This is Roy French’s annual Christmas memoir.
It is near midnight in late December. I have just returned home from a country schoolhouse. It is a very old building with uneven floors and drafty windows. The doors do not close as tightly as they did 50 years ago when a teacher and children spent time in the building. It is hard to heat, but there is a country warmth about it that causes people to return. It sits back off the road. No other houses are near so there is silence and clearness to the air that makes you breathe it deeply. The stars were resplendent tonight, and their light on the old snow colored it a soft winter gray.
Now in its second life, the building serves as a community center and a place for old friends of rural persuasion to meet and dance every week or so.
Tonight was our Christmas dance, so named because it’s just a few days before the holiday. It was marked by a potluck dinner to enjoy, and the feeling of joy and comfort is still with me at this late hour.
I was drawn to that place by the honesty of the music and the decency of the people, by a little nostalgia and a small measure of melancholy.
Tonight as I came home over frozen country roads, I thought of how our lives intertwine with old friends and new friends, the coming and going, how we square-danced, hand over hand, a hand on a shoulder or an arm around a waist. In our closeness we all found a certain fellowship and comfort – comfort akin to that of old familiar quilts.
One time years ago, a scholar asked me, “Why do people move?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, “From house to house, from job to job?” She repeated, “What makes you move?” and left me to ponder the question. It frustrated me. But now 20 years later, I have distilled the thought a thousand times. One word that most often comes to mind is emotion. Emotion makes us move. The emotion of melancholy moves me to find a comfort in others, to reach for a hand to dance with. Joy moves us toward one another. To appliqué a hand on hand, then turn about and stitch together a friendship. There is an emotion in the Christmas season that moves us all in the expression of peace and goodwill.
My aunt quilted. She was moved to quilt by the war. While her beloved husband was halfway round the world, far from the house by the creek, she was moved by the emotion of loneliness. In the evening, after feeding the lambs, she cut and pieced and made patterns by the light of a kerosene lamp. She put those patterns together – block by block with the corners always touching. She moved the needle nine stitches to the inch, quilting, quilting until emotion was satisfied and she slept.
Square-dancing and old quilts have a lot in common. I imagine if one could see the dancers from above, there would be a pattern in the tracings of the feet as they step and turn, again and again – a kaleidoscope of patterns of the floor boards. Hand over hand in a grand right and left, the Texas star, eight hands round, four couples spinning, a symmetry of repeated forms set to lively music. The color of shirts and skirts and boots and shoes within the borders of the room make the patterns form and reform like the patterns of our lives, with the corners always touching. I realized again that square dances and old quilts are closely related.
I was home now. Before going in, I stood there in the winter night at the end of a very good evening with a feeling all my good gifts were in place. I had square-danced the evening away, and my aunt’s old quilt was waiting on the bed. These are my winter comforts, and I moved from one to the other.
Roy French of Virginia, Illinois, 85, has contributed a Christmas memoir to Illinois Times every year for many years. He may be contacted at P.O. Box 133, Virginia, IL, 62691.