My grandmother, Ruby, used to tell me her story of falling in love with my grandfather, Roy. They attended the same school in Palacios, Texas.
My grandmother lived on a ranch and spent her days near her father working cattle and riding her horse. My grandfather (who lived in the same house that I spent much of my life) rode his bike to and from the school he attended with my Grandmother. She thought he was smashing and would secretly watch him from the window as he rode away each day. Grandpa told me later that he took notice of her when she was atop a wagon at a hayride. He noticed her, elbowed one of his friends and pointed, “See that girl? I’m gonna marry her.”
But marrying grandma was not as simple as making the decision to marry her. She was a fair woman. If two men asked her out on the same Saturday night, she would inform them that she would be going out with whoever arrived first. Her blue eyes would twinkle as she looked at me during this part of the story and say, “One evening, they got here at the same time and raced their cars down the road. I secretly wanted one to win, but he didn’t, so I still went with the other.”
Grandpa had his own challenges in dating Grandma. He loved this new girl he was dating. He also loved to dance. And Grandma was of the variety of good Christian girls who was not allowed to dance. So, they came up with a clever solution: Grandpa would arrive early, pick up Grandma for a proper dinner, drop her off, and go down the road to pick up her best friend to take dancing. Somehow, this worked.
When Grandpa was 1 out of 3 boys chosen for the first draft in their county, he and Grandma stepped up their game with a simple wedding ceremony. He would serve first as a rifle instructor in basic training, later send a despondent letter that he was “going past the floating seaweed” and couldn’t tell her where he was headed but she mustn’t worry.
She saved every letter, even the one from my Great-Grandfather Carl Sr. who attempted to comfort her by writing “that “Backen men were hard to kill” and he was sure Grandpa would live through the bullet that found him on the banks of Sicily. Grandpa returned home with a Purple Heart, a life-long limp, and reoccurring bouts of nightmares.
I heard all of these stories while attending a ballroom dance class in college where swing dancing played a starring role. Every week whenever I began to dance, this spunky, sparkling-eyed girl named Lila kept popping into my head. And this very short boy named Trey.
A few years later, I told their story to my friend Valerie while looking for ideas to write for that year’s round of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). “Write that one,” she said.
Swing was my ‘fling novel.’ I drafted it in 30 days, finishing it up at my parents’ house right before midnight on November 30th as my foster brothers wrestled with Christmas lights on the front porch. Though I didn’t base the characters off of my grandparents, I didn’t realize until my sister pointed it out out, that many elements of their lives found its way into the pages: the central conflict of a budding young romance between Trey and Lila stunted by rules against dancing and Dave’s struggle with post-war PTSD may have acted as a spring-board into the story.
When I published it, I expected it to be a filler book, something to build up my backlog while I worked on my longer series. I had no idea that it would become one of my most popular books and Lila would, hands down, become a favorite and beloved character among many of my readers. She still lives in my head and gets giddy whenever we read the reviews. Despite her eyes being brown, they sparkle a lot like my grandmother Ruby’s did.
Guess what? Today, marks the 8th anniversary of “Swing’s” official entry into the published world. I can’t believe it either. To celebrate, I am releasing an dramatized audio clip that I collaborated on with my friend David, when I was much younger than I am now. Enjoy listening to the misadventures of Lila and Tray.