Family Dance Party in a Hopeless Place (Love)

Joyful Dance by Diana Ong, available at

Joyful Dance by Diana Ong, available at

Three years ago my entire family gathered in the wake of my mother’s death for a full family reunion.

That equates to my father, our beloved patriarch, four couples, and eight children, most under the age of 13. It’s a lot of people.

We stayed just two hours from home and rented hotel rooms in the mountain town my family spends a lot of time in.

There was wiffle ball and swimming and meeting up at the hot tub in the evenings. There were hikes and flower collecting and late night movie watching and a couple of very nice meals out.

There was a bit of friction, as there is likely to be when you gather that many related people in one place for several days.

But by far, the highlight of the trip for me was the night we held a talent show.

The talent show was the idea of my then 13-year-old niece, the eldest of the brood. When she first suggested it, I groaned inwardly. In the wake of my mother’s death, just getting everyone together seemed challenging enough. Planning something relatively organized that required all parties (my niece and my ever-eager daughters insisted all must participate) to do perform honestly seemed at worst impossible and at best sickly unpalatable.

And yet.

How do you deny a 13-year-old with an idea to bring her family together? Answer: you don’t.

Hand-drawn fliers were created immediately and distributed by doe-eyed girls eager for a smile and unbridled enthusiasm in return. Prima and my niece amazingly uncovered a clipboard and went around signing people up for the talent show. Like their overachieving parents before them, they were focused on 100% participation.

Soon, instead of reticent retreats, there began to be a bit of a buzz about what everyone was going to do – would my super athlete sis-in-law run a mini boot camp? My youngest nephew had an Adele song prepared. What would I do?

Mid-week, the evening of the talent show arrived and we gathered in the family room of our mountain house to take in the festivities.

Stories were told, songs were song, back-breaking exercises were attempted, and poems recited. We laughed a lot and cried a little, too. It was a thing of relieved, pure beauty. After a year under the afghan of grief, it seemed as if we were all, collectively, able to have fun again.

And then, the best thing happened.joyous dancing on beach

Someone had an iPhone, and someone put on music and a dance party began.

The next thing I know, our broken and rebuilding, hurt and hopeful, soulful and silly herd of a recovering family was dancing like maniacs to the persistent syncopation and perfection of that year’s biggest song.

As Rihanna crooned, “I found love in a hopeless place,” I jumped along with the herd, as high as I could, as long as I could and with as much gusto as I could. I screamed the lyric. My legs burned and my lungs ached. And my soul caught fire. And I sobbed.

For despite the despair of loss, in spite of what our mother’s death had broken in each of us and for all of us, we managed, in all of our neediness and selfishness and willfulness, to find love – and joy, and hope (that bastard) — and we managed to dance.



The spirit of the traveling gypsy

Mr. Bailey and I recently took Prima and Secondo on a summer on vacation

We like to call these trips “adventures,” and we describe them that way to the girls.

The two rules we repeat on these adventures with our young brood: “Be flexible” and “Don’t tease.”

(These twin gems of gentle admonishments were given to my family by a dear friend decades ago when he, his wife and his two high-spirited and very bright sons were visiting our family over Thanksgiving. They became family mantras that day and have served us well each trip since.)

Prima and Secondo are good travelers. At the tender age of 11, Prima has traveled to three foreign countries and Secondo to two. (We took Prima overseas before she turned 1, a fact which irritates the slightly competitive Secondo to no end.) They’ve endured delayed flights, mad dashes through the terminal to catch flights, in-flight medical emergencies, unexpected snowstorms, emergency landings and surprise overnights in hotels – all with little drama. Through travel, Secondo has tackled her fear of escalators (mostly) and Prima her fear of the unknown. They both relish the rental car pick-up and return and are only slightly phased when I squawk irritatingly at Mr. Bailey for ignoring my directions. (In Mr. Bailey’s defense, taking detours and turning blindly down interesting roads is what he enjoys most about traveling. I enjoy getting there.)

This last trip involved several days with my youngest brother and his family. Each of my brothers reside in fantastic cities to visit; we are spoiled our regular destinations read like a where’s where of places to drop anchor.

My late mother, a gypsy soul with an endless desire to roam and uncover, to dine and discover (local bistros and needlepoint shops and art galleries and quaint and charming sights) loved that about her progeny. She groomed us for it, in fact. She repeatedly told us growing up she expected us to live in four interesting cities so she and my father could spend three months in each locale in their retirement years, rotating through.

She began enacting this routine years before she hit retirement age – that prescient nymph. She would swing around the globe, sometimes with my father in tow, sometimes without – stopping in on each child and city, and exploring, then sprinkling her love for each place like she watered each of us as we grew.

Since she died three years ago, in each town I’ve visited since, my brothers or sisters-in-law always point out her favorite spots.

“Oh, your mom loved this little shop,” my sister-in-law told me on my most recent visit. “I’m not exactly sure why, it’s a bit odd. But see all those handmade cards? She used to love to go look at them and talk to the guy who owned the store.”

On visits to other towns, my sisters-in-law or brothers would say, “This was the needlepoint store mom always came to.”

Or, “Mom would walk down here every morning for a coffee and to read and then she’d walk home.”

For them, each memory shared elicits on a faraway look that’s part homage, part devastation, part longing and part joy.

For me, as each memory is shared I see my mother’s familiar gait, bounding down a narrow street or busy village path. I watch her walk into the sweet shop with her slouchy shoulder bag or her bulky red wallet and a book tucked under her arm, wearing her thick woven ivory sweater and jeans. (She was always cold.)

My chest fills with a sense of the sublime pleasure she experienced as she found and revisited all the special nooks of the places the four pieces of her heart called home.

The memory breaks me and sustains me all at once. I feel like I have become the channel of her spirit as I step through those shop or café doors.

I am infused with joy to be her channel. Then as naturally and quickly as that sentiment rises, I am suddenly and miserably struck with a renewed sense of loss, and I’m missing her so much my chest is a knot of pain.

I live in the town where we were raised, so I don’t have the same memories each of my brothers and sisters have of my mom, in her most joyful rendition, traveling, exploring.

I can’t go into her hometown needlepoint shop, which has since closed – perhaps for lack of her patronage. It still hurts to visit her favorite lunch spot. I would not dare set foot into either of the two tea shops I hosted her biggest – and last – birthday parties in.

But when I travel to new places, I always bring her along. If I have an hour or so to myself, she and I walk the beach or the boardwalk or I find an independent bookstore and buy something only she would encourage me to purchase (a book of poems or yet another journal). I place her memory in the city I visit, in the lake house we stay in, and let her roam around a bit.

And when we head home, I leave a piece of her where we’ve been – to make up for me staying close to home and to keep her beautiful gypsy spirit alive.