The earliest memory I have of my mother projects a blur of color across the walls of my mind. I am lying on her chest, riding the steady rise and fall of her breath to the rhythm of her heartbeat echoing beneath the warmth of my ear. That memory, as vague and brief as it may be, still blankets my body with a sense of comfort that only the love of a mother can radiate from the mere touch of her skin and the sweet familiarity of her sound and smell.

In the next reel, I’m slightly older, standing at the top of the double stairs leading down into my mother’s home office. My eyes gaze across the room at the red carpet that is ripped in places and is heavily stained. I can see her from behind; her jet black hair is cut into a bob and she leans over a heavy stack of bookwork with unbreakable concentration.

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I would learn to watch her, in just that way, from a distance over the years. She was a captivating specimen to observe.

I remember vividly the curve of her cheekbones and the sharpness of her nose which made her appear fiercely beautiful and strong. Still, the way she glided gracefully throughout the rooms of our house softened her around the edges. If the opportunity was right for impromptu dancing, she would grab whatever small hands were near, pulling us into her world with the excitement of an artist selecting splashes of color for a brand new painting.

My mother’s presence was intoxicating when time would grant the pleasure of having her near. She would cast graceful images all around me, the thrill of her creativity and her passion soaking into the marrow of my tiny bones. When she spoke, her entire body would come alive, her face capturing every emotion as her hands moved along in their own whimsical sign language. She was impossible to ignore.

My mother claims that being a dancer was built into the make up of her soul, her genetic code being responsible for her passion to pursue the art of movement. “I was the child who would never be still,” she would say. “I was always dancing.”

Even as a little girl in her small upstairs corner room, she would dance behind closed doors and upon hardwood floors in a home with a mother who preferred for her daughter to wear lace and handmade dresses and to keep little feet clean for placing into matching white patent leather shoes. Instead of dance classes, her parents would invest in cheerleading and tennis lessons in handmade uniforms.

It wasn’t until my mother was a senior in high school that she found the courage to explore further her passion for dance. Paying for her own tuition with the money she earned from her job at Sears and from babysitting, she started taking classes at Susan Lones School of Dance, where she would hone in on her passion for dancing and develop a routine that would help her to win the talent portion of the Miss Southern Kentucky contest; she delivered her choreography without fail and upon the stage in front of a captivated audience. She fell in love with performance.

My mother would go on to attend Western Kentucky University as a student in the Department of Education. However, at the age of nineteen, Susan Lones offered her the opportunity of a lifetime when she asked my mother to take over her school.

Following a heavy dose of prayer and careful consideration, my mother, after fighting the constraints of a previous generation to marry young and strive solely for a happy family and home, decided to take a chance on herself as a woman. She would go on to build a career upon the very foundation of her passion for dance, her desire to teach, and her love for children. Thus, Martha Sacrey School of Dance was born.

A year later she would marry my dad, Wayne “Mad Dog” Madison, and the following year she would change the name of her business to Martha Madison School of Dance.

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She would go on to birth five children, two of whom passed away only hours after their births as fully-formed babies with a heads full of dark hair.

“They were beautiful,” she would recall years later with so much pain that it seemed to crush her lungs, cutting off her airways and making the words nearly impossible to escape from between her lips.

“When they cried,” she would manage to whisper, “they didn’t sound like babies. It had sounded like birds were chirping in the room.”

I was born in 1978, shortly after the passing of Brandon, the second baby my parents had lost. My mother recalls that during her pregnancy with me, she was experiencing an episode of deep depression. She felt unworthy to be pregnant and the fear of losing another baby was mind-numbing. Naturally, I would become her clingy child who was unable to feel that life could be sustained in her absence.

Even when I went to kindergarten, I would protest being separated from my mother. I tried to drop out of school so that I could spend my days with her as I had always done, watching her from afar as she taught her students how to releve and plie; how to believe in themselves and to strive to be their very best.

I recall the meeting we had had with my principal. Clad in primary colors and sitting in a chair next to my mother, it was explained to me that dropping out of school at the age of six was unreasonable. I would have to somehow separate myself from my mother, replacing the toys in my Snoopy backpack with books, paper and pencils.

Begrudgingly, I went to school, but, being a dreamer by design sharing stark similarities with my mother, I would find ways to cope. I would learn to channel her creativity from the folds of my mind where I had stored in brilliant technicolor my memories of her. From my imagination, I would learn to paint the institutional backdrop of white cinderblock walls melting into the wide tiles of school hallways with stacks of ripped out notebook paper filled with short stories held together by a single silver staple in the top lefthand corner. Writing became my solitude.

Although my teenage years found me striving to push away from my mother – falling into the crevices of teenage angst with a vengeance against authority – I would eventually grow into who I am today, a woman two years from turning forty and a mother of three little girls of my very own. Slowly, as the years have passed, I have begun to allow the release of bits of my mother into my bloodstream from that place where my memories of her have been stored.

Even though my mother floated in and out of my life to put food on the table and a roof over my head, I admired her courage and her strength, even in her absense. I wanted for her. By simply being the woman she was without hesitation, she taught me invaluable, intangible things which have impacted the woman I have become.

She taught me to be passionate without apology. She taught me to be brave. She taught me to believe in myself, even when no-one else would. She taught me what it meant to be a woman aside from being a mother and a wife, and the importance of bringing from my soul something new into the world, delivering it as a gift on stage to others waiting to soak it all in.

I often hear from my mother’s former students about how instrumental she was in their own development into the people they turned out to be. Her impact spanned from the doors of our home to her dancing school which was rebranded a third and final time in 1982 as Dance Arts of Bowling Green.

This year my mother celebrates her 50th year of dance, commemorating that moment at the ripe age of nineteen when she decided to go against the grain of expectation to take a chance on herself to pursue her passion for dancing. Even through the birth of a sixth baby who is now a grown man approaching his thirties, through countless hours of late nights and too much coffee as she sat in front of a sewing machine making costumes, or painting sets in the backyard for an upcoming recital, she has managed with enthusiasm to bring forth into the world the gifts ingrained into the fabric of her design.

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My mother’s former students, spanning across generations and county lines, all claim that the way she looked at them from the first time they stepped foot into her dancing school was enough to form the belief that they were capable of doing anything. Even today, as her hair has whitened and her skin aged as she approaches her 70th birthday this October, her eyes still glisten with that same sense of awe and wonder as she talks about each and every one of them, the progress they have made, and how they have become everything she knew they could be.

I am no exception to the rule. Without her enthusiasm, forgiveness, understanding, love and desire for me to become all that she saw inside of me, I wouldn’t be an ounce of the woman I am today. And, for that, I am truly grateful.