Inspired by the song, “My Father” by Judy Collins.
Thanks again to my Sweet Inspiration blackrandl1958 for her encouragement, advice, and of course, her editing.
My father always promised us that we would live in France.
Oh, my sisters and I knew that it was a pipe dream. He was a coal miner in Ohio, and the closest we ever got to Europe was an annual trip to Cincinnati for The Nutcracker.
It was still a fun fantasy, and my sisters and I would play the music and do our pretend dance moves until our mother got tired and told us to go play outside.
As we got older, my sisters got more interested in boys than dancing, and while I wasn’t exactly uninterested, my heart was set on dancing.
While my father made good money working in the mines, there wasn’t a lot of money for extras, but I was undeterred.
“Ple-e-e-ase, Daddy,” I whined, “Please, can I have dance lessons?”
My mother just shook her head. She knew that my father could never say no to me for long, I was his “Baby Girl” and had him wrapped around my little finger.
I kept after my father, and my mother could see that he was weakening. She pulled me aside.
“Mary,” she said—that was my name, Mary, though I tried to get people to call me Marie, it sounded so much more like a ballerina—”Mary, you have to give your father a break. We’re still paying for Kelly’s wedding, and even with scholarships there are college expenses for Wanda.”
Kelly was my oldest sister, married and living in Cheyenne, Colorado, and Wanda was our middle sister, a Junior at the University of Colorado in Denver.
“I understand, Momma,” I said softly, “It’s just that I want to be a dancer SO badly.”
“Well, sometimes we don’t always get what we want, Mary. Do you think that your father grew up wanting to be a coal miner?”
I didn’t know what to say. Like most children, I never really saw my parents as real people, just as “Mom and Dad,” doing whatever they did.
“I ... I don’t know. What did he want to be?” I asked.
“You know how much your father loves animals?”
“Well, he had always dreamed of being a veterinarian.”
I was stunned. My father, the rough, gruff coal miner an animal doctor?
“Wh ... What happened?”
My mother was silent for a few moments, then spoke again.
“Your father and I had gone steady since the tenth grade, and he had excellent grades, despite certain, ahem, distractions,” she said, blushing.
“In our senior year he had already received his early acceptance at University of Cincinnati, and just had to maintain his grades, which he did.”
“So, what happened?”
Seeing my confusion, she continued.
“We went to our Senior Prom, and it was just magical. We danced every dance, and it was like we were in our own little world.
“We skipped the Prom after parties, and went to our favorite spot by the lake. Your father spread a blanket out on the grass, and we sat down and hugged and kissed. We weren’t virgins ... DON’T give me that look, young lady!
“We weren’t virgins, but we had always been extra careful, but that night we just got carried away. To make a long story short, I was pregnant with your sister Kelly.
“I wanted him to go to school, I told him that I would get a job and stay with my parents until I could join him, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He was looking at eight years of school and wouldn’t shirk his responsibility.
“We had a small wedding, he got a job in the mines, and we’ve never looked back. You know something else? We wouldn’t change it for the world.”
I was stunned. This was a side of my parents that I never saw, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t pressure my father any more.
Fate stepped in, however, and I was able to take some basic classes due to a generous birthday gift from my grandparents, and at my first recital my father gave me a standing ovation.
“Did you see me, Daddy, did you see me?” I asked, bubbling over in excitement.
“I sure did, Baby Girl! You were so beautiful, the best dancer out there.”
I knew that he was just saying that, but it still felt so good to hear.
I found out much later that when he saw the sheer joy on my face, he became determined to help me fulfill my dream.
He picked up some extra shifts in the mine. He came home dirty and exhausted, but I was too young and selfish to see it; all that I saw was the money for the dance lessons.
One day, my teacher, Ms. Renault, pulled me aside.
“Marie,” she said, I had long ago brought her around on my name, “You have a rare talent, but I’m afraid that you have progressed so far that there is little more that I can teach you. You need to go to the city for more advanced training.”
“B ... But there is no way we can afford that!” I cried, “It took everything we had just to send me here!”
“There, there, my dear,” she said, “I’m sure something will work out. Meanwhile, please feel free to stop by, and we’ll do what we can, gratis. I wouldn’t feel right taking your parents’ money when there is so little that I can teach you.”
“Thank you, Ms. Renault,” I said through my tears, gave her a hug and sadly made my way home.
When I got home, my mother knew that something was troubling me.
“What’s wrong, Mary?” she asked.
“Ms. Renault said that she couldn’t teach me any longer.”
“Why would she ever say anything like that?” my mother said. “I’m going to call her right now and give her a piece of my mind!”
“No, Mom, no, it’s nothing like that!”
“What is it, then? Why can’t she teach you anymore?”
“She says that I have become too advanced for her,” I said, “That I need to go to the city for more advanced instruction.”
“Oh, I see,” my mother said, understanding the situation.
“I know you’re disappointed, Mary, but that’s how life is sometimes. You just have to roll with the punches.”
I knew my mother meant well, but I wasn’t really in the mood for platitudes, went to my room and had a good cry.
I did take Ms. Renault up on her offer to go to her studio to practice as much as I could while taking classes at the community college so that I could get a job and support myself.
One day I came home from school to find my mother crying.
“Mom, what is it?” I cried, knowing that it had to be something bad.
She looked up at me with sad, tear-filled eyes, and I knew—the news that every miner’s family dreads—a mine collapse.
“There’s been a mine collapse, and your father is among those trapped.”
I sat down next to my mother and took her in my arms, our tears mingling together.
We held out hope for as long as we could, but all too soon it became obvious that rescue efforts were too dangerous and futile.
While, as with all mining families, we always knew this was a risk, it was still a shock when it happened to us.
Kelly and her husband and Wanda came home for the funeral, which was especially sad with no body to say goodbye to and bury.
We comforted each other as best we could, but life goes on, and my sisters had to return to their everyday lives, leaving my mother and me alone in our grief.
Just as things were returning to our new normal, we were approached by an attorney.
“Mrs. Elkington,” he said, “My name is John Blaine. I represent many of the families that lost loved ones in the mine collapse. I’m preparing a lawsuit against the mining company and was wondering if you would like to join the suit.”
“Why are you suing?” my mother asked. “We’re all upset at the collapse, but it happens; it’s part of the risk of being a miner.”
“That’s true,” Mr. Blaine said, “and normally there would be nothing more to it than the grief for all left behind. However, it seems that there were numerous safety violations at the mine, and the other miners’ families are suing the mining company.”
“Safety violations?” my mother and I said together.
Mr. Blaine nodded.
“Could you please give us some time to think this over, Mr. Blaine?” my mother asked.
“Of course,” he said, “We won’t be filing for a few days at least. Please call me as soon as you decide. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll call you before I file.”
He gave us his card, we gave him our number and he left.
“What do you think, Mom?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Honey,” she said, “On one hand it feels like blood money, making money off your father’s death, but on the other, it hurts those who helped cause his death in the only place they can really feel it: Their wallets!”
We decided to call my sisters. Kelly and her husband definitely wanted to sue. Wanda was a bit more reluctant, but we all decided to join the suit.
As with many of these types of cases, the company fought tooth and nail; they tried to blame the collapse on worker negligence. John Blaine was good, though; he found records of violations of safety standards going back years. When it began to look like there might be charges of bribery coming, the company quickly settled.
While no amount of money could possibly compensate for the loss of my father, between my share of the settlement and the insurance, I was finally able to achieve my dream of going to Cincinnati to pursue a career in ballet.
I was reluctant to go, but my mother convinced me I should.
It was then that my mother told me that my father had taken on the extra shifts specifically to get the money to send me to Ms. Renault’s classes. While I had my suspicions, my eagerness to go pushed those thoughts aside.
Now, I was crushed.
“It’s my fault he died!” I cried, “If he hadn’t been working those extra hours he’d still be alive!”
“That’s not true,” my mother said, “He died on his regular shift, and even if he didn’t, he was so proud of your talent and the joy you got out of it that nothing could have stopped him from doing everything in his power to help you fulfill your dream.”
I was quietly sobbing, remembering the light in my father’s eyes after that first recital, when he told me that I was the best dancer out there.
“Now, you honor your father’s memory by going to Cincinnati and giving it all you’ve got. You know he’ll be watching you, and will be proud of you, as long as you give it your best.”
I wiped away my tears and nodded.
“I will, Mama,” I said, “I’ll make BOTH of you so proud of me.” I gave her a big hug.
A few days later we were at the bus station, where I would be taking the bus to meet my destiny.
It was bittersweet saying good-bye to my mother, but as the bus pulled away I was giddy with excitement.
My fantasies of being crowned Prima ballerina of the Cincinnati Ballet were rudely dashed. While my audition tape and a letter of recommendation from Ms. Renault got me into the Ballet’s school, I quickly learned that I was just one of dozens of young women with the same dream. We had all been the stars of our small communities, but now we were little fish in a big pond, and would have to work twice as hard as we had ever worked before just to keep our places.
I got a part time job, as my share of the settlement didn’t allow for the kind of expenses that I ran into in the city. I needed roommates to keep my living expenses down, and was fortunate enough to find a couple of classmates that were friendly enough, even if we were competing for the same prize, a spot in the ballet company.
After weeks of torture, as I wondered if my feet would ever feel normal again, I was rewarded with a place in the Corps de Ballet. It was the lowest rank in the company, but I was now a “Professional Ballet Dancer!”
My roommates were jealous but supportive, and soon Jane also joined the Corps, but Alice gave up her dream and went back home. As our lease was just about up, Jane and I moved to a smaller two-bedroom apartment to save a little rent.
If I thought my trials were over, I was sadly mistaken! I still had ever more rigorous classes, on top of rehearsals and performances, but I persevered. My dream was so close that I could taste it, yet still so very far away.
As time went by my dancing improved, and was recognized by the leaders of the ballet company. I was rewarded with some minor roles, not as big as the principal dancers, but still separate from the Corps. I occasionally under-studied for Diana, our Prima ballerina, and even got to dance her role when she hurt her ankle. I was walking on air, even as I knew that it was only temporary.
Then, I had a stroke of luck. We got a new ballet director who took notice of me.
“Marie,” he said, “I’ve been watching you, and I think your talent is too great to be limited to the Corps de Ballet. I would like to offer you some private instruction to help you progress.”
My antennae went up. I had already heard stories of dancers being taken advantage of in the hopes of gaining advancement. Jacques (of course, he was French, right?) sensed my discomfort, and gave me a warm smile.
“I assure you that my motives are pure, but if it would make you more comfortable, we can have the Ballet Mistress observe.”
“No, no, Jacques, I do trust you, it’s just that, you know, you hear stories...”
“I understand, Marie. Sadly, they are not all just stories. Some people do take advantage of their position, but I assure you that I am not one of them.”
Thus, I began what amounted to a Master Class in Ballet. At first, I felt like I was a beginner again, but it wasn’t long before my increased ability was evident to everyone. I was given more prominent roles, and soon was the primary understudy for our Prima ballerina, and danced her roles in the matinee performances.
One Wednesday after I danced the matinee, Jacques called me into his office. This was a rare occurrence, so I was a little apprehensive.
“Relax, Marie,” Jacques said, noticing my nervousness, “Please, have a seat.” I sat in a chair in front of his desk, trying to calm my nerves.