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DANCING THE BLUES AWAY Kate’s Journal


Episode 5
Long Beach 1934-1938

Indomitable people always seem to find a way to lift their spirits and in the Great Depression, spirits needed a lot of lifting. Grandma loved to dance, and often went out in the evening dressed in great style, sometimes taking the boat to Catalina Island to dance at the famous Avalon Ballroom. I liked to rummage through her closet looking at her lovely evening gowns which she probably either made or picked up at a second hand store. Both she and my mother were excellent seamstresses.

The phenomenon of the marathon dance came about during the Depression. Dancing couples would remain dancing as long as possible on their feet, only taking time for a bite to eat and bathroom breaks. Otherwise, they even slept one at a time while dancing. If one or both fell they were disqualified. There was a monetary prize, so it was a good incentive to stay on your feet. People paid to watch, sitting on hard bleachers, and followed favorites, calling encouragement now and then.

Grandma was also a sucker for a sob story, and everyone seemed to have a story to tell her. I remember so many faces which showed up for a meal or two and then left. Harry Hance was the only male roomer we had and he lived with us for many years. I never knew if he started out as a “stray”, but he became part of our resident “family”.

Grandma’s theory was that everybody deserved a second chance. “You don’t throw a whole life away just because it’s banged up a little.” You can always find few rubies in the rubble.

Harry had the biggest bedroom in the house, one which my mother and I had occupied for a short time before he came to us, which probably led to any feelings of resentment I had toward him. He came and went through the laundry room which always smelled a bit like dry cleaning solvent because Nellie cleaned her own clothes. It’s a wonder she didn’t blow us all up, but that was the extent of thriftiness then.

I was named for my Great-Grandmother Kate Hadley Kendall and for my mother who went by the name of Kathy. The name now belongs to my Granddaughter Kate.

As a child I was dubbed “Katie Lou”, and I disliked it so much I began changing it with each new school I went to. It gave me a sense of mystery because no one really knew who I was. It was harmless entertainment and got me through the initial period of being the new kid on the block.

In 1937 we were stationed in San Diego again, the town of my earlier bullying at the age of four. I lied once more and used the name of “Elsie” when asked by the teacher. I greatly admired a neighbor of Auntie’s named Elsie Brown who was a few years older than I and may have played the piano.

My fourth grade class was putting on a talent show for which we signed up to perform our particular talent. For some unknown reason I chose to play the piano, which was a terrible choice since I did not know how to play the piano.

In the class of nine year old strangers I heard my “name” called to come to the front of the room. “Elsie Sweetland will now play a Russian piece on the piano for us.”

At Auntie’s I was allowed to bang away on the piano as often as I liked, though I somehow knew the mandolin resting against the wall beside it was off limits. Staying there often I was steeped in the classical music playing off their record player. I don’t remember listening to music at Grandma’s, though I often heard that Grandpa Jim was a lover of classical music, and his sister Corinne was an opera singer in Montreal.

I confidently stood and not looking at anyone I walked to the piano and sat on the small bench. After announcing my intention, I pounded away until the teacher mercifully brought my performance to a close. I believe I was as surprised as anyone that I could NOT play the piano.

Shortly after my disastrous debut the census was being taken, and a man came to our door and after assuring himself that my mother was indeed Kathryn Sweetland married to Walter Sweetland, came to question number three: “And you have Kathryn and Elsie in school?” I was busted.

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11 comments on “DANCING THE BLUES AWAY Kate’s Journal

  1. A great story of sweet memories. A Russian piece? I can see you banging away at the piano.

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  2. I forgot to mention that my mother was in the classroom at the time. Oh my—

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  3. haha, you’re great. What chutzpah! Very telling x

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Do they even have census records any more? Can you search the databases, like we can with the old records? I’ve run down a few interesting details about my family through census records. I’ll bet that was some confusion in your house, as everyone sorted out who “Elsie” was, and what she’d been up to.

    I was curious and somewhat creative as a child, but you certainly did add chutzpah to the mix. That kind of self-assurance is wonderful.

    Your comment about finding rubies in the rubble reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s line about “garlic and sapphires in the mud,” and of course Joan Baez’s fine rendition of “Diamonds and Rust.”

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    • The census is taken about every 10 years and apparently is thought to be a good way to keep track of us, although I wouldn’t want the job with all the people coming in lately. Someone came around a few years ago with a form to fill out. Ancestry.com is an excellent source for old family history. I wrote reams of stuff about all 8 sides of our families some years ago.
      I was not a nice girl; more a teller-of-tall-tales. I also loved Joan Baez. She was the one who brought me to play the guitar in the folk era. And I was finally able to pound out a few pieces on the piano—but no Rachmaninoff.

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  5. I remember seeing a film about a dancing marathon called They Shoot Horses Don’t They? Your stories are so evocative, shame about the piano recital, perhaps your interpretation was just before your time? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. So sweet Auntie dear!!!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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