Dancing at Holy Ghost Park
By Susan April
Can’t dance. Never could. First school dance, September, 1969, I tried. Thank God, the lights in the gym were dim. Every boy who asked me ended up shuffling over to a different dance partner, leaving me alone. What was wrong? Were my elbows too jerky? Did my feet trip over themselves? If I had been high, I might not have minded as much, but cold sober I was deathly aware that I couldn’t dance. Even to a nothing band in nowhere Dracut. So I parked myself, like some abandoned lemon of a car, along the back wall, under a raised-up basketball hoop, wooden climbing bars, and the red fire alarm.
New Year’s Resolution, January, 1970: learn to dance. Plan A: watch American Bandstand, Saturdays, at one o’clock: “Hi, this is Dick Clark and this is American Bandstand.” The moves looked simple enough. Plan B: get a step chart. But the library only offered the cha-cha and old-time ballroom dances. Also, could a chart teach me how to keep the beat? I only had Plan A.
Arms: boys’ arms swayed in an easy going way not wildly like in the Jerk or the Swim. Those were ‘60s dances. Hips: boys did not move them so much, but the girls’ hips swayed something fierce. I noticed another thing: they seemed to move in an opposite way—hips move right, arms swing left. Legs: I never figured out how legs were supposed to move.
The girls wore short, tight skirts. If not a tight skirt, then a flitty mini-dress. Flitty enough that at times you could see the tops of their panty hose. Not the waistband top, but the part where the nude nylon upper thigh meets the darker-toned panty. This seemed significant.
So I bought such a dress. Must have stolen the money, but perhaps it was from babysitting. Who knows?
The dress whispered to me from the misses rack, third floor, Bon Marché in Lowell. It was pale blue—the color of the Hope Diamond—and made of velvet. Man, did that dress flit! It had a dropped waist with an extra curvy bottom that resembled an ice skater skirt. When I tried the dress on in the dressing room, it swished like a breeze even when I stood still. Dress practically danced by itself.
Cumnock Hall. Lowell Tech. Spring, 1970. Could have been a Valentine’s Dance or a Spring Mixer. Bring your sweetheart. I was fourteen. I still couldn’t dance, but now I owned the hottest, ice blue dress ever sewn by human hands.
I didn’t need a sweetheart. If I couldn’t dance, the boys wouldn’t mind. At least, that was my thinking.
You had to buy a ticket. Was a dollar. Must have had a dollar because I got in. This was no high school gym. Place was huge and crowded. Could hold 800. At least, that’s how many it held during the Greater Lowell Spelling Bees which were always held there and for which I never qualified.
At this dance, I knew no one. Didn’t think that’d be a problem. In fact, was an advantage. No one would guess I was fourteen and a high school freshman. Because: the dress.
So I walked around the dance floor with flounce and hope. Around and around. But nobody asked me to dance. Because: college kids, for the most part. With dates. Bring a sweetheart.
Perhaps I did look fourteen.
I walked so much I got sweaty. Passed a table lined with red and white Coke cups where older people—professors? chaperones?—were taking money. But I had no money. That dollar was it. I was killer thirsty and went in search of a bubbler. Found an odd, circa. 1950, white porcelain fountain, just outside the bathrooms. Looked harmless enough. If you pressed the handlebar, water would—or should—bubble up gently from the water spigot. Then you could drink.
When I pressed it, a burst of water shot up into my face, my eyes, and all over the front of my blue velvet dress. A guy in a tweed coat with leather buttons laughed. His name had to be Farnum J. Pollard Jr. or something. He was leaning on a wall with a red and white coke cup in his hand. He didn’t offer me his initialed handkerchief or ask if I was all right. I stood there dripping as his date emerged from the ladies. She wore a bell-sleeve, sheath dress in ivory, and looked the spitting image of Ali McGraw. They walked off laughing.
I had a coat. Somewhere. Had to find it and escape this dancing disaster. Did I lay it down on a chair somewhere. What chair? Which wall? I ran around for a long time looking for it and not a single person asked, “Are you okay? Can I help you find something? Are you lost?”
Did they always have fourteen year olds in silly wet dresses tripping over chairs and almost in tears? Was I invisible? I felt stupid. And so alone.
According to Google Maps, it’s a 56 minute, 2.8 mile walk, from Cumnock Hall to Collinsville Center in Dracut where I lived. On Saturday, February 14th, 1970, the temperature was, according to weatherspark.com, between freezing and very cold. It was dark—that I remember.
Coat or no coat, I walked home.
Never wore that dress again.
Gave up watching American Bandstand.
Started to drink.
Didn’t buy the alcohol myself. But my friend Debbie D. did. Seemed she had a hundred ways to obtain it. I simply followed along. One scheme worked like this: Debbie would call Muldoon Liquors claiming to be her mother. I think Muldoon’s went by a different name at the time. Muldoon’s—or whatever it was called—was a package store that delivered.
Mrs. D. (aka Debbie) was having a party. She placed the order over the phone. She’d say deliver it by four o’clock. She’d tell them she’d likely be in the shower then and to set the boxes of booze in the kitchen. She’d leave the door unlocked. The money would be on the table.
When the car came up the drive, we’d go hide in the bathroom and run the shower. Good for a month’s worth of vodka.
Debbie’s father was Belgian. Her mother was Polish. When Debbie got caught at something—I think involving hard drugs—and had to go into rehab, Mrs. D. (the real one) took me under her wing. I no longer was drinking because I had none of Debbie’s chutzpah.
As a substitute daughter, Mrs. D. taught me how to make chrusciki—Polish bow ties or angel wings. They were heavenly sweet and crunchy-delicious. Also, I began to work at the family’s Fish and Chip market. Open only on Fridays. Best haddock in Lowell, bar none.
After I’d mastered the chrusciki, Mrs. D. decided I should learn how to polka. She dragged me to weddings, summer festivals, battles of the polka bands. I tried. I really tried. But I can’t dance. Never could.
Polkas involve moving in circles around the dance floor while jumbling up and down with a stomach full of with food and liquids. My partners—had Mrs. D. paid them?—were nice enough. They ignored my two left feet and green sea-sick look. They literally carried me around on the dance floor. Polkas are odd. You bump into people and they don’t scowl. They like it. They smile and the man slaps you on the rump and says something in Polish.
I’d smile back. What else could I do?
So I bounced and bopped and met other peoples butts. Still, I couldn’t polka. Then, before I knew it, Debbie was out of rehab. She was a new person—no drinking, no drugs. A dutiful daughter. Had a boyfriend, too. Met him in rehab. She took over my spot at the fish market.
I was no longer needed.
My friend Moe. She was the leader of a new group of friends I’d begun to hang with. Girls from the all girls parochial high school where my parents sent me after I let my grades slip in public school. By slip, I mean tried to turn a report card of Fs into Ds by tracing a D over the red F and whiting out the F’s small middle bar. Wish I’d kept that card. What a laugh.
Dracut High was out. Keith Hall was in. Nuns. Mass in the chapel on holy days. But here’s something: Catholic girls can be wild. Soon as school let out, the pleated uniform skirt got stepped out of, rolled into a ball, and kicked into our lockers. Out came the faded blue, bell-bottom jeans. They weren’t bought faded—we had to wash and bleach them until they were right.
If the fabric wore out in a spot, we’d patch it with calico. And the hems had to be frayed. We used manicure scissors and tweezers to do that. My special touch was the circle of cigarette holes I burnt into the bell bottom part, then embroidered with yellow thread: voila! daisies.
The bottom of my jeans was a field of daisies.
We wore Dr. Scholl’s wooden sandals or Jesus sandals of braided leather.
Our purses were fringed.
We wore brown burnished leather belts with brass buckles.
We smoked Marlboros.
Moe showed up with a pack of Gauloises Brunes Non Filters once. I tried, but couldn’t finish one.
We smoked pot.
We hitchhiked to Hampton Beach.
We took the train to Boston and hung out on the Common.
We panhandled and took in a decent amount of change.
Still, I managed to get straight A’s. Because I liked my new Lowell friends. And I really liked Moe.
Moe. Her real name was Maureen, but she hated that. Her last name was Neves.
“That’s an unusual last name,” I said.
“It’s Portuguese,” she said.
“Oh, like near Spain?”
“Christ, no. We’re from Madeira. All the Portuguese in Lowell are from the Azores or Madeira. Don’t you know that? They’re islands. In the Atlantic. Off the coast of Africa.”
I didn’t. I found it fascinating that Moe came from a far away island—so pirate-like and romantic. I’d bug her to tell me about the island of Madeira, but she’d shrug me off and light up a joint.
“God, Susan, you’re so—” She wouldn’t finish the sentence, but blow a circle of smoke into the air. Moe was the only girl I knew who could blow smoke circles.
“If you’re so fascinated,” she said out of the blue one day, “you should come with me to Holy Ghost Park.”
“What? Holy Ghost? Haven’t you ever been to the Stadium?”
“Lowell Stadium where they play football?”
“Yes. Holy Ghost Park is right there.”
“Never knew that. When can we go?”
“I’ll have to ask my dad when’s the next festival. Got to go there during a festival. Otherwise, it’s boring as sin.”
Moe blew a series of smoke circles that rose to the ceiling of her room. Her room! I’d never seen such a filled-with-nifty-stuff place. Candles in wine bottles. Beaded curtains. Dolls from every country. Books on shelves. Hard-covered ones, too, not cheap paperbacks with their front covers torn off like I had to buy at Harvey’s comics-and-X-rated-magazine store.
Moe was an only child. I was one of six.
Moe wore gauzy, plunging neckline, peasant blouses with a bib-style chain mail necklace. She wore make-up and had turquoise rings. Also opals and black onyx. A ring for each finger.
She was a pirate.
I think I was in love with her.
Labor Day weekend, 1971. Moe called me on the phone. I hadn’t seen much of the gang from Keith that summer. Some of us had jobs or got stuck with family crap like babysitting younger brothers. Some of us lived out in the sticks of Dracut.
But Moe had not forgotten me.
“After the Loreto procession this Saturday, there’s a festival at Holy Ghost Park. Want to come?”
Of course. Who could miss that?
“What’s a Loreto procession?” I asked.
Although she was on the phone, I swear I saw smoke rings.
“Just trust me. It’ll be fun.”
Don’t remember how I got there. Didn’t walk. That was too far, even for me. No bus route. Hitchhike? Ask Dad to drive me? I’m puzzled by how I got around before I had my license and a car. Teleportation?
I showed up at 8 p.m. on the dot. The sun was thinking about setting. The place was all lit up with patio lights and sparkly banners. Smoke filled the park. I couldn’t figure why until I saw the line of barbecue grills and smokers. There was a small stage and lots of park benches.
“Olá, Susan. Quanto tempo!” Moe waved to me from the stage area.
“What are you saying?” I cocked my head as I walked towards her.
“It’s Portuguese. You have to a speak it a little or the old ladies will slap you with a program. Just say, Olá. Means hello.”
I turned to a nearby group of ladies in flowery dresses, “Olá. Olá.” I said.
“Don’t overdo it,” Moe laughed.
“And the rest—what you said?”
“Quanto tempo. Means long time no see or how are you?”
“Good to know.”
Moe took me aside. “Listen, after the queen and her court arrives and the dancing starts, it’ll get a bit wild out here.”
I froze. Dancing?
When I say froze, I mean I turned into a tree trunk, my feet became roots, my arms, broken branches about to fall.
“Girl, what is wrong with you?” Moe held my elbow with concern.
“You. Said. Dancing.” I managed to voice.
“Um, yea. What’d you think was going to happen at a Portuguese festival? This is a dance floor.” She pointed to a fifty foot square of asphalt, surrounded by patio lights on poles. “We eat smoked meat, drink wine—it’s okay, even the little kids drink some—and we dance.”
I did not faint because I was a tree. But if a strong wind had come up, I might have pitched over.
“Do you want to sit down?” Moe looked around for an empty bench.
“Não, não quero.” I spoke in perfect Portuguese.
“That’s the damnedest thing,” Moe said. “I thought you didn’t know the language?”
I didn’t. I don’t.
I’ve never been able to explain how that one night, at Holy Ghost Park in Lowell, Massachusetts, I transformed.
Spoke in tongues.
Danced—with the beat and no stepped-on toes.
Ate morcela and smoked eels.
Drank something that might have been wine but tasted like tangerines.
Moe said she never saw me so—lively.
We took a break from dancing and walked over to the dark of the football stadium where we smoked our cigarettes. The old ladies didn’t approve of young ladies smoking. We talked about our families. How different they were. Yet how the same.
Moe grew quiet, then confessed: “I had an older sister once.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Well, she went to New York City. Told no one. Next thing a call comes to our house. She’s dead in a hotel room. She’d hung herself. My family kept it all hush-hush. It was awful.”
“Oh my God. I’m so sorry.”
“My parents won’t talk about her. Won’t let me—or anyone—say her name.”
Moe blew smoke rings that travelled up through the bleachers.
We went back to the dance, but our world had changed.
I was fifteen.
Donny Osmond’s “Go Away Little Girl” charted number one in the Top Forty that September for three weeks in a row.
I didn’t care. I was into the Moody Blues. The Who. The Doors, even though Jim Morrison had died. Pop music was for kids. Dancing, for kids.
That special day at Holy Ghost Park was my last dance. Never tried again. Even at Senior Prom. Especially, at Senior Prom.
Moe and her date sat at our table at Senior Prom. She looked magnificent. He looked like a twerp. The band played Color My World. Over and over again. Maureen Sayer—who went by Maureen and not Moe—also sat at our table. She had a wicked infectious laugh. We girls laughed all night. Moe smuggled in booze we added to the table’s non-alcohol champagne. We were ourselves. For one last time. Even with scowling boyfriends by our side.
Then we graduated.
Life comes at you fast. I never saw Moe, Maureen, or most of the old Keith Hall gang again.
I recently stumbled across Moe’s obituary. So ashamed that I hadn’t kept in touch. Now it was too late. She “proudly declared herself an old hippie, always believing in peace and love and wanting to share goodness with the world,” read the obit. Also this: “She was the only child of the late John Neves.”
Not true. There was another: Moe’s older sister. The ghost of whom may have entered my body one smoky summer evening, long ago.
Moe and her sister are together again.
I hope in a field of daisies.