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Gone Dancing

Tom Cardella

Everybody dreams. Few of us realize our dreams. How we deal with that disappointment defines the rest of our lives. That was truer for JoAnne Lerario than for most.

From the time she was a kid and had her first dance lesson, JoAnne dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. If you were born into an Italian family in the South Philadelphia of the 1930s, becoming a Broadway show girl was not considered an option. Dancing had a disreputable reputation. It wasn’t so much prohibited as understood. But the dream wouldn’t die in JoAnne.

She went about the business of living. Did the things she thought she was expected to do. But she was not a conventional girl. The guys she dated had to be good dancers. JoAnne found Larry and made him her permanent dance partner. She raised three kids. But the soundtrack of her life was set to dance music.

As the years went by, JoAnne’s dreams of being a Broadway dancer grew farther away. She still loved to dance. Whether it was at the Officers Club or in her own living room. She developed a style all her own. Loved to wear beautiful hats. Fine hats used to be the trademark of a stylish woman. And then as the American style of dress became increasingly sloppy, hats seemed to be fashionable only on Easter Sunday. But not for JoAnne. She set herself apart with her sense of style. Nobody wore a hat so well as JoAnne, so much so that the kids nicknamed her “Mom-Mom Hats.” She loved her nickname because it made her special. With a tasty Manhattan and wearing a fine hat, JoAnne would hold court. Her filter was not always in place. She was delightfully unpredictable. Even quirky. She earned another nickname, “Auntie Mame.” The lengthy voicemail messages she left us were epic.

JoAnne tried to fit the conventional role of mother and cook, but she wasn’t always successful. She was a good sport. She didn’t mind when I wrote a column many years ago about her failed efforts to make a palatable cup of coffee. JoAnne’s coffee was the secret ingredient that turned Lon Chaney Jr. into the Wolf Man. To be fair to JoAnne, she persisted at trying to improve her cooking. There were, to be sure, failed efforts like the time she cooked a turkey without cleaning it. But she finally came up with some tasty crab cakes to contribute to the Christmas Eve Feast of Seven Fishes. But she had this disarming approach that caused her to warn you before you ate them.

Life hit JoAnne hard as it eventually does all of us. She lost her parents, then her husband and then maybe most heartbreaking of all, her son. The summers in Wildwood were no longer the same. It was then that the love JoAnne had invested in her family was richly rewarded. Her daughters closed ranks around her. It helped, too, that both daughters were married to husbands who were just as devoted. The family would not let the music in JoAnne’s life die.

In 1977, Fred Ebb and John Kander wrote a song for a Martin Scorcese film, NEW YORK NEW YORK. The song was written specifically for Liza Minnelli. Eventually, Frank Sinatra made the song his own. So did JoAnne. No matter when or where that song was played, JoAnne seemed to be there. It didn’t matter the circumstances. It didn’t matter her mood. It didn’t matter that her legs no longer allowed her to dance. As the opening notes of the song played, JoAnne came alive. The beat took over. She was once again young and shapely. Fully capable, at least in her mind, of a leg kick that would’ve made a Rockette proud. I will never hear New York New York again without thinking about her.

The lovely lady who lived with so much regret that you could also feel it … the hat poised at a fashionable angle on her head. Tilted rakishly. A cocktail glass raised elegantly … in tribute to lost dreams and days gone by … an inner sadness that was made bearable through a mutual love of her and her devoted kids. She made any gathering more fun … spinning her tales of growing up … tales of a time when a young girl could dream of being a Broadway dancer … of a life of glamor and style …

JoAnne, they wrote A Chorus Line just for you. You were “one singular sensation.” You graced our lives. Your final days were the way most of us would like to end our lives — at the age of 91 surrounded by the love of your family. The last time I spoke to you, you leaned over to me and whispered, “Tom, I’m well taken care of.”

As my wife said to me, “I prefer to think of my sister as not dead. She’s just gone dancing.”

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