Awake, O Sleeper

“This was what nights in my house had become, the metamorphosis. Me, pretending not to be awake while Mother danced alone.”

Illustration of a pair of shoes

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Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.

–Ephesians 5:14

Mother was a ballerina when she was young, and when I was a child, I would sneak up the hallway on my hands and knees to watch my parents dance. She moved like the ocean, arms rising and lowering with the music, legs reaching for the coast. Her hair was long then and she tied it behind her before they began, lifting it up in one growing strand, twisting it on top of her head then through itself in a loop. I often wondered how a man like my father caught her. Mother was educated; she spoke six languages. My father, on the other hand, barely spoke at all.

As a family, we rarely left the house because everyone else came to us. Each day brought a visitor of some type: church ladies, encyclopedia salesmen, my father’s friends from work. One summer, Mother taught dance in the kitchen and the house was full of girls, more than I’d ever been around at once. They paid ten dollars an hour and Mother showed them how to form the five positions.

First position was always the easiest. Feet side by side, arms forming a cradle. There I found stability and calm. But second position was hard. The girls boldly spread their legs and arms, eager to take flight. I, on the other hand, always lost my balance and had to bring my body back into itself, then slowly slide out from there.

After a few weeks, I decided it was much more pleasant to watch Mother dance than to try it myself. There seemed to be fluidity in the way she transformed the kitchen counter-edge into a barre; everything she touched seemed to be in the midst of metamorphosis. Even my father seemed in constant change under her touch. He had been a coal miner before they married, hands black and calloused. But the father I knew had soft hands, light as they took Mother’s waist.

After they’d finished dancing, my father’s hands would reach down to lift my sleeping body. I would wake up somewhere along the journey, head bobbing with the rhythm of his steps. I remember thinking this was the best feeling in the world — my father carrying me to bed. He’d lay me down and pull the blanket up to my chin. Then I’d fall asleep again and dream about them dancing.

As I grew, I learned this made me different; no other child lived his life inside music like that. But I suppose all great artists were brought up inside one art form or another. The parents of poets read to their children; the parents of painters keep oils around the house — tubes of cerulean blue lying in the kitchen drawers, vats of crimson tucked under the bed with shoes and old T-shirts. I’m a musician now, so of course my parents played music when I was young.

Mother, you see, was also a singer. When the radio was off, her voice filled the house. Mostly spiritual songs — not the “contemporary” music megachurches play now, but hymns — real hymns — songs that only a piano or an organ could play. “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” songs you only hear now at weddings. When the churches stopped playing them, Mother quit going. Worship was more about music for her than God anyway, and she decided her best praise was singing good songs at home as opposed to humming bunk with the masses.

I think that’s one reason why the church people visited so much, encouraging us to come back. They weren’t concerned about the tithe we gave or the future of our eternal souls: They wanted mother in choir. The loss of her voice hit the sound with a sharp-edged sword. “The soprano section is weak now,” Miss Ellen told Mother.

“Why do you need a soprano section,” she said, “when the songs you sing are all written for second altos?”

“What do you mean?” Miss Ellen said, shifting her tea cup from left hand to right.

“They’re so low, those praise hymns.” Mother’s voice was even melodic speaking. “It hurts my throat to sing them.” Gone were high Gs from the Second Baptist Church, but years after she died, I could still hear them. “Awake O sleeper,” she would sing every morning, “awake and the Lord will shine upon you.”

And until a point, He did.

After I turned seven, my friend Jared Johnson joined the Little League. He played pitcher for the Panthers and got to wear a red uniform. Sports had never been in my life before since, to Mother, they were in full-on war with the arts. I didn’t understand how. The dancers at the Kentucky Arts Center wore red when they danced; the red of Jared’s baseball jersey was just a duller shade.

But Mother claimed a uniform was radically different from a costume. “A uniform makes you part of the crowd, while a costume shows the crowd who you are. But,” she looked at me, long hair unlooped across her shoulders, “if you prefer to fly with the others for a while, I suppose you can. We’ll sign you up tomorrow.”

So my father took me down to the Recreation Department and registered me for baseball. It cost 35 dollars. I watched him take his billfold out of his back pocket and slowly count the bills on the counter.

“So Jeremiah’s gonna play this year, huh?” The lady behind the counter took the money and counted it again.

“Says he wants to.”

“So what’s your wife think about that?”

My father ignored her. “Where do we get his uniform?”

“I’ll get one from the back,” she said. Then the lady looked me up and down. “You better practice up, kid. Those other boys’ll eat you alive.”

During the ride home, I asked why she’d said that.

“Not everyone has your mother’s appreciation for ballet, son. They think the arts are for girls.”

“And baseball’s for boys?”

He looked at me. “Something like that.”

“Then why do you dance with Mother?” I thought of them in the front room, twirling to Chopin.

“Because I love her. And because I don’t care what they say.”

Mother didn’t come to my games very long. At the beginning of the season, she sat on the top bleacher, eyes gazing across the field as though she were looking at what was past it instead. Then she stopped looking out and started looking down. She looked down at her hands and down at her feet, sometimes shutting her eyes and just sitting there. Then she stopped coming at all, simply dropping me off before driving to the studio two counties over. “I’m losing my grace,” she told me. “I need to be back in a studio. Some place real so I can dance the way I want to again.”

This was the summer she and my father stopped dancing together, the summer he had to work so much that he wasn’t there when the music played. Mother would stand with her arms stretched out and lean with the notes, feet in fourth position, body stretched out into space. Then she could pretend that my father was with her, pretend he would catch her embrace.

But I couldn’t pretend to have him carry me to bed. By then, I was too old for that, had grown too big, and no matter how long I lay on the floor waiting, eventually I had to wake up and walk myself. Sometimes he would wake me in the middle of the night, coming home from work, hand brushing across the top of my head. He never meant to wake me, I knew, so I always pretended to still be asleep.

This was what nights in my house had become, the metamorphosis. Me, pretending not to be awake while Mother danced alone.

Things kept changing. My father started coming to my games; Mother started coming home late. Toward the end of the summer, when school was about to begin, my father’s work dropped off — or “slacked back,” as he called it. He was around more, but by the time this happened, Mother had already stopped dancing at home. Now my father was alone in the living room at night. He would switch on the turntable and set down the record needle. Slowly, Chopin would begin to play and he would sit in a chair and listen to it with his eyes closed. “I never liked classical music before I met your mother,” he said. “Never could stand it at all.”

I crawled in his arms and we waited together. She walked in after he was asleep, ballet slippers dangling from her left hand, their ribbons looped like her hair. She turned and saw us sitting there together, smiled, then walked down the hall to go to bed, shoes still swinging in her hand.

Another night she laid her slippers on the counter instead, resting her bag and wrap beside them. “I need real space,” she told my father. “Room to grow and stretch. I’m opening my own studio in town.” She picked her things back up and walked down the hall, ribbons always trailing behind her.

My father and I didn’t make it to the opening as there really wasn’t one. One day Mother didn’t have a studio and the next she did, offering lessons to whoever walked in the door. She taught ballet on weekday evenings, jazz and tap on Saturday afternoons, and ballroom dance on Sunday nights. That left me and my father without her except the mornings, when she still woke the house with her singing, beckoning that we awake and arise.

The next year, I turned nine and my Little League team made it to the district championship. This was a game Mother did attend, but the only one all season. She never sat down, just stood beside the stands, arms folded, hair released, eyes mindlessly gazing toward the field. Even then, I realized there was something there Mother couldn’t — or wouldn’t — see. Something about sliding into home reminded me of fourth position, fielding a ball meant extending your arms like jazz hands forming. I never shared this with anyone, the thoughts I thought to merge my new world with hers, the way I connected sports and art. These thoughts were large for a nine-year-old and I’m not even sure I could have spoken them if I tried. I did wonder if this was what life was like for my father, caught between her world and this other one, constantly moving himself back and forth. He’d started to spend more and more time at work again, so much time he didn’t even make it to my games. Jared Johnson’s momma called it negligence, negligence that she had to give me a ride home every week, negligence that Mother didn’t care about sports and that my father was too busy working. Jared Johnson’s momma shared her opinion quite freely — only once did she stop herself from sharing it around me. “She thinks the whole town doesn’t know what she’s up to down there,” she told Miss Ellen from the church.

“Watch your words, Emily Johnson,” Miss Ellen said back, tilting her head toward me.

We got in the car without my understanding and by the time she dropped me home, I had almost forgotten that anything had been said at all. I came in the house to join my father by his phonograph, where he had changed out Chopin for Rachmaninoff and Vivaldi, music with much more aggressive sounds, pressured pounding of the piano keys, strengthened downstroke of the violin’s bow.

A year later, before school began, Mother expanded, turning her administrative area into a studio and the studio into a ballroom. She had mirrors shipped in from Chicago, as well as an instructor she knew at the conservatory where she danced when she was young. She took the daytime classes and he taught at night, with her staying to supervise. When the space was completed, Mother actually did hold an opening, an exposition of sorts, twirling couples everywhere, girls in pink leotards and tutus, young ladies tap-tapping as they walked about. Around thirty people came and Mother glided through them, hair twisted behind her, forehead high, chin out. She held her arms slightly out to her sides like she was ready to perform at any moment and kept her hands cupped in mini c’s. Though I’d always known Mother was beautiful, I never knew how much until I was old enough to understand what my father said about women changing you, to know how he must have felt, calloused hands touching hers. Mother had been his teacher as much as she’d been mine and he loved her for it too.

My father and I went to the studio together that night, his face covered with pride. For a moment, I thought things would go to back to normal right then, that they would dance together that night with me watching on my hands and knees in the hall. But when Mother did come home, hours after the lights were off and the recital was over, my father stared at his records, not her, and she barely even looked at us before going down the hall, slippers in a bag instead of her hand, ribbons not dancing but the next morning her voice still pleading for my father and me to awake and arise.

Another year passed. Mother taught classes, my father bought records, I played baseball and went to school. No one came to persuade Mother to rejoin the choir anymore, having realized she was never coming back to church. All the women in town developed a crush on the instructor from Chicago and my team got new uniforms because our sponsor changed. I was no longer “flying with the crowd,” as Mother called it, in red but now in royal. I walked to the studio one day after school. Stealing in the backway, I heard music — the same Chopin she and my father used to dance to years ago. I stood there alone and remembering. Mother in my father’s arms, my bobbing head as he carried me to my room. Running my hand along the wall, I crept through the building hall and, finally reaching the door, bent down onto my hands and knees to watch my parents dance. There she was, an ever-moving ocean, arms rising and falling like a wave, legs reaching for the horizon. A growing, reaching strand of hair tied into itself and balanced on her head and he held her as they moved and floated as one. The bodies in my mind melted with ones before my eyes, there, real and present in the studio before me. Her arms reaching out, his hands longing to catch her. Together, they twisted and twirled and as he turned her, bringing his own body to face me, I realized the man who was holding her was not my father.

Featured image: Julie de Graag, 1921, The Rijksmuseum

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  1. How well you crafted this story. I loved how it flowed as beautifully as the music you described. I always say the true test of a good story is does the reader care what happens. I did. Thanks for sharing.


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