September 25, 2007 > Book Review
By Robert A. Garfinkle
Dancing Mama: Stories of My Life
By Juliana Richmond
Trafford Publishing; 244 pages; $19.95
I have discovered a delightful memoir that is full of life and breath. San Francisco Bay Area author Juliana Richmond's debut book is about how she has survived the many crises in her life from living through the Depression, World War II, single motherhood, marriages and divorce, remarriage and the tragic death of a husband, and a third loving marriage. All the while her love of ballroom dancing kept her focused on the joys of life.
Most memoirs are too often as dry and uninteresting. That is certainly not the case with Juliana's book. From the opening pages to the last, I found myself turning the pages as if I was reading a great novel told in first person narration. I wanted to know what was going to happen next and how Juliana would overcome the problem.
Her description of the family having to move in with relatives after a flood in 1932 destroyed her childhood home in Sioux City, Iowa and her fears of moving in with these relatives during the Depression together gave me a real feel for that time and place in America's history. Her father sold leather goods and was on the road for weeks at a time, so he was unable to give Juliana the time and attention that a young girl needs from a father. I liked the descriptions of Juliana helping her mother making candy to give to friends for Christmas, because they could not afford to give them other presents. From the description of the effort, I could almost smell the chocolate.
Juliana retells her reactions and feelings when she read about a San Jose State college friend, Darlene, who died in a motel room in a suicide pact with her boyfriend in 1941. Darlene and the man had hooked up a hose to the exhaust of his car. The newspaper said that the song Claire de Lune was still playing on the record player when the motel manager found the lover's bodies. Even today, when Juliana hears that music, she remembers that tragic moment in her life. One of Juliana's life-long friends from childhood days in Dennison, Iowa was Donna Belle Mullenger, better known to all of us as the actress Donna Reed (1921-1986)
Juliana made it through the war years while her husband, Jim, was away at the battlefront. Trying to make a living in the early years of the 1950s, they opened a small store and Juliana baked pies to be sold at the store. Eventually the store failed and after 30 years of marriage that also failed. Single again, Juliana lets us know the fears and struggles of managing a single-parent household in those times. Eventually, she began to get out and go dancing and remarried. Unfortunately, her husband died of cancer and she was on her own again; her children not on their own as well. Her ballroom dancing got her through these tough times of widowhood and it also brought her husband Bert Altmann into her life. They met at a dance club.
At the end of "Dancing Mama", Juliana lets us know that "Writing these stories of this dream has brought them back to me, made me realize that they're all still alive within me and made me look forward to new adventures in this dance that is my life." I certainly recommend this fascinating look into one remarkable woman's life during the last half of the 20th century and let it help guide you through the dance that is your life.