This takes me right back to those most painful afternoons of eighth grade dances — only, by then, dances were only for youth. Pine for your younger days if you want to, but you couldn’t pay me to be Mary Ellen’s age again!
From the Relief Society Magazine, January 1955 –
By Alice Morrey Bailey
Mary Ellen felt as though her face had frozen in a stiff smile as her last girl friend was chosen to dance, and she was left on the long, bare bench of the amusement hall by herself. She could not control a swift glance over near the entrance where there were a few boys looking out across the dance floor with the supreme indifference that only boys can achieve; nor could she control the fervent wish that once, just once, one of them would come and ask her to dance.
The saxophone wailed and the floor rocked slightly with the rhythm of the dancers whirling past. There were laughter and gay snatches of chatter, and bright colors mingled in a dizzying spectograph. Mary Ellen, watching them, felt wretchedly conspicuous and hurtingly alone. Why was she left out?
It wasn’t “see your dentist” – not with her own father a dentist, and taking mighty good care of her teeth. It wasn’t her clothes. Her mother had very carefully bought her the right brands when Mary Ellen had explained the importance of it.
The dance seemed interminable. Mary Ellen caught herself slumping, the liens of her mouth drooping, and brought herself up short, pretending absorbing interest in the couples, leaning out to watch them, turning the corners of her mouth up in pleasant approval. It would never do for envy to show on her face, black as it was in her heart.
What more could you do? You bathed until you were raw, you shampooed your hair until it felt like nylon, and you ate this and didn’t eat that, and still you didn’t dance. It was a phase, Mother said, but she thought everything was a phase.
At last the set was ended and they were coming back to their seats. “I’ve had five dances,” Geneva Anne was saying, and a quick chorus chimed in: “I’ve had four” – “I’ve had six” – and “I’ve danced every dance.” That was Belva Jean, and it was no wonder. Her father was there, and two older brothers, all of whom seemed to love dancing with Belva Jean.
Mary Ellen said nothing. It was good to slip inconspicuously into the crowd, as if she, too, had just come off the dance floor.
The music was starting up with tingling interest. Mingled hope and dread built up with it, intensified every time one of the boys started across the floor toward the girls. Sometimes it seemed to Mary Ellen as if one was coming straight toward her. Jerry Farley was now, and it looked as if – Mary Ellen’s heart began a slow pounding.
“Oh! No!” Geneva Anne was wailing. “Hide me! Jerry’s a full head shorter than I am.”
Mary Ellen’s eyes flew to him. He was a full head shorter than she, too, but she would have danced with him gratefully. He lived around the corner, and Mary Ellen sometimes played rounders and kick-the-can in his bunch. He was snub-nosed, and looked quite different with his hair slicked down, his suit nicely pressed. He must be past fourteen.
Geneva Anne had guessed right, but she regarded him with round, china-blue eyes and shook her head. “Sorry, Jerry, but I have this dance.”
Jerry knew she wasn’t telling the truth, and he stood his ground. “Who with?” he demanded.
Geneva Anne was lucky. She was looking wildly around when Flip Nelson came up.
“May I have this dance, Geneva Anne?”
“Yes, this is our dance, Flip,” Geneva said, trying to pass it off that way, but Jerry was not fooled. His face got red with anger and embarrassment. Mary Ellen felt so sorry for him she wanted to cry. She took a step toward him and said: “I’ll dance with you, Jerry.”
But Jerry didn’t look her way, only stumbled over his feet getting away. All the girls were looking at Mary Ellen. Somebody giggled, and she wished the floor would open to swallow her shame. The enormity of it overwhelmed her. She had asked a boy to dance! And he had refused her! Cold and sick with misery, she backed to a seat and sat down, waves of mortification drenching her. One by one the girls were chosen to dance until she was sitting alone once more.
Mary Ellen had meant to stay until the very last dance, and now she wanted to stay more than ever, to show that none of it mattered – Jerry, or not dancing, or the quick and unfortunate impulse – but now she couldn’t bear another minute. If she tried once more to lift her head and smile she was going to cry.
There was a startled look in Jerry’s eyes as she went past him to get her coat, and she wondered what the girls would think, laugh and say she was dumb, probably. The sobs were forming deep within her. It didn’t help to remember Johnny Ray singing “When Your Heart Aches …”
If only Mother and Daddy had gone to bed – but they hadn’t. She made one last, desperate effort at composure when they looked up in surprise at her coming home so early, and alone. It had been arranged for Daddy to pick her up at 10:30.
“How was the dance, baby?” her father asked.
“Fine! Just fine!” Mary Ellen said brightly, but her voice came out high and brittle.
“What’s the matter, dear?” Mother asked. “What went wrong?”
“Nothing! Everything was just …” she began, but in her mind Johnny Ray was singing “Let Your Hair Down and Cry,” and she did. “… was just horrible,” she flung back over her shoulder, as she raced to throw herself on her bed.
Her mother followed and tried to talk through her anguish, asking questions until she had pieced out most of the story, even the part about asking Jerry to dance.
“I don’t think that was shameful, Mary Ellen,” her mother said. “I think it was a generous impulse that came straight from a kind heart.”
“Kind hearts aren’t popular any more, Mother. You just don’t understand.”
“I understand more than you think, dear. I’ve been through all this myself, when I was your age.”
“Things were different then.”
“No, this is just a phase.”
“Oh!” groaned Mary Ellen, unable to bear more, and broke into fresh sobbing.
“I’ll never go to another dance. Never, in my whole life,” she said wretchedly.
“Not even the Teen Gold and Green?”
Mary Ellen hesitated. The Teen Gold and Green was the high point of the year, but she had driven her stakes. “No,” she said.
As the days wore on, though, and the girls talked of the coming dance, Mary Ellen thought wistfully and sadly of it. In unguarded moments she wanted to go, but she had only to think of the last dance to change her mind.
“Mother, would it be all right if I go to a show on that night?”
“Which night, darling?”
“The night of the Gold and Green?”
“I don’t know. I’ll think about it,” her mother answered absently. That had always meant consent before, but somehow Mary Ellen felt vaguely disappointed. It was almost as if she had asked, instead: “Mother, is there the least little hope that I will go to the Gold and Green?” and her mother had said “No.”
It didn’t help matters to talk to Jerry. He was wheeling past on his bike, but he pulled up short when he saw her.
“Hi, Mary Ellen.”
“You going to the dance?”
“I don’t think so,” Mary Ellen told him.
“Gee whiz! You ought to go. I’m going.”
“Are you, Jerry?”
“You bet! I’m going to be the best dancer around. And when I am, I’m not going to dance with Geneva Anne – ever.”
With that he cut a figure eight on his bicycle and rode off. He hadn’t said a word about her asking him to dance, but Mary Ellen felt as if he had made a kind of apology. Anyhow, he had been friendly, as if the terrible thing had never happened, so he must not absolutely despise her.
Maybe it was a phase, as Mother said, and if you didn’t keep going and keep trying, you never would dance. Mary Ellen began to be sorry she had said she wouldn’t go, but it was too late now. Besides, she didn’t have anything to wear. All the other girls were getting their first formals. It made her feel like an orphan. Maybe she was an orphan, and Richard and Mildred Field were not her parents at all. She could almost hear them talking in some dim past.
“Look, Milly. Someone has left a baby on our doorstep.”
“Oh, how awful! Whatever shall we do with it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we should keep it. Somebody has to take care of the poor little unwanted thing.”
Perhaps she was an orphan, a sort of stepchild. It might explain certain things – lack of understanding of her problems – lack of interest, like her mother looking directly at her while she related the craziest, most hilarious goings-on at school, and then not laughing, but saying instead something like, “Did you remember to buy bread at the grocery store?” anyone could tell Belva Jean’s parents were real, her father dancing with her, her mother making her brothers dance with her.
Mary Ellen was even more sorry she had taken such a definite stand when her father brought her the silver sandals and the taffeta dress. It was her first real date dress – pink, ballerina length, scalloped at neck and hem, with rhinestones dotted here and there like shimmering drops of dew on rose petals. Rhinestones crusted the straps of the silver sandals, and the little silver handbag which was tucked in the folds of the dress.
It took the utmost self-control for Mary Ellen to keep from shouting, screaming, or swooning at their beauty. She reached toward them, but drew back. If she so much as touched a little finger to them, all her defenses would crumble, and she would go to the dance. It would be twenty times as horrible to sit on an empty bench wearing these, for then she could no longer pretend she had just dropped in to look at the dancers, or that she was only casually interested. The girls’ remarks took place in her imagination.
“Look at Mary Ellen – all dressed up and no place to go.”
“Poor thing! She must have had some fantastic notion someone would ask her to dance.”
“How utterly fan …”
Mary Ellen sensed, rather than saw her father’s face in an agony of waiting. She drew a deep breath and recovered her composure.
“Daddy, it is very exquisite, the most exquisite I have ever seen.”
Still he was waiting, so she floundered. “Of course they aren’t exactly what I would have bought for myself. Still, I would wear them, if I were going to the dance …”
It was then her father’s face fell, but her mother’s cool voice cut in over her head.
“I’m sure we can return them, Rich, and no harm done. Mary Ellen doesn’t want to go to the dance, and I don’t blame her one bit.”
Mary Ellen caught her breath. She had been braced for argument if anyone tried to make her go, but she hadn’t meant to go that far – to return the beautiful clothes. Mothers should better understand the desires of a daughter’s heart. No doubt true mothers did.
“Swing around, swing around …” Daddy sang suddenly, turning up the radio and starting to dance. “Come on, Millie.”
He grabbed Mary Ellen’s mother and danced her around the living room. Mother laughed and protested, and finally disengaged herself.
“Such goings on, and me with supper to get,” she said.
There was no doubt that Mary Ellen’s mother was not very perceptive. Couldn’t she tell that the music was beating up in Daddy just as it was in her? Poor Daddy! You could tell he loved to dance. He must have been quite handsome before he got so old. It was hard to tell what a man thirty-five had looked like at sixteen. It would be just terrible to get so old and still be interested in dancing when his wife had lost all interest.
“Come on, chickadee. Let’s cut a little rug,” he said to Mary Ellen. “I get lonesome to dance.”
Mary Ellen felt a little funny – both reluctant and proud that he had asked her. They danced a little way and then her father stopped.
“See here, babe, you dance with your body, not just your feet. Relax, now.”
Mary Ellen relaxed and tried it the way he showed her. They tried it over and over, and the feel of it came to her. It was such fun! She could have danced with Daddy all night.
“I’m not so rusty as I thought,” he bragged at dinner. “Don’t you think we ought to spruce up and go to dances again, Millie?”
He looked hopefully at Mother, but she was slicing more bread for the table and didn’t answer. Mary Ellen felt real sorry for him. While she was wiping dishes she tried to do something about it.
“Daddy really likes to dance, doesn’t he, Mother,” she said in a hinting sort of way.
“Oh, yes,” agreed mother heartily. “He was the best dancer in our crowd when we were young; he’s really disappointed you aren’t going to the Teen Gold and Green. That’s one of the reasons he sacrificed to get you the new dress and slippers. He was hoping you would ask him to go with you.”
“He was?” Mary Ellen exclaimed. This was falling out better than she expected. Mother would be easy to manage. “He must be real disappointed. Mother, why don’t you go with him?”
“I would, darling, if you were going, but surely you can see we couldn’t go unless you did. Your friends would think us characters.”
“I guess so,” admitted Mary Ellen, feeling very deflated and selfish. She thought about it all through the knives and forks.
“Mother,” she finally said, “If Daddy can sacrifice to buy me a dress, I guess I could sacrifice so he could go to the dance.”
“Why, Mary Ellen! How thoughtful of you, dear. You don’t need to go that far, though.”
“I don’t mind, really,” said Mary Ellen, trying to speak coolly through the excitement that began to shiver along her veins.
When the big night came, she could bear to go into the dance hall in her new clothes with Daddy and Mother. She looked quickly to verify that other girls’ fathers were there. Belva Jean’s mother was sitting on the side bench, and Mother went directly to her. Of course, some of the girls had dates, but not many, and you couldn’t say actually that Mary Ellen was unescorted, not with both Mother and Daddy there.
Daddy did look distinguished, compared to the other fathers, most of them beginning to go bald. He was already looking at the dance floor, his dark eyes shining.
“How about it, Mildred? Like to dance?” he asked Mother.
“No, you go on. My feet hurt.”
The orchestra struck up one of the very tunes they had practiced, and he held out his arms for Mary Ellen. She shrank back.
“Oh, no! Not the first couple on the floor, Daddy.”
“Why not? Come on, let’s show them how it’s done.”
With the feeling of diving off the high board, Mary Ellen went, and after the first few stiff seconds, she relaxed and didn’t care who saw them. She noticed with satisfaction that some eyes were following them.
They danced and danced again. It was after the Bunny Hop that her father asked if she would mind sitting this one out. Perspiration was running down his face, and he looked tired, sort of. Mother and Belva Jean’s mother were talking when they came up, and didn’t see them.
“You have to play the wallflower, too, I see – act as if you don’t care to dance, and all that,” Belva Jean’s mother was saying.
“My feet hurt,” began Mother weakly.
“You can’t fool me,” Belva Jean’s mother laughed. “The touchy little things have to be managed pretty cleverly.”
Mary Ellen turned sick to her toes. She wasn’t so dumb that she couldn’t understand. Instead of managing her mother, she had been managed into coming to the dance – and very cleverly, too. The pieces clicked into place – her father’s perspiring face, her mother’s excuses and withdrawals – pushing her gently forward to practice the other night, to dance tonight – but somehow the whole picture made her heart swell with humble gratitude. Only real parents would care so much; only a real mother would understand the desires of her daughter’s heart.
Mary Ellen felt a little pushing in her mind, as if of growth. Suddenly she didn’t care at all that she had been tricked, especially since Jerry was coming across the floor toward her, his hair sleek and shining, his snub-nosed face clean scrubbed. This time she knew without a doubt that he was coming for her. She flashed her parents a misty smile as she followed him onto the dance floor.