By Lori Jakiela
I do a great Chicken Dance, and a respectable Hokey Pokey, unless I’m on roller skates. I polka, too, but it looks more like a seizure when I really get going. At least that’s what my father, Braddock, Pennsylvania-born and Polish, used to tell me.
“It’s not like you’re being electrocuted,” he’d say. “Relax.” But I never could.
In Braddock, there’s a bridge—the George Westinghouse Bridge. It’s a huge thing, a mountain of concrete stretching over Pittsburgh’s Electric Valley. The Electric Valley is called the Electric Valley because Westinghouse built an electric plant there.
Westinghouse saved many lives by giving people work. Laborers died building the bridge that honors him. Their bodies are still there, in the concrete.
Now, when Pittsburgh people decide to kill themselves, the Westinghouse Bridge is the bridge they often take. There’s not much water underneath, mostly railroad tracks and rock. The backdrop is fire from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thompson Works, one of the few active steel mills in the Pittsburgh area.
“That’s the bridge to take when things get serious,” my mother would say, one of her favorite jokes.
My mother, like my father, was a beautiful dancer. I remember her at family weddings at Olympia Hall in the Electric Valley. My mother, all high heels and swirl, backwards, forwards, never a missed step. I remember my parents together, a pinwheel, more one person than two.
“Don’t overthink it,” my mother would say as she’d try to show me what she knew. But my brain, like my feet, would never cooperate.
“Monkey mind,” the Buddhists call it when thoughts won’t hold still.
[blocktext align=”left”]“Don’t overthink it,” my mother would say as she’d try to show me how to dance.[/blocktext]Poor George Westinghouse. He wanted to do only good in this world. Then someone invented the electric chair and used his AC current to power it. Thomas Edison joked that dying in the electric chair should be dubbed “to be Westinghoused.”
Westinghouse built the town I live in and grew up in, the same town my mother grew up in, and her mother, and so forth.
Most people want to do only good in the world. Most people want to be remembered for that.
On Mother’s Day, I visited my mother’s grave. We had a difficult relationship, my mother and I. Many daughters of fierce mothers will say the same thing. I loved my mother desperately. She loved me desperately, too. We didn’t destroy each other. We came to some kind of peace before she died. That is its own kind of miracle.
But the loss I feel, her absence, is still as palpable as her fingers on my pulse. She was a nurse, so she did that a lot. She’d check my pulse, my breathing, every vital sign. I never had a cold when I was young. I had upper respiratory infections. I did not have a belly button. I had an umbilicus. My mother’s notes for school absences read like entries in the Physician Desk Reference.
Most kids think of the heart as love, something with a smiley face, not something physical, something mortal that can fail.
[blocktext align=”right”]I loved my mother desperately. She loved me desperately, too.[/blocktext]My daughter brought a smiley heart home from school the other day, a gift for me. The heart had paper accordion arms and legs. On the back, there was a message: “Mom you make my heart dance.”
My daughter’s in second grade. She’s just now learning about the heart as an organ, as something fleshy and beating inside her.
“Gross,” she says, and holds her hand to her chest and presses hard, as if she wants to make it stop.
“Don’t overthink it,” my mother would say.
I’m still a terrible dancer. My daughter, who loves Justin Bieber despite Justin Bieber, has tried to teach me the Dougie. We dance together in the kitchen, which was my mother’s kitchen because we live in Trafford now, Westinghouse’s town, in the house I grew up in.
“No, like this,” my daughter says, and giggles when I can’t get it right.
Sometimes my mother would dance alone in the kitchen, a little polka from the sink to the table on Sundays, when the Pittsburgh radio stations would have Polka Hour and Frankie Yankovic would roll out a barrel of fun.
“Now isn’t that happy music?” my mother would say.
The only dance I ever tried to teach my mother was the Hustle. I’m not sure I ever had that right, either, because I was very young in the 70s.
We’d dance to the Bee Gees.
“I don’t take things for granted, because everything feels more fragile,” Robin Gibb said after the death of his brother Andy. “It’s made me wonder about mortality and how long you’ve got somebody in the world.”
What I remember about my mother today: she was beautiful. I miss her.
“Shut up and dance,” she’d say. “Before the song’s over already.”
Lori Jakiela lives in Pittsburgh and is the author of two memoirs—The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious (C&R Press, 2013) and Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette, 2006)—and a poetry collection, Spot The Terrorist (Turning Point, 2012).
Westinghouse Bridge photo via Library of Congress