On a warm spring afternoon in 1980, I sat in the back of a car with my friend Mark as his mom Sheryl drove us home from the movies. Sheryl was the “cool” mom in town: she drove a sports car, listened to disco, and had frosted, Farrah Fawcett hair that fell down across the shoulders of her tight silk shirts. She had taken us to see Saturday Night Fever, a film not exactly meant for ten-year-olds, but the movie had a profound effect on me. On the ride home, I realized I desperately needed two things: dance lessons and a suit.
My parents were always eager to encourage my interests, no matter how absurd. I didn’t play sports or hunt or fish like most of the other kids in our small mountain town, and so whenever I showed enthusiasm for any extracurricular activity, they were anxious to support the endeavor. So it wasn’t surprising that the day after I announced my intention to become the next Tony Manero, my mom signed me up for a dance class.
The dance studio was an old garage that, despite a fresh coat of paint and a hardwood floor, still smelled faintly of motor oil. My concerns didn’t end there. Where was the mirrored ball? Where were the flashing lights? Where was the fog machine? The instructor, a woman named Ms. Jean, came over to welcome me and then asked my shoe size. She disappeared into a closet then returned with a pair of patent-leather shoes with metal plates attached to the soles. My confusion was apparent. “They’re tap shoes,” she said. “Try them on.” Ten minutes later, as Dixieland Jazz filled the room, Ms. Jean stared at my feet and yelled “Back, swing, forward, step.” The wheels were quickly coming off my “Night Fever” dream. Instead of strutting across the illuminated floor of a smoky discotheque, I was learning the Charleston in an abandoned Jiffy Lube.
When my mom picked me up two hours later, she pointed to a Sears shopping bag in the back seat and said, “I got you a surprise.” I reached in and pulled out a blue and white seersucker suit. “It will be perfect for the recital,” she said. The last wheel had officially fallen off.
I never made it to the recital. I only suffered through two more classes before finally convincing my mom to let me quit. I turned in my tap shoes and banished the seersucker suit to the back of my closet where it hung for years. As a kid, that suit was a joke. An example of how off the mark my mom could sometimes be. But in reality it represented something much more. It was her way of letting me know I could be whatever I wanted to be. A belief she repeats even now when I call to tell her about auditioning for a play or starting a novel or trying to lose ten pounds. “You can do anything you put your mind to,” she’ll say. Of course she’s wrong, but she’s never uncertain.