata. (No.) And finally, what with all the bodies touching and alcohol flowing, weren’t my nights filled with depraved sexual activity? (Um, no.)
There is nothing new about parent-child disconnect. We all make choices, sometimes deliberately, anathema to our parents’ taste. Many of us pass through that period to look up one day and see we are living more or less our parents’ lives. But I had yet to wake up to that day.
At seventeen, I dated a man my mother’d forbidden me to see on the grounds that he was not a Christian. I thought I was getting away with secretly seeing him until one day she reached over and silently pressed her index finger to a fading hickey on my neck. She conceded that since I was turning eighteen and heading off to college, there was little she could do. Then, Matt became a Christian, and at nineteen, I married him. My parents blessed the union, but they never warmed to Matt. Instead, he and my mother began a nine-year competition for my time and attention.
Of course I loved her, but my love for my mother then was tainted by duty, need, resentment, and desperation. She spent much of my childhood clinically depressed—sometimes suicidal; my father, brother and I were perpetually anxious. Because she said it felt like rejection when I did not share her interests, I tried to like things she liked. For example, she had always loved Johnny Cash, so when I got into country music in my early twenties I felt virtuous. Times when I was devoutly Christian pleased me, too. My superlative good-daughter move was becoming a teacher, because she was a professor.
But starting when I was twenty-eight, things changed. For example, I lost my faith and stopped going to church and smoked marijuana and learned to belly dance. I left my husband and teaching for singlehood and a desk job at an education nonprofit. I went clubbing and dove into the salsa subculture and moved in with an atheist Chinese ex-thug. I left him and fell in with the dating equivalent of heroin: a Puerto Rican whose charm I could not resist but whose lies I ultimately did not believe. I recovered from him and let a tall, young Peruvian with beautiful black curls bewitch me.
By the time I made my father the salsa primer, I had no idea where my Willie Nelson tapes were and hadn’t warmed a pew for a decade. It wasn’t that I wanted to leave my mother to the wolves of depression; I simply realized I couldn’t save her. In any case, my protean attempts to earn her approval had failed. So, while I knew my lifestyle was tough on her, I accepted this dissonance.
Pot and heavy metal and dating outrageous characters provided escape from the work of mourning my marriage. But salsa? Salsa was playful. It was swift, sensual. Dancers entwined fleetingly, smiled, and then did it again with someone else. Trombone, piano, syncopation, call-and-response vocals—these became for me the auditory shape of happiness. And yet salsa wasn’t an escape. Our unfeigned smiles bore witness to something clean and true, and that truth meant something. Salsa wasn’t transporting; it was transcendent. It evoked in me a passion that was far from frivolous; it was nearly spiritual: while I danced, emotion filled me physically the way I once had imagined the Holy Spirit should. And, salsa had its faithful multitude. In this group, I found playmates, pals, and friends. Salsa people offered me fellowship. Despite being tall, WASPy, divorced, and not in my twenties, I belonged to the church of salsa in a way I’d never belonged anywhere.
Salsa people, when we got together, celebrated. My family, when we got together, clinked forks on dessert plates and talked about work. At a Mother’s Day brunch at Silver Diner, family members lamented long hours at the office, and I could not relate, since I viewed my job at an education nonprofit mainly as a means to pay bills. At the same time, by focusing on this difference, was I leaving my people behind?
And so the CD was a baby step toward introducing my old family to the values of my new tribe. My mother’s dismissal of it hurt, so the next day I wrote her an e-mail to say so. I acknowledged that she might not understand salsa, but said I wished she could respect it since it mattered to me.
An online argument ensued and escalated, with accusations of unconcern on both sides.
Now. My mother didn’t totally, exactly, know me—the real me, the full, uncut Mathina. To protect her and shield myself, I had once or twice engaged in less-than-full disclosure. But I was thirty-four now, and this was about our thirty-fourth battle of misunderstanding and recrimination. Besides, salsa had helped me find out just who the full, uncut Mathina truly was. I wanted to be that Mathina everywhere, not just on the dance floor. I especially wanted to be her with my mother.
I wrote her a letter of truth. I took a strident, set-the-record-straight approach. I said things I’d never said before, including that it seemed she assumed the worst of me and that I was tired of trying or pretending to be who she wanted me to be instead of who I really was. It was revelatory and raw, truths I assumed it would be intolerable for her to learn. I read it over, nodded grimly, and hit send. Then I went to bed.
I slept fitfully and awoke filled with remorse. I checked my email thirty times before going to work, and then endured a day of white-knuckled fear, smiling maniacally through meetings until she proposed a phone call and I calmed down.
She had four concerns. First, I should not be having casual sex, since that kind of behavior was unassailable evidence of an abysmal self-esteem. Second, I was not being safe, since nightclubs were dirty and dangerous. Third, I would never have children, since the scene lacked husband/father material. Finally, I was self-indulgent; since quitting teaching and starting dancing, I no longer contributed to society. In short, I was insecure, taking risks, hedonistic, irresponsible, and aimed at a long, lonely spinsterhood. I knew her conclusions were presumptuous and false, but I could also see why, to her, salsa didn’t look too hot. She probably wanted to throw rocks at it.
I defended casual sex and suggested that we were no longer in a 1970s sex-ed filmstrip, where boys wanted it and girls didn’t. The few men I had slept with casually weren’t taking anything from me (though the reverse was possibly true). I proposed that salseros were about as scary as Betty White and that the Northern Virginia and Maryland nightclubs (bars and studios, actually) where we danced were hardly incognito street pharmacies. True, I hadn’t met The Man of My Dreams on the dance floor (actually I had, we just didn’t know it yet), but I didn’t know whether I was ready for him anyway. In the meantime, salsa … well, salsa provided. The scene was large and diverse; I hadn’t begun to exhaust its mate-providing possibilities. Finally, I asked her whether after spending my twenties married and responsible, I could now be blamed for having a little fun.
Score one for keepin’ it real. It was the most honest, scary, and productive conversation we had ever had. She learned that salsa was maybe not so scary after all, and I accepted that her concerns grew, quite simply, out of the elemental parental desire for their children to be safe and happy.
A few weeks after my father’s party we gathered again at my parents’ house for my thirty-fifth birthday. Sitting in the same seats, we set down our dessert plates, and the family turned to watch me open presents. From my parents I received a couple of fun little gifts: a musical birthday card that played Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” when you opened it and a Mets T-shirt from the team’s Noche de Merengue night. I felt understood and smiled across the room at my mother. Then I opened their main gift and was astounded: It was an invitation for a trip to New York to see a play about the life of Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa.
The day of the show, we drove in my parents’ 1998 Jeep Cherokee from Northern Virginia to New York and parked in a Times Square garage, taking turns changing our clothes in its three-by-five-foot bathroom. We walked to the New World Stages on Fiftieth Street.
Our seats were third row, center stage. My parents flanked me. The band divided its members into two groups—one on either side of the stage—so that from our seats the stereo effect was total. As audience members chattered (mainly in Spanish) and vendors moved carts through the narrow aisles, issuing pregones, or sales cries, a tuxedo-clad musician took up his bass. Others followed. Bright trumpet! Percussive piano! Skittery cáscara! A blast of happy noise streamed off the stage. The song’s blazing energy pierced me; it was a shot of joy; I was overcome. I closed my eyes and smiled so hard that I was almost embarrassed. The upper half of my body strained to pulse to the rhythm but I held it in check. Onstage, dancers came out and pedaled their feet and shimmied their shoulders, smiles glinting like sparkles. The singer playing Cruz belted into the microphone and the splendor of it all lifted up and moved out over the audience and showered down, golden and achingly happy.
At intermission I asked my mother what she thought.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “I can definitely see what you like about it. But—” and here her voice caught and I looked at her with alarm.
It took a moment for her to check her tears—tears?—and put her feelings into words. I touched her arm.
She shook her head. “It’s—it’s a lives-not-lived kind of thing, I guess.”
This I had not imagined. In all my desire for my mother to hear salsa, to get salsa, to like salsa, it had not once crossed my mind that salsa could possibly cause her pain. I was ashamed and saddened to have exposed her to something she had lived most of her sixty-two years quite happily never knowing and not missing. Salsa’s unapologetic cheer now rebuked, now mocked her road taken.
I hugged her. She patted my arm and then pulled away, brightening. “No,” she insisted. “It’s not bad; I’ve done other things.” Her students adore her. She’s raised a happy family. I knew she meant it when she said she was okay, but I grieved with her a little bit in that moment—maybe more even than she did—because the thrill of salsa, its carpe diem, was a road I had taken, and so I knew its wonder. I felt sad for her, but I couldn’t deny another feeling, too. A member of my old tribe was looking at my new tribe and its values, and she was getting it. Her regret and my empathy notwithstanding, I felt a little bit triumphant. I did.
On my father’s face I found, simply, gladness. “It’s wonderful! It’s so full of life!” He beamed.
The next day we attended a daytime salsa social where my parents watched while I whirled. My mother crooked her finger at me after a song, and I approached her, breathless, wiping sweat off my forehead, and leaned in.
“You really are very good at this,” she said. I grinned. “It’s not what I expected,” she said. “It’s so fast … I thought it would be slower, and … but it’s not—”
“It’s not dirty?”
“It’s not dirty.”
My father’s summary, though, was all the evidence I needed that it was never too late for old tribes and new to grasp hands across the chasm. He compared us dancers to joyful children, thrown over to a moment. “Like kids on a merry go round,” he said, radiant himself, “shrieking with delight at the sheer, physical joy of it.”
Mathina Calliope is a writer, teacher, editor, and writing coach in Arlington, VA. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post‘s Magazine and Outlook sections, on NPR’s Morning Edition, and on Prevention.com. She has an as-yet unpublished memoir about her divorce and immersion in the salsa scene, and her current writing project is a book about quitting her job at 43 to hike the Appalachian Trail. Learn more: www.mathinacalliope.com