Memories soar from her like a wind on the wings of the past: memories that light up the faces of a brimming banquet hall at the Boynton Beach Senior Center. Twirling her way through the crowd of clapping retirees and past a pair of dancers entranced in their own mysterious language of movement, Dawn is a musical time machine—the microphone her DeLorean.
A former Miss Florida and Miss United States, Dawn carries a striking presence in any room. A tall, tan blonde with shimmering blue eyes and a radiant smile, she’s the type of girl you’re more apt to spot on a runway than in a senior center.
The majority of her time is devoted to running her talent company and instilling confidence in younger generations. In the evenings, you can find her singing amidst a full-piece band in some of South Florida’s finest venues; but today, she’s reaching out to seniors, “These are the songs my grandmother used to teach me when I was a little girl”, she warmly remarks, “So they’re very special to me.”
Somewhere near the back of the crowd, that same grandmother can’t wait to hear those songs again.
But on the front row, a silver-haired woman wearing a face lined with time gingerly sets aside her walker and takes a seat. She comes here nearly every day now, and she’s been waiting patiently for the young model-turned-singer to take the stage.
Palma knows every word to every song; and in my two hours with her, we go on a journey through the years with Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, and Etta James. Each passing decade reveals more of her story: an 8th grade education, a decade of touring Cincinnati with her husband’s band, and a personal visit from Dr. Henry Heimlich, inventor of the famous Heimlich Maneuver. Many moons ago, Palma saved three lives using his freshly minted technique. “He told me thank you for doing his job.”, she says.
As the opening keys to the 1926 jazz classic “Someone to Watch Over Me” wain from Dawn’s PA, Palma reflects. She isn’t sure how much longer she’ll be around, but she is sure that worrying about it doesn’t much matter.
At 94, you enjoy every day you can.
A glance around the room shows Palma isn’t alone. From front to back, the place is packed with seniors soaking in the emotion pouring from their alluring guest. The usual suspects are here— the retired Navy man with a sideways service cap still topping his noggin, the bridge club girls, laughing, eating cake and sipping coffee; and of course, the passionate dancers still pining away the afternoon in each other’s arms.
Out of the crowd, another elderly woman appears. She’s carrying a kind smile and thick-rimmed glasses. The smile is immediately familiar—this is Dawn’s grandmother. This is Ida.
And as Ida and I take to the dance floor, Dawn’s reason for being here seems crystal clear. Nobody is worried about time today. Nobody is in the future. Right now, with Ella and Dean and Etta and Dawn, we are all in the past. The time-machine has worked.
For the moment, some magic from the past hangs over this place. It engulfs the room in a wave of celebration and memory. Palma is clapping and Ida is dancing. Children of Generation X and Generation Y mingle with children of The Greatest Generation.
The past and present have come together today, and there are smiles all-around at the Boynton Beach Senior Center thanks to Dawn—thanks to one person who took the day off to bring a little magic to this small community of seniors.
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