Mississippi Dancing Queen
“Momma? How come my name is so weird?”
“Why would you say it’s weird?” asked my mother, a little sadly.
“Well, no one else has my name and I can never remember how to spell it!”
Momma laughed as she brushed my hair out before bed. “You were named for
your Nana, silly girl! You were named for my momma. She loved you so much in Heaven that when you were born, you had a birthmark on your head where she would kiss babies. Right between your little eyebrows.”
My grandmother, Dona S. Clausen, was born in December of 1918. Nana spent the first decade of her life hating the name given to her at birth – Caldonia Athlee Strahan. Ironically enough, her sister Leo also hated her name and age. Even more uncanny, the courthouse housing their birth certificates burned down from a mysterious cause.
I imagine that summer day had been swelteringly humid, as lower Mississippi usually is. The two sisters would have hurried across town trying to keep skirts and curls intact.
“Hurry!” Leo laughingly tossed back to her baby sister, leading the charge like usual.
As young teenage girls growing up in the early 1930s, they would have near-run through the stoplight town to get to the new courthouse. A new courthouse meant new paperwork which in turn meant new names. It was the glorious age when one could get away with that sort of thing. Caldonia and Leo Strahan became Dona and Nona Strahan. No one was ever quite sure why Leo changed her name also, although she claimed to also adopt Nana’s birth date in order to be younger than her future husband.
As the 1930s drew to a close, Nana graduated from Bay High in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. As with most facts surrounding my grandmother, this too is a mystery. She graduated at the age of 20 rather than the typical 18-year-old. This fact has been speculated upon by my mother, her brother, and sister. She might have taken time off to take care of her parents, Mama and Papa. Another idea is that schools during that time were not as strict about a starting age as they are today.
The changing of names must have symbolized a coming of age for my grandmother. She has always been remembered as a proper Southern lady, wearing her lipstick, baking, and going to church regularly. But there are still a few who remember Dona Strahan as a girl as wild as the bobcats that used to haunt her little riverside town. Like any teenage girl riding the high of flirtation and freedom, Nana dearly loved to attend dances at Keesler Air Force Base.
“Hurry!” Nana shouted back with all the jubilant excitement of her youth to her sullen older sister Leo as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” would begin to play.
“I don’t wanna miss this song, Nona!” And the sisters danced and danced the night away surrounded by soldiers and swinging dresses.
It was around this same time, though the exact date is lost, that Nana met a certain soldier. I like to think that they met at one of the dances and he made her laugh through dance after dance. For a woman I have never gotten the chance to meet, I hope he loved her with all his heart.
“Who do you think that is?” Nana whispered to Leo and Helen.
“I don’t know but he keeps looking at you. Look Helen! Look at her blush!” Leo whispered back, forever teasing her baby sister.
The young soldier was tall, with a dark head of hair and a dark mustache. He would have made his way through the throng of dancing couples to the pretty girl with red lipstick across the room giggling with two women who must be her sisters. If he was wise, he would have been nervous to ask this fierce girl her name. Little did he know the strength of her pride to state that her name was Dona. The name would have rolled around in his head all night as he led her through a swing dance. Her swinging curls and skirts would have highlighted her delighted grin. I have heard that her smile was contagious. After a few months of taking Nana out to dinner and walks and dances, he asked for her hand in marriage despite the growing war tensions. And she in all her young glory said yes and gave him her class ring to wear until they could buy wedding bands.
My heart broke when I learned the tragic end to my grandmother’s first love story. Of course, I knew it would end since this man is not my grandfather, but I had hoped for her sake it would not be quite so painful. The young soldier died before they could marry. We never learned his name or whether he had been going or coming home from the war. A single golden locket is all that remains of this story. The rest of the details are lost to memory and time.
Her story was not always a sad one though. Nana would persevere and eventually meet my grandfather, Charles Julius Clausen, in the 1940s. And so a tale as old as time would begin again. Nana would spend her days working in a small depot in Pearlington, Mississippi, when a tall man would enter her store. She would recognize his commanding booming voice anywhere. This was Charlie, the man who worked on the trains and railways. His was the voice that initially scared her so when she had to connect his calls. She also worked as a Telecom Operator in her depot.
She would see him as he stalked through her little store and carefully dissect everything about him from his calloused hands to the way his eyes quickly observed everything with a calculated intelligence. He would bring his items to the desk to pay and the image of a pretty girl with the beautiful smile would burn in his memory for the rest of the day while he worked on the trains. And she would toss and turn that night remembering the handsome man. There would be a tinge of sadness as she compared him to her soldier, a hint of guilt even. Yet she would know that her soldier would have wanted her to be happy and to live the best life she possibly could. She would shiver despite the oppressive summer heat and smile into her pillow as she rolled their conversation over and over in her head.
“Is that gonna be all for you, sir?” Try as she might to keep her cool, but a blush would stain her cheeks anyways.
“Yes ma’am, that’s it.” His rough voice grated like two boulders smashing into each other as they rolled down a canyon. He must have spent many years shouting over train engines, yet I have been told that the sound could be inspire courage unlike any other.
I can imagine her feeling like a schoolgirl again and burying her face to stifle her giggles. In an interesting turn of events, Charlie would divorce his first wife in order to marry my grandmother, almost twenty years his junior. The two would eventually marry by 1951 and give birth to my uncle in 1952. As tall, dark and handsome as his father, Charles Glenn Clausen became the golden child. In another four years, the raging rebel child, Sarah Kay, would be born, also carrying her father’s height and good looks. Lastly came my sweet momma Karen Lynn, almost a mirror image of Nana. Quite a surprise for everyone, my mother was born eight years after Sarah in April of 1964. Nana would live a long life surrounded by her sisters, husband, children, and eventually, a grandson.
In 1996, my grandmother met her husband Charlie again in Heaven. I imagine she would have entered the pearly gates and found a nice spot to sit while she waited for Leo and Helen to catch up. Of course, she had the very important job of loving me until the world was ripe for my grand entrance.
“Momma, how come I never met Nana?”
“You did.” My mother reassured me while she tucked me into bed. She knew I hated my brother getting anything I didn’t. “We prayed and prayed to God for a little girl. When you were in Heaven waiting to come to us, your Nana loved you. And then you came and I gave you her name.”
“Will I ever see her again?”
“Of course you will. One day we’ll all be in Heaven again. And she will love you and squeeze you and call you George. Now say your prayers so you can go to sleep and have sweet dreams.”
“God bless Daddy. God bless Douglas. God bless Aunt Sarah and Uncle Glenn. God bless my friends. God bless Snoonie. God bless all the angels and saints. God bless Momma. God bless Donna and make her a good girl. Amen.”
“Amen. I love you baby.” Momma kissed my forehead as she stood to leave.
“Love you, Momma.”
I closed my eyes to a vision of a slight beautiful woman with a red smile and swinging skirts. And she swept me off the ground as we swirled and twirled in the fluffy clouds of Heaven. Waiting and watching over my family.
Clausen, Glenn. Personal Interview. Feb. 19-April 5, 2019.
Eshette, Sarah. Personal Interview. Feb.19-April 5, 2019.
Wilson, Karen. Personal Interview. Feb.19-April 5, 2019.