once upon a time (or last night if anybody’s actually looking for accuracy) our fair city held its annual Fireman’s Ball.


erm, uh, wait…wrong photo.

and wrong man.  the Fireman’s Ball, for the past three Octobers, has been the occasion of my annual date with my grandfather.  he was a fire chief back when i was a little girl, and still drives the 1929 LaFrance engine, thing of beauty that it is, in all the city parades.  the Ball is for all firefighters, current and retired: it’s small town swank, all matrons in overstretched glitter and young firefighter’s girlfriends in leftover prom and bridesmaid’s dresses, a motley crew of people who clearly do not run in circles that regularly include dressing for balls.

my grandfather cleans himself up all shiny, and scrubs his fingernails and dons his medals, and i drag items out of the closet that i haven’t worn since the previous gala the year before, because the truth is that i am no different from all the other prosaic people there, and this is the only dress-up occasion outside of work that i ever go to.  i eschew the recycled wedding party attire, but wear my dancing shoes.  because my grandfather, at 87, still loves to cut him some rugs on the dance floor.

for all its frumpery and the fact that we sit at the retirees’ table where i am the youngest soul by decades, i enjoy the Ball.  i am proud to go, in a fierce, funny way.   pleased to be asked, i suppose.  it’s partly a favour, or i flatter myself by pretending it is – i wouldn’t want him to go alone, and since i love to dance and never do and don’t know any firemen anyway, then i don’t need to worry about my particular (read: queer, vaguely dangerous to others) dance aesthetic causing me any great embarrassment.  the first year, i did worry about it shaming my grandfather, as i noticed we got a few looks out there under the disco ball, him shuffling and grinning, me flapping like a blue heron, but after he invited me back last year i shed those qualms and now just groove my heart out, flailing to the oldies.

but last night it was clear to me that it’s him that’s doing me the favour, bringing me to the Ball.

the city started this event years after the death of my grandmother, and for all my grandfather is on one hand a consummate dirty old man, full of off-colour jokes and saucy little inuendoes, he is at his core faithful to her, even still…he would take no one else in her place that might ever be considered a replacement.  and he is gallant, in his pigeon-toed once-a-farmboy way.  he held the door of his truck for me, as i hopped up into it, wondering all the while how in god’s name he gets his old bones in and out of there every day.  he made sure i had drinks, was introduced to people.  he told me i looked pretty.  and as we waltzed to “The Rose,” slightly off time, me trying not to trod on his old, fragile feet,  i laid my head on his shoulder and he pressed his face into my hair.

i have never been anyone’s princess, or daddy’s little girl.  my grandfather’s son walked away from my mother and i when i was six months old, and spent my first twenty-odd years in another place, far away.  my grandfather, bewildered by that abandonment, that rejection of his own division-of-labour marriage and my grandmother’s staunch uprightness (my grandfather has never really been upright, but she made him look it, and that was one of their implicit divisions) shied away from me and my more bewildered, wounded mother except for dutiful contact occasions and waterskiing until i was well into my teens.  i grew up among women…women who had been left behind by men.  when i married, i laughed at the idea of being given away, though my mother stood with me, my “best woman.”  i did not have a first dance, even with my husband – we had a bonfire, instead, and played guitar.  my adult relationships with men have been partnerships of mind and heart and – in the current incarnation – even soul, but not of chivalry or many rituals of romance.  i was never proposed to.  i am seldom taken dancing.  i have not missed the feminine rites of passage, much, and have mistrusted them in any case…too often they reek of paternalistic condescension and misogyny and some kind of reduction, some kind of minimization.

but when i was ten, you see, “The Rose” was my favourite song.  that summer, just the once in my childhood, i spent nearly six weeks with my father and his wife and my half-brothers, one of them still a baby, out in Alberta and up in the Arctic.  i was a kid who had never been to Moncton, and there i was, more than half a country away from home, with people i barely knew.  and i was homesick and happy both, thrilled to be spending time with my father, unsure of how to fit in to their family dynamic.  i coped, so goes family legend, by torturing my father and very patient stepmother with loud, multi-verse renditions of “The Rose” in all its glorious emotive sentimentality.  if it came on the radio, i begged to have it turned up…and i remember dancing by myself to it in their living room one afternoon, them laughing from the kitchen.  kindly.

but no one’s ever danced with me to “The Rose.”  ever swayed through it with me, hand on my back, while secretly in my head i sang the words at the top of my lungs, Bette Midler’s doppelganger.   until last night, when my grandfather stepped in and did what i only realized in the moment that i wish my father had done twenty-five years ago, just once.  and it was lovely, without bitterness, because i felt ten all over again in that moment, like a little girl and a lady all in one, a little girl being taught to waltz.

my grandfather is, in his own words, fading.  he couldn’t keep up to the faster beats at the Ball this year, and i could tell, by the fireman's ballend, that even during the slow songs he was starting to hurt.  but it was me who finally called it a night, dragged him out of there.  he is an old soldier, a never give-up, never turn down a good time kind of man.

there is a line in “The Rose” that pronounces, “it’s the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live.”  when they sang that, last night, as i waltzed with my my grandfather, he turned his head and winked at me.  and i felt a bit like Cinderella, dancing with a Prince.