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Dance by the Light of the Moon: I

August 25, 2009

She would always greet us at the door, hugging and kissing us with enthusiasm.  She smelled like face powder and Emerald perfume. My oldest cousin used to mispronounce granny, and it came out “Nanny” and the name stuck ever since.  Everybody who wasn’t her peer called her “Nanny Gilman.”  Her real name was Frances Poole Gilman and she was unfailingly popular, her exuberance displayed to all she loved.  I remember how she used to greet everyone at church, kissing them all, saying “Hello, baby” to even grown men. Nobody else’s grandmother danced at church socials.  I remember how Nanny and two teenaged girls once came dancing into the fellowship hall with tambourines dressed up like gypsies, singing at the top of their lungs, dancing wildly. My mom slid to the floor covering her face in her hands.

Music bubbled out of Nanny.  She would break into song at any given moment.  She had no use for classical or modern music, but still sang the jazz and swing songs of her youth.  She would stand in the middle of her living room and sing “Buffalo Gals.”  She’d do it every time I’d ask, which was almost every time I’d visit.

“Buffalo Gals won’t you come out tonight

Come out tonight, come out tonight.

Buffalo Gals won’t you come out tonight

To dance by the light of the moon!”

She would hold out “moon” for as long as she could, tossing back her head, throwing up her arms and shaking her hands like a Flapper.  Nanny loved to be the center of attention as well as lavish attention on others.  But what I loved most about going to Nanny’s house was not only the attention she would bestow on me, but the permeating mystery of the past.

The past clung to the house thickly, like a morning fog.  Nothing was thrown away, and the unused rooms upstairs were packed with old toys, dried fingernail polish, and even an old diary one of my cousins used to keep.  But what spellbound me most were the pictures and the stories Nanny would tell of her childhood.

The pictures were kept downstairs inside the coffee table, which had a little door that opened on the front of it.  I loved opening the door and pulling out a pile of pictures, some faded and yellow, other still glossy.  I was enchanted by the faces that stared back at me.  The faces were real people, some dead, other alive somewhere, old and wrinkled.  There were pictures from Nanny’s childhood, one of her and her brother holding a white rabbit.  Her brown hair is chopped in a straight bob with bangs.

Another picture is from her youth; she stands in a modest bathing suit from the twenties smiling at the camera, her hands clasped behind her back.  There were lots of pictures from her “wild” single days.  Nanny with various friends at clubs, alcohol and long skinny cigarettes in their hands, the kind Miss Scarlet is holding on the box of the Clue game.  They remind me of glamorous movie stars from black and white movies.  I can almost imagine the smoky atmosphere as the sensual notes of the jazz music floats through the air.  Other pictures show Nanny in a light white summer dress standing in front of a fountain in Washington, D.C.  Another is of her walking along a busy 1930’s street.

As much as I loved the pictures, nothing compared to Nanny’s stories.  She would sit in her recliner, fuzzy slippers on her feet and usually in a loose fitting dress.  I would lay on the floor or sit at her feet.

“Tell me a story, about when you were little,” I’d ask.

“We lived on a plantation,” Nanny would often say proudly.  “My mama never had to do laundry herself because she had colored women to do it for her.”  Nanny always seemed very proud of that fact.  Maybe it was because after she married she lived in near poverty; she clung to the few things in the past that revealed a higher social status.

But Mom cautioned me about taking Nanny’s stories as literal truth.  “She likes to exaggerate,” Mom said.  “She didn’t live on a plantation, just in a big white farm house.  I saw it in Georgia once.”

I was a little let down.  I had imagined a house on the scale of Tara in Gone with the Wind.  But no matter how much Nanny may have exaggerated, I really didn’t care.  I just listened fascinated, transported by her voice to the Lithonia, Georgia of 1918.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 25, 2009 9:20 am

    I wonder if her child’s imagination made that big white farm house into a plantation home… Oh, she sounds wonderful!

  2. August 25, 2009 3:36 pm

    She was wonderful! 🙂

  3. Daryl permalink
    August 26, 2009 3:20 am

    Good writing Danielle. I’m captivated!

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  1. After Irene | Multitude Monday #17 « Dancing by the Light

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