Sometimes I still check the weather for the Wisconsin town where we lived for eight years. I see that the low temperature tonight is -6. Got that? Minus 6. Weather can fool you there. Bright sunshine and glistening snow, a sparkle in the air…? That sparkle is ice crystals. Stay inside and wait for the cloudy days. I remember looking out my kitchen window at night when the snow caught and reflected the moonlight even as the shadows seemed darker. I felt I could have read by the light of the moon. I wasn’t crazy enough to try it though; lamplight by the fire was good enough.
Our daughter Boo used to call that negative weather, an apt name on several levels. A deep breath of that cold air rewarded one with a sharp jab in the lungs. . . and froze the nostrils. To say that the cold became wearying about this time of year is to vastly understate its effect on the psyche.
I led a Brownie Girl Scout troop at the church next to the elementary school. The Jr. Girl Scout troop met at the same time, right after school, so it was a short walk for the girls. Coming up with indoor activities to use up some of their pent-up energy became more challenging each week. They were a congenial group of girls and we decided to plan a combined activity for both groups: we’d hold a Father-Daughter Square Dance.
The other leader found a square dance caller: a farm couple who did this to make some extra money during the winter months. The wife taught the moves while the husband acted as caller and provided the music. We planned refreshments and rounded up big brothers to come and dance with any girls whose dads weren’t able to attend. I made my own little Brownie, Pogo, a special outfit: a blue gingham dress and bonnet like Laura Ingalls Wilder might have worn. It didn’t take long for the dance to grow into a much-anticipated event for the girls. A date with daddy!
The temperatures on the appointed evening chilled to the marrow, cold even by Wisconsin standards; I believe it was -30. The snow crunched beneath our boots as we trudged from car to fellowship hall, unloading the refreshments and decorations. By the time the girls and their dads began arriving, everything was in place except the caller and his wife. No word from them.
A few games–Duck, Duck, Goose and Strut, Miss Lucy— entertained the girls for about thirty minutes. The fathers stood around the punch bowl, introducing themselves to each other. The other leader and I led the games with smiling faces even as we watched the door anxiously and shot each other questioning looks. The caller was bringing the equipment, the music, and the talent. We had no Plan B.
A blast of cold wind swept through the room when the swinging double doors opened to reveal, not the expected caller, but a uniformed police officer. He walked over to the group of dads and asked which one of them was in charge. The men pointed silently to the two of us. We walked to the corner of the room with the cop where he explained that he had stopped a car for speeding and the driver had said he was on his way to a church function where he was supposed to be the entertainment. The policeman said he wanted to make sure because the story had sounded implausible. We assured him that the man was exactly what he professed to be.
The officer, still looking dubious, went out to the parking lot and returned with a tall, slim, slightly stooped man in overalls and a flannel shirt, followed a blond little girl about the age of my Brownies and a boy of perhaps 11. The children were thin and solemn. They carried a small record player and a stack of 33rpm records.
The man introduced himself to the two of us and apologized profusely. “We had to milk the cows before we could leave. It takes longer when it’s cold like this,” he told us, “and my wife is feeling bad and couldn’t help. Don’t worry though. . . I can call and teach too and I’ll stay the full time we agreed on.”
Within minutes he had the group in a circle, explaining instructions like “allemande left” and “promenade right” which didn’t bring out much hidden talent, but did evoke much merriment. Learning “Swing your partner” and “Grand Left and Right” to take the inner and outer circles in opposing directions was easier and threw the evening as well as the dancers officially into full swing.
The other leader, also named Mary, and I couldn’t escape a feeling of unease; something didn’t feel right. The boy would disappear, leaving the little girl to operate the music for her daddy, then the boy would return and whisper something to his dad. A few minutes later we’d see the little girl slipping quietly through the swinging doors, only to return to whisper urgently in her father’s ear as he called the dances.
Finally the man asked would we mind if he took a little break so he could go outside and check on his wife. His wife? We’d had no idea that someone had been outside in that subzero darkness all this time.
“Please, “we urged, “have her come inside. She can sit in the kitchen, she can lie down on a pew… bring her in to get warm!
He said he didn’t think she’d do that, but he’d ask her. He came back in alone a few minutes later. He shook his head at our questioning looks and came closer, lowering his voice. “She may be having a… miscarriage,” he murmured. “She doesn’t want to come in and disturb the children.”
It was obvious he meant our children; his own children held critical roles in their family drama and carried them out seriously. They’d politely refused the refreshments we offered. They were not there for fun.
We protested as adamantly as we could without letting the dancers overhear us. “We can cancel this,” we insisted to the farmer. “We’ll do it another time. Does she want to go to the hospital? What can we do to help?”
He was adamant in his refusal, insisting that we’d hired him and he was going to honor the commitment. He wasn’t going to disappoint all these little girls. We sensed that the money–$90, as I recall–was very important. Health insurance? No need to ask. We could tell by his reaction there was no way this woman would agree to a hospital visit.
We tried to reassure him that he HAD honored his commitment and had more than earned the payment, but he stubbornly refused to stop.
“I don’t take the pay if I don’t do the full job,” he told us and stepped back up to the microphone.
We were the only two adult women in the building, but the other leader’s husband was a physician and after she whispered the unfolding situation to him, he went outside to assist her however he could. The police officer, inexplicably still hanging around, followed him. The doctor was back in about ten minutes, shrugging his shoulders to us.
“She says this has happened before and she knows what to do. Doesn’t want to go to hospital and won’t come inside. I think she’ll be okay. She’s pretty calm; it’s the cop who is in a panic.”
About 15 minutes later the little girl pulled gently on my arm. “Miss,” she whispered, “my mom says do you have some kind of little container you won’t be needing any more.”
I was confused. Did she need water to drink? She shook her head. “She says it doesn’t need to be very big, but if it had a lid, that would be good.”
Suddenly I realized why the woman was asking for a container and I went into the church kitchen and found a clean cottage cheese container with lid and handed it to the child. She accepted it with that same solemn expression and headed for the door, walking along the wall to be as invisible as possible. My heart literally hurt as I watched the small figure go to serve as midwife for the mother who waited in the Arctic darkness.
The policeman rushed back inside and drew the doctor aside, whispering excitedly. The doctor shook his head and spoke briefly as if trying to reassure the policeman, who looked beyond ragged by then.
“He radioed for an ambulance,” the doctor told us as he returned from another trip outside. “The blood scared him.”
The farmer overheard this exchange and asked urgently, “Can you cancel it? She won’t go!”
But by then flashing lights strobed through glass blocks of the windows. The doctor grabbed his coat again and we took another break so that the man could go to his wife and join the growing tableau in the parking lot. Inside, our scouts and their fathers, except for our two husbands, remained oblivious to what was happening outside. The fathers met friends of their own daughters and, in unspoken pact, seemed to be working overtime to make it an evening to remember.
The farmer came back inside and began calling another dance for the revelers. The doctor whispered to us that he’d sent the ambulance away and would make sure the man wasn’t billed for it. Ironically, the ambulance fee at that time was $90.
At the end of the dance the farmer did accept a cup of punch while his children packed up the equipment. We did not insult him with small talk, but thanked him, quickly paid him his fee and wished them well. The trio did not look back as they headed out for their car and the woman who had waited in the frigid night for over two hours.
To talk of the incident seemed somehow to dishonor the dignity of that family, so we did not speak of it to each other afterwards, but I know that night affected me in ways I still don’t understand. When I hear of young women expecting “push prizes” for childbirth or read of Nadya Suleman’s bizarre story. . . when I hear Congressional arguments about universal health care and how we can’t afford it . . when I hear of blizzards in the midwest or look at the moon on a winter night, I think about that family and what it must have been like driving home on that night: the mother, probably near my own age then, feeling that cottage cheese container in her hands lose its warmth… the father, driving more slowly on the return trip, facing another round of milking and feeding the cows before sunrise . . . the children who would ready themselves for another day at a school where students segregated themselves by whether they were farm kids or town kids: Dirts or Jocks, as they referred to themselves.
It may sound trite to say that we can learn much from one another, but it is true. We can’t always look to Talking Heads and those who make decisions looking through their own filtered lenses. Now and then we need to remind ourselves that there are visceral realities for other people, realities which are very different from our own.
We need to look beyond those shadows and try to read by moonlight.
*Edited and reprinted 1/3/2010