Our weather here in North Carolina has been unusually cold this week–lows in the teens– and the forecast is for more of same. The extreme temperatures remind me of the interminable winters we encountered during our years in the Midwest, especially one particular January evening over 25 years ago. I have written about that night’s events before, but tonight the moon is bright and the air is frigid, so it is time to retell the story.
Sometimes I still check the weather in the northern Wisconsin town where we lived when our children were young. 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…? The sparkles are ice crystals. Stay inside and wait for the cloudy days.
I remember looking out my kitchen window many wintry nights when the snow reflected the moonlight through the shadows of the trees. 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 punched 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 and place, right after school, so it was a short walk for the girls. Coming up with indoor activities to use some of their pent-up energy became more challenging each week.
The other leader and I decided to hold a special event for combining both troops: we’d hold a Father-Daughter Square Dance.
The other leader found a square dance caller–a farm couple who did this to make extra money during the winter months. The wife taught the steps while the husband acted as caller and provided the music. We planned refreshments, sent home invitations, and rounded up big brothers to come and dance with any girls without dads. I sewed a special outfit for my own Brownie, Pogo: 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 temperature on the appointed evening was dangerously cold, even by Wisconsin standards. I believe it was minus 30. The icy coating on 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.
A few games–Duck, Duck, Goose and Strut, Miss Lucy— entertained the girls for about thirty minutes while the fathers stood around the punch bowl, talking to each other. The other leader and I led the games with smiling faces even as we watched the door and shot each other questioning looks. The caller was bringing the equipment, the music, and the talent. We had no Plan B.
A draft of frigid air 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 the man’s story was genuine.
The officer, still looking dubious, went out to the parking lot and returned with a tall, bony, slightly stooped man in overalls and a flannel shirt. A blond little girl about the age of my Brownies and a boy of perhaps 11 trailed behind them. 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 brought out more merriment than hidden talent. “Swing your partner” and “Grand Left and Right” to take the inner and outer circles in opposing directions were easier and threw the square dance into full swing.
The other leader and I couldn’t escape feelings 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 intently into 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 because she was feeling bad. His wife? We’d had no idea there was someone outside in that subzero darkness.
“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 had critical roles in their family drama and were taking them seriously. They’d politely refused the refreshments we offered. They were not there for fun.
We pressed as much 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 an emergency room visit.
We reassured him that he HAD honored his commitment and had more than earned the fee, 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 situation to him, he went outside to assist however he could. The police officer, inexplicably still hanging around, followed him. The doctor was back in about ten minutes. He shrugged.
“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 took it solemnly and headed for the door, walking against the wall to be as invisible as possible. My heart literally hurt as I watched the child go to serve as midwife for the mother waiting in the chillingly dangerous temperatures.
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 flashing lights already strobed outside the glass block 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, the scouts and their fathers gathered around the refreshment table, unaware of our tension.
The farmer came back inside and began calling another dance for the revelers. The doctor whispered to us that the ambulance had left and he 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 accepted a cup of punch while his children packed up the equipment. We did not delay him with small talk, but thanked him, paid him quickly, and wished them well. The trio did not look back as they headed to the parking lot where the woman had waited over two hours.
We rarely spoke of it afterwards. The dignity of that family, the events of that night, were not gossip material. It affected me in ways I still don’t understand. When I hear of young women expecting “push prizes” for having babies or read of Nadya Suleman’s bizarre story. . . when I hear Congress argue that we can’t afford health care for everyone . . when I hear of blizzards in the midwest, or see the moon on a deceptively cold night, I think about that family and what it must have been like driving home that evening. The mother, probably near my own age, 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 each other.
It may sound trite to say that we can learn much from one another, but it is true. What seems crystal clear from one perspective may look different when re-examined from another person’s reality.
Perhaps it’s like learning to read by moonlight.