Opinion: Finding Meaning

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A Love Story and a Green Taffeta Gown

Valentine’s Day is Sunday, in case you lovers hadn’t noticed. The Beautiful Wife can attest my history of remembering special days is, well, spotty. I just missed our wedding anniversary, distracted by the death of my mother, after her 101st birthday. Could I share her love story?

The attached portrait of a smiling 16-year-old may have been a Valentine’s Day gift. The inscription says, “To Bob, with all my love, Nina.” Bob was, is, our dad; Nina our recently departed mom. Children may not see their parents as lovers filled with passion, but isn’t every child a love story created in passion? My parent’s love story started with a green taffeta dress and a church dance.

My mom’s father was a hard-rock miner who died of pneumonia when she was just two years old. Her mother, ill-prepared for life as a single mom, struggled to provide but she had grit and never gave up. Mom didn’t expect a Christmas gift in 1935, it was the bottom of the Depression, but her mom surprised her with a green taffeta gown. The dress was a perfect fit to her developing figure and she wore it to the big church dance.

You may recall 1935 as the year that Benny Goodman introduced a new style of band music at the old Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. The band had toured the U.S. with mixed reaction and the Palomar audience wasn’t excited with their stock arrangements. It’s a well-known story, but drummer Gene Krupa argues that “if we’re gonna die, let’s die playing our own thing.” They do, the audience goes wild, and the era of big band swing is born. My parents came of age in those years and never lost their love of music, and dancing.

A 1935 Valentine’s Day gift full of meaning. Courtesy of Skip Hellewell

Mom lived in Roseville, Calif., a railroad town back then. Dad was from nearby Lincoln where he worked in the family grocery store. She was wary of him at first—he held her too close when dancing. He didn’t know better—he had learned to dance at a nickel-a-dance hall where the girls allowed such intimacy. But magic happened. As the band played on, two kids danced the night away and became as one.

They married, eloped actually, reared a large family, and dad died in 2005. On the day Mom passed she needed help from my sisters to get up. Seated in her favorite chair she asked if they didn’t see a person across the room. They didn’t, but she was pointing to the door where Dad would enter from his garden. One then asked if she needed anything and she replied, “Yes, I want Daddy.” Then she quietly slipped away, eloping once again with Dad it seemed to us.

We buried Mom next to Dad. In her casket was a green taffeta dress we had given her for Christmas, just in case. Their shared gravestone says simply, “Their music will play forever.” We believe it will. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip.  He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.”  Email:  [email protected]

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