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One hot, humid day in August of 1961
I witnessed a spectacular event; well at least spectacular from my six-year-old perspective. For the first time I saw my mother play. She was then thirty-two-years-old, pregnant with her ninth child, and one year from an untimely death. That I did not perceive her as play was understandable. Since she, like many North American housewives of her era, was overly taxed with gardening, harvesting, preserving, cooking, sewing, knitting, cleaning, child management and other preoccupations of the ideal homemaker.
We had no indoor plumbing. Summer and winter, it was a thirty-meter stroll to the outhouse from the veranda. All water was hauled by bucket from the pump house. Laundering dozens and dozens of diapers, household linen, and clothing was a regular event. In our culture, women changed their day dress and apron for something dressier in which to greet their husbands when they came home dinner. Children were dressed up to show them off. Bed linens were ironed as well as most other clothing. All that is hard to imagine nowadays. Can you remember ever ironing bedsheets or mending socks?
On the day of this story, two of my mother’s sisters were visiting. Together the three of them had assembled a laundry mecca, comprised of two wringer washers, and six galvanized metal washing tubs perched atop sawhorses. This mecca took over the whole kitchen of our Victorian style farmhouse. The steaming laundry tubs intensified the already hot and humid day. Odors of soap, bleach, dirty diapers, and dinner cooking punctuated the air. Between them the three sisters had seventeen children ranging from a few months old to ten years of age. Our soundscape was that of siblings and cousins playing and shouting in and around the washing vessel mandala, grown-ups gossiping and working together stopping now and then to direct a wayward child, washers agitating, and radio chatter and tunes.
The radio was a new thing in our home and these women loved it. Through the steam and chaos sounded the first notes of Twist and Shout. At lightening speed our mothers tore off their aprons, kicked off sodden shoes and danced the twist. Never had I seen such a thing, my mother and aunts twisting up and down on stockinged feet, boisterously singing and laughing. PLAYING!!! I was enthralled. All of us children stopped dead in our play. Who were these creatures we called mother? Where were those serious women always so concerned with our manners and responsibilities?
What I initially experienced as an unbelievable event I now gladly know to be both believable and probable. For the few minutes while Twist and Shout sounded those women enthusiastically eased their domestic burden. Over the years my female ancestors continued to demonstrate how grown ups can play even when there is an awful lot of work to do. I learned from them the harmonizing necessity of being a little silly and lighthearted to keep the burdens of daily life from become enslaving and soul killing. How do you play? Who taught you to play? I am grateful to those women for twisting and shouting and demonstrating the breadth of being fully human.
Twist and Shout lettering.
Accessed July 22, 2021
The rock and roll song Twist and Shout was recorded February 23, 1961. Written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns (later credited as “Bert Russell”) was first recorded by the Top Notes. It did not become a hit in the record charts until it was reworked by the Isley Brothers in 1962. However, The Beatles made it most popular.
In case you want to Twist and Shout watch the following:
Top Notes perform Twist and Shout 1961
Dance Demonstration of the Twist