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Castanets

By Jennifer Swenson

Twisting her torso, she looks back at the camera over her shoulder. She wears an embroidered bolero jacket over a ruffled taffeta dress that cascades to the floor. Her right foot, in its taupe flamenco shoe, points to the side in tendu devant. Her arms extend outward, each hand clutching a castanet. Her smile is jaunty, confident. A flirtatious eighteen, she stands at the edge of womanhood.

This young woman—my grandmother—died just a few months before my own eighteenth birthday. My family and I flew to Phoenix for the funeral—a strange, sad event, with no personal details, no celebration of her life. After the funeral I visited the memorial site where Nana’s ashes would be sealed in a box behind a plaque engraved with her name and her dates of birth and death. My almost-woman-yet-still-a-girl self felt numb—numb from the austerity of the place, with its white marble walls that held row after row of identical plaques, each differing only in name.

Nothing here told of the grandmother she had been: the postcards sent from exotic places, her Christmastime visits, my annual pilgrimage to her home. As a child, I swam in her backyard pond and picked vegetables from her garden. As a teenager, I talked to her about my dancing endeavors, my schooling, my procession of friends. Yet, standing in front of her memorial, I sadly realized that although I knew Nana as my grandmother, the plaque’s sparse information represented nearly everything I knew about her as Dorothy—the woman.

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It is my favorite time of day, these quiet, fleeting minutes just after the children’s bedtime. My husband is working late tonight, and all day I have been looking forward to focusing on my latest project. Last July I borrowed my parents’ multitude of family albums in order to archive the contents for posterity. At the time, the collection filled four large boxes, and for countless evenings since, I have scanned slides, tin photos, and images of weddings, vacations, recitals, soccer games, and graduations.

I glance at the dwindling number of photo albums. Two thousand pictures down, I estimate, and only about five hundred to go. I wonder if I will be done with the project in time for my Christmas deadline.

I open the top album on the stack and flip through it. Inside are black-and-white pictures of Nana’s girlhood. In one, a six-year-old poses next to a large vase of flowers. In another, a bright-eyed teenager grins as she graduates from junior high. And in another, a trio of young women strikes a flamenco-style pose, each wearing a dancing gown and clutching a pair of castanets. The woman in the center is Nana.

My mind travels back to a sunny afternoon spent on Nana’s back porch. I was twelve years old and on a solo visit to my grandparents’ house. Over a glass of lemonade, Nana and I discussed my latest accomplishments in dance. Proudly, I showed her the blisters and calluses on my toes from my pointe shoes; Nana had never danced on toe. I told her I would soon be starting folk dance classes to round out my training.

Nana stood up and left the porch, returning shortly with a leather pouch in her hand. She opened it and pulled out a pair of hardwood castanets. They were hers, she said, from many years ago. With ease and grace she began to click them rapidly, their percussion chatter forming a steady rhythm. Her feet instinctively followed the rhythm, and in a moment, my seventy-something grandmother was giving me an impromptu flamenco performance. When she finished, I applauded and giggled. She then handed the castanets to me. Her hands around mine, she maneuvered my fingers into the proper position, with thehembra (female) in my right hand and the larger macho (male) in my left. After a few clumsy attempts to play them, I handed them back to Nana, and she slipped the instruments back into their pouch.

Years later—not long before she died—Nana visited our home for two weeks. I spent much of her visit occupied with the immediate demands of my senior-year life. I was an overachieving, overscheduled student, and in the fall I would leave for BYU—3,000 miles away from my Virginia home. I was standing at the edge of womanhood, but I was too busy to recognize it.

One evening during her visit, Nana asked if I had any regrets about my recent decision to leave ballet. I had sustained a double-knee injury the previous summer, and after lengthy physical therapy I had returned to dance—stronger than before—only to discover that my desire to pursue professional ballet had dwindled. During the months away from ballet I had gone to Friday-night football games. I had become involved with the school yearbook and drama program. I had attended prom. And I had loved my new life. More importantly, I had caught a glimpse of other possibilities for my future. No, I told her, I had no regrets, even though I knew a part of me would always long to dance.

With that conversation replaying in my mind, I study the three dancers in the photo and then gaze up at its companion picture—an individual portrait of Nana, age eighteen, from this same dance scene—which is framed and hanging on my wall. The evening moonlight streams through the bay window and illuminates the shimmery ruffles of her dress, her heart-shaped face, her wide smile, her coiffed hair. Years ago, while running her fingers through my hair, Nana told me that she had had thick, luxurious chestnut brown hair—like mine—when she was young. At the time I had shrugged aside her comment, but now I scrutinize the black-and-white photo and wonder if this is true.

Turning a few more pages of my grandmother’s album, I come to the end of the dance photos. I ask myself why she stopped dancing, all those years ago. Was it because of an injury, like mine? Was it because the demands of marriage and motherhood took precedence? I wonder if my young daughters, who take ballet, have ever noticed the picture of their great-grandmother hanging on our wall. And then I wonder, if Nana had had a daughter, would she have been a dancer, too?

I reach for a leather-bound album with “Our Wedding” written on the front. Nana’s was a wartime wedding; in the photos the lovely young bride clutches a small bouquet of flowers, and the groom is in full military dress. I turn page after page—bridal portrait, wedding entourage, church ceremony, cutting the cake. In the photo of their first dance as husband and wife, Nana’s left hand rests on Granddad’s shoulder, and the sight of her engagement and wedding rings brings to mind the morning after her funeral.

We sat around the breakfast table, munching Grape Nuts and sipping orange juice. Granddad, coffee mug in hand, approached me holding a velvet jewelry bag and silently emptied its contents onto my placemat. We all stopped eating and stared. Rings—engagement rings. Four of them. There was Nana’s dainty engagement ring—wedding band attached—along with her mother’s ring, and Granddad’s mother’s, and, finally, a fiftieth-anniversary diamond ring. His voice quiet, Granddad explained that since they’d had only one granddaughter—me—the rings would be mine.

Five years later, it would be time to select a wedding ring of my own. My fiancé, Brian, and I would take that same velvet bag to a jewelry store and, using several of the stones inside, design my own wedding ring setting. Deciding to use my grandmothers’ diamonds was a sentimental notion—reminding me of the women who preceded me—but it was also practical. As full-time BYU students and part-time campus employees, we had nothing of value to our name. Our newlywed “dresser” would be four stacking plastic bins, $3.99 a piece, purchased at Lowe’s. Our used couch, torn and stained, cost us thirty dollars. Our nightstand would simply be a tall cardboard box, covered with a tablecloth. Facing these stark realities, I had known that we could conserve our scarce financial resources by using stones I already owned.

Today, with the album still open in my lap, I glance at my wedding ring—with three small diamonds in a perfect row—and then hold it up close for inspection. It needs cleaning, I think to myself. Is that Monday’s yellow Play-Doh crusted on one of the brackets? I scratch the spot with a fingernail and the speck dislodges. Looking down again at the phphoto of my grandparents’ wedding dance, I remember those same diamonds resting on my own finger as I danced the tango with Brian at our wedding reception.

Different setting. Different characters. Same story. I smile to myself.

From the next album on my desk, I begin to scan pictures of my father—as an infant, smiling beneath the warm sunshine at a summer picnic; as a toddler, taking the first tentative steps while his parents—my grandparents—look on from the lawn of their military housing; as a young boy, triumphantly displaying his baited trophy from a fishing excursion; as a teenager, horseback riding in California.

I turn the page to find a family photo, in color, taken the same year that my dad’s brother, Dale, died of cystic fibrosis. Here, Nana is about the same age as I am now. Here, she is the thirty-something mother of two young sons, and I am part of her yet unknown future. She still stands like a dancer, with a straight back, lowered shoulders, and elongated neck, her head held high. Her hand rests on Dale’s shoulder. Her bobbed hair is wavy and brown, but the sunlight glancing off of it illuminates her red highlights. Like mine.

The family of four looks content, and I marvel at how well her smile masks the concern that must have been hers since the day Dale was diagnosed. Did she hurt, every day, because of endless worry? Did she hold him close during his coughing fits, pleading for him to breathe? Did she watch helplessly as he deteriorated, or did his passing come suddenly? Did she know, when this picture was taken, that Dale’s time was dwindling? I think of my own two sons. I think of the minor illnesses they’ve had—the ear infections and fevers and croupy coughs and stomachaches. I think of the wee hours of last night, when I held a teething Isaac close and lulled him to sleep. I remember how he laid his small head on my shoulder and how, for a perfect moment, I was the balm that soothed his pain. Nana, too, did all those things, and still she buried a son.

I turn several pages and fast-forward fifteen years to my father’s college graduation. Dressed in a stylish light-green suit, a slightly older but still poised Nana stands next to her son, who towers over her. He wears the cap and gown, yet I recognize something familiar in her smile. It is the same smile I offered when my oldest daughter received recognition for a challenging art project; it is the same smile I gave when my second daughter performed her first piano recital. It is the motherly declaration that my father’s accomplishment belongs in part to her as well.

I pick up a newer album at the bottom of the stack. Inside is the Nana I knew—slightly stooped, with thinning hair and facial creases, wearing her trademark silver necklace. In one photograph, her oldest grandchild—my brother Aaron—holds her in promenade position, pausing in their waltz around the kitchen. Aaron offers the photographer his most debonair stare, while Nana grins with glee.

I vividly remember the day: ten years old, I sat at the kitchen counter, munching a sugar cookie and listening to the sounds of Manheim Steamroller. Aaron was home from BYU and eager to show off his newly acquired social-dance skills; Nana was his willing partner. A head taller than her, Aaron guided her across the mottled linoleum, down the hallway, through the living room, and back into the kitchen. While Aaron maintained a sturdy frame, Nana glided deftly along in his arms. She held her head aloft and leaned back slightly—Aaron’s hand on her back—while her feet maintained their confident steps. And all the while she wore an elated smile. Her face and figure had altered significantly; she had experienced profound sorrow and loss; she wore no costume and performed in front of no true audience. Yet still she knew the wonder of a joyful dance.

The day after Nana’s funeral and our visit to her memorial, not long after he’d given me her rings, Granddad requested that we go through her personal belongings. A stoic man, Granddad saw reminders of Nana’s presence throughout the house, and he would soon begin the process of cleaning out her possessions. While we were still in town, he said, we should sift through and choose some keepsakes. It was almost too much to ask of my father, who was still raw from her death. But we also knew that if we wanted a memento of Nana’s life, we needed to acquire it now, or it might disappear forever.

We began to open Nana’s dresser drawers. There were her sweaters, socks, driving gloves. White crocheted gloves that were hers as a child. Jewelry engraved with her mother’s initials. A poorly knitted blue scarf, which my nine-year-old self had proudly given to her years ago. Again came the piercing longing I’d felt the day before as I stood before Nana’s memorial site—the longing to know the woman she had been.

Then, from the back corner of the bottom drawer, I pulled out a leather pouch and opened it curiously. Inside were two pairs of round wooden objects, each pair held together with purple string. It took a moment to realize what they were, but suddenly I knew, and tears formed. “It’s her castanets,” I murmured.

I found Granddad and asked him if I could keep them. He smiled. “Yes, yes, of course.”

My reverie fades with the sound of Isaac crying. With a sigh, I close the photo album on my lap and return it to its place in the stack. Time to tend to Isaac’s teething pain. But first, I pause to open the coat closet at the base of the stairs. I reach for a small brown pouch on the high shelf and pull out the castanets. With one in each hand, I cradle their weight and smoothness, admire their rich color, hear their distinctive sound.

Gazing over at Nana’s picture on the wall, I copy her pose—twisting my torso to face behind, looking back at the picture over my shoulder, stretching my arms outward with castanets in hand. Holding the pose, I study the picture. The nighttime darkness casts deep shadows across it, and I can barely make out the tip of her dancing shoe, the jet-black embroidery on her jacket, or the curve of her outstretched hand, holding its castanet. Yet even in the darkness, I know the details are there.

About Jennifer Swenson

Jennifer Swenson is a Virginia native who is living in St. Paul for one year, in what she calls her “Minnesota experiment.” Since quitting ballet, she has taught dance to young children and has dabbled in ballroom, modern, and folk dance. Nowadays she still dances—mostly in her kitchen, with her five children swirling around. She graduated from BYU with a BA in English, and she loves to read, quilt, wander museums, blog, and avoid yard work.

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