(Last week, our North Carolina weather went from relatively mild to snow, freezing rain, and plummeting temperatures. The full moon added light, but no warmth. As always, it reminded me of the interminable winters we encountered during our years in the upper Midwest; especially one particular January night some 30 years ago. Our latest bout of weather has prompted me to tell that story once again. My original post went much like this:)
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? Not the windchill, but the actual temperature: minus 6.
Weather can fool you there. Bright sunshine and glistening snow, a sparkle in the air…? Those 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 beyond the shadows of the trees. In fact, it seemed so bright that I could have gone outside and read by the light of the moon, I preferred the lamplight of my own cozy home.
Our daughter Boo used to call that negative weather, an apt name on several levels. A deep breath of that cold air sent a sharp, knifelike pain into the lungs and left the nostrils frozen. 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 neighborhood elementary school. The Jr. Girl Scout troop met at the same time, right after school ended. Coming up with indoor activities to use up some of their pent-up energy became more challenging each week. The two groups were congenial, so we decided to plan a combined activity: 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 couldn’t be present. I made my own little Brownie 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 the windchill 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 and smiled even as we shot each other questioning looks and kept glancing at the outer doors. 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 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 little blond girl about the age of my Brownies and a boy who was perhaps 11. The children were thin and solemn. One carried a small record player and the other, a stack of 33-rpm 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 terms like “allemande left” and “promenade right”. It didn’t bring out much hidden talent on our part, but certainly evoked much merriment. Learning “Swing your partner” and “Grand Left and Right” to take the inner and outer circles in opposing directions was easier and officially threw the evening as well as the dancers 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. When she returned, she’d whisper urgently in her father’s ear as he continued calling 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!”
The man 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 the 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 said firmly 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 needed a container and went into the church kitchen. I 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 heading out to serve as midwife for the mother who waited alone in the Arctic-like night.
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 at that instant, flashing lights strobed through 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, our scouts and their fathers, except for our two husbands, remained oblivious to what was happening out there. The fathers, in an unspoken pact, appeared to be working overtime to make it an evening to remember for their little girls.
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. . . when I hear Congressional arguments about how we can’t afford health care for all. . . when I read 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. I picture the mother, who was 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 herd before sunrise . . .and the children, who would help with chores and ready themselves for another day at a school where students segregated themselves by whether they were farm kids or town kids: Dirts or Jocks. These children would be Dirts.
Other families often have visceral realities so very different from our own, but we see them through our own small lens. Until, that is, we step away from our own warm hearth. . . and learn to read by moonlight.