“No ballet today, Mom, please. I’m going fishing with Mick,” Cici used to beg. Her mother, Arlene taught in her own studio and had pushed Cici into ballet despite her disinterest. Her sister, Shelly had been the ballerina, practicing all the way to toe shoes to become the star of the show, on stage and at home.
When Cici brought Arlene home the downstairs guest bedroom was ready. Cici’s husband, Jeff made sure of it. She got her mother out of the nursing home as quick as she could, putting off the other necessary renovations, for now. Mick and Shelly were on their way, also her son, Alex. Mick was the first to arrive, not princess Shelly, “How is she?” he hugged Cici, shook Jeff’s hand.
Arlene smiled from the recliner, waved her arms summoning Mick, her left arm lower than her right, flopping a bit. Mick hugged her. She looked small as he knelt holding her hand. Shelly arrived in a whirlwind, blowing the door open, swooping to her mother’s side, kissing her lips and shooting a glare at Cici that might’ve split her in two, “Sorry I’m late, so much going on right now with Tom’s job. He’s hardly home now and, of course, today his flight was late.”
“Well, you’re here now,” Cici smiled crossing her arms.
“Look, Mom, I bought you this sweater. This house can be drafty.”
When Alex arrived, Cici set up lunch in the kitchen, autumn squash soup and grilled cheese from the local sandwich shop. She set it all on a tray and brought it out, like her mom used to do for them, then sent her siblings in to help themselves.
Arlene used her right hand on the edge of the table to lower herself into the chair. Her left hand reached out for the table then dropped in her lap.
“Whatever you don’t eat, Mom, we can heat up for dinner,” Cici set the tray in front of her.
“Who’s coming to dinner?”
“No, Mom. Everyone’s here. For lunch.”
Cici watched Arlene adjust her burgundy jacket in a neat line with the edge of her blouse. She’d declined wearing the sweat suit Cici had put out for her, insisting on a jacket and blouse. Arlene had tried pulling her hair back in a barrette, her left arm unable to perform its role. So, Cici brushed her hair back and clipped the barrette in place.
She poured herself some soup, grabbed half a sandwich. Shelly unwrapped a straw and pushed it into Arlene’s peach mango iced tea causing the ice cubes to shift. Arlene picked up the spoon and caught her reflection in its bowl, an inverted image of herself. She smiled noting her burgundy jacket and smoothly brushed hair. Her reflection frowned back at her inverted in the spoon. Always keep a smile, she had told her students at Arlene’s School of Ballet. No matter what happens on stage we always keep a smile. Shelly sipped her iced tea. Alex showed Mick and Jeff pictures of the new black Lab puppy he’d surprised his wife with.
“Don’t you have any fruit, Cici?” Shelly frowned at Arlene’s plate.
“No, Shelly, I don’t. We were about to redo the kitchen, so I was keeping the fridge empty,” Cici tore off a piece of grilled cheese and stuffed it in her mouth.
Arlene bent forward balancing a spoonful of soup to her lips, careful not to slurp, the sweetness of the squash soup, a first taste of fall, her favorite time of year, always a busy time at the ballet studio. She rehearsed with her students for months preparing for the annual recital in December. The studio bustled all week with rehearsal and Saturday afternoons with roles to be assigned, costumes to be measured, combinations to teach.
Cici pulled out her phone to show Mick the ideas she and Jeff were considering for the kitchen remodel.
“I’m not sure Mom will do well with a bunch of construction going on. She’ll need rest,” Shelly sipped her tea.
“We’re not starting it tomorrow, Shelly. She’ll have time to settle in,” Cici tore off another piece of grilled cheese.
Arlene had her students begin at the barre for warm-ups. She called the positions from the corner of the studio: plie’, demi plie’, grand plie’ in first position, arms overhead, rise to demi pointe. Form and poise. It was evident when her students had not practiced and she called them out. Gentle but firm. Ballet is passion. It must be. Or you are wasting my time. Smile. Pat on the back.
“Mom, do you want more soup?” Cici leaned over and touched Arlene’s hand.
“Hmm?” Arlene wished Cici would put herself together. Her gray T-shirt hung loosely and her hair, unstyled, hung in her face. Always keep your hair pulled away from your face, girls always focused, always en pointe. After the Sunday recital in December, the dancers were always invited to Arlene’s home for a reception. She always served hot cocoa and sugar cookies from Leoni’s Bakery on Lancaster Avenue. Each dancer received a pink carnation.
“I’m going to the store to pick up some fruit,” Shelly cleared her dishes and disappeared into the kitchen.
“Mom, did you know Alex got a puppy?” Cici tapped the table near Arlene.
“Hmm,” Arlene sipped the last bit of soup.
“Alex brought the puppy to his friend’s house. They left the dogs at the house while they all went out to dinner. Then they watched the dogs from their phone. They can do that now. The dogs were barking. Then, the older dog unlocked the crate and let the puppy out!”
“Hmm,” Arlene instructed the dancers in her head. They were not en pointe today. They were distracted with untidy hair falling in their faces.
“What do you think of that story, Mom?” Cici tapped the table near Arlene.
“They’re untidy,” Arlene chewed her lip.
“Yes, Mom,” Cici smiled. “Puppies are untidy. I wasn’t sure you were listening.”