The new and already occupied house was down the street, around the corner, and on the same side of the canal as our Florida vacation house.
Five years after that and soon after we’d arrived for our usual late winter stay, I noticed the house was vacant. Grass lopped over the sidewalk; overgrown shrubs crowded the house. Inside, the floor was covered with dust and dirt.
On the porch, however, was a box with a USPS label indicating it had been delivered more than a month before. The label included the recipient’s name and address plus that of the sender, a company in Houston, Texas. Fearing someone might steal the box, I carried it home and called the company. They confirmed the box and told me to call a number in nearby Fort Myers.
When I called, the lady who answered became excited, said the box contained books, and that she’d be over the next morning at 10 to pick it up. The car pulled into our driveway at the appointed time and out stepped an elderly lady wearing a hat and a bright flowery ankle length skirt.
She explained the house to which the box had been delivered was owned by a close friend, a movie producer. She’d once used that address because she was there almost constantly babysitting the friend’s two children while he was away on trips. He had since moved away, the reason the house was vacant when the box arrived.
As she watched, I opened the box. The books looked fine despite having been exposed to considerable moisture. When I pulled out a copy and handed it to her, she revealed that the book, Stompin’ At The Savoy, was the story of her life.
Her parents immigrated from Barbados to Harlem in New York. She was born and raised in a tenement across the street from the famous Savoy Ballroom. Barely eight years old, she was already fascinated by dancing. On Saturday nights she’d lie on the fire escape outside her bedroom window watching the shadows of the dancers through the Savoy’s windows and dreaming of when she too would be dancing there.
By age twelve, she’d mastered the swing so well she wanted to demonstrate her talent to the Savoy’s manager who kept ignoring her because of her age. Eventually, he gave in to her persistence only to be so impressed by her dancing that he allowed her to dance at the Savoy without pay until she was old enough to be legally hired.
In time, she was hired on at the Savoy. Soon afterward, she was chosen to be a member of a dance troupe touring the capital cities of South America, an unimaginable experience for someone who’d never been anywhere. That launched her into an exciting lifetime.
Fast forwarding to the present, she said she was still dancing and teaching in both the U.S. and abroad, particularly in Europe. She was, however, disgusted that her age of ninety-three was interfering with everything she wanted to continue doing.
Then apologizing for taking up so much of my time and saying she had other things to do, she autographed the book, said goodbye, and left.
Only afterward did I discover how wide was her fame. By age twenty-one, she’d already become known throughout the world as the “Queen of Swing.” Among her close friends were such greats as Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw. She danced for kings, queens, and presidents, the rich and famous, and hundreds of thousands of avid fans as a performer in shows, on stage, and in motion pictures.
Her name? Norma Miller. She died in Fort Myers in May 2019, six years after her visit with us, and seven months shy of her 100th birthday.
Even now, it’s difficult to believe she was in our living room, that had it not been for my curiosity about a box on the porch of an abandoned house, I never would have met her, or been given an autographed book which revealed her remarkable talent and life.
The lesson is clear. Understand and practice the power of logic, and you’re likely to also experience the illogical, its often unexpected and wonderful counterpoint.
One more thing: If you want or need a lift, read the Wikipedia entry about her, and watch and listen to her on YouTube.
Even in spirit, she’ll likely become a part of your life.