I was twenty-one years old: a ballet teacher, a piano teacher, and working at the antiquarian bookstore where I received my apprenticeship (and not just in books!) from one of the finest women I will ever know. More to the point, I was full-time maid-of-honor to my best friend as she prepared and planned for her June wedding to the worthy Australian who’d won her heart. I little imagined what our coming separation would mean in those endlessly happy days of poring over dress sketches and comparing weaves of linen for the bridesmaids’ gowns and discussing the various virtues of punch recipes with as much seriousness as if the world depended upon our choice. Everything was touched with magic and romance and significance in that time of deeply distilled aliveness; there were no ordinary things or unremarkable days.
I remember sitting cross-legged on Rachel’s bedroom floor, talking until the country night grew grey outside the windows and the whippoorwills gave way to the whistles and coos of bobwhite quail. I remember April picnics wherein we read Browning aloud (E.B., of course) and starred each other’s hair with violets. I remember going to see Sense and Sensibility together in the theatre, and bursting into such a torrent of uncontrollable tears at the end that a stranger several seats over passed me her packet of tissues. (For one who doesn’t cry in public, I did an awful lot of it in those days, and usually because I was happy.)
I remember the way my friend looked at me that last night, the night before she left everything she’d ever known to go and live in Australia with her new husband. The way she clenched my hands and made me promise I’d never marry anyone I couldn’t do the same thing for.
Of course I won’t. (I didn’t, for the record. I would live on the moon with Philip, or at the bottom of a well, or in the heart of the Amazonian wilds (please with a pair of stout boots, though). But I didn’t know him yet, or imagine such a fit for me existed in this world, so it was very much a promise of faith.)
My happy preoccupation with my friend and her wedding existed within the milieu of a wider circle of friendship which had materialized so suddenly and untraceably that even in the midst of our most frenzied activity and merriment, I never lost my awe of it. I still haven’t. It was nothing less than a gift of God, for which I remain most dazedly thankful. Even at this distance—or, perhaps, especially so—the wonder of such warm, youthful companionship still stings my heart awake with joy. I thought I knew how blessed I was then; looking at the world today, with all of its impediments to true connection, I realize I barely dreamed what a gift lay within my hands.
We called ourselves the Crowd, and later the Clan, as a general Celtic mania overspread our ranks. (We even appointed a chieftain, descended from none other than William Wallace himself.) There was always something going on—or, at least, a small clutch of us somewhere plotting something to go on. And no matter what frolics and festivities the weekends held, Thursday night found us unquestioningly in the basement of an old Presbyterian church off the Square of my hometown practicing the jigs and reels and intricate figures of Scottish Country Dancing. We’d discovered it the autumn before at the Highland Games, and consequently descended on the local branch class with more energy than art, and an increasing entourage of younger brothers and sisters. But the good ladies and gentlemen of the Royal Scottish Country Dancing Society welcomed us with open arms, restructuring their entire system to accommodate the population explosion we’d generated within their orderly class. There were socials every month, and balls at Christmas and in May, and we girls were over the moon with the likeness of the thing to the dancing we’d seen in our beloved Jane Austen “bonnet dramas.” (For the uninitiated, Scottish Country Dancing is a close cousin to the English contradancing one sees in all those Regency-era films, with the couples facing one another in long lines, or sets, running the length of the room.) We ragged our hair, and made Empire-waisted gowns, and basically forgot that we were living in the 20th century. Incidentally, if the guys weren’t quite so wildly enthusiastic about the whole Austen connection, I will say that they threw themselves into the spirit of Scottish Dancing with admirable zeal, and on the whole were Thoroughly Good Sports.
At the beginning of 1996, we had several months of classes and a genuine Christmas ball under our belts. Never ones to deny our hearts of any youthful joy, we’d eventually take our dancing into the fields of historic sites, into nursing homes, into the courtyard of our favorite coffee shop, and—get this—to the legendary Tattoo at the Stone Mountain Highland Games, where we danced before a full arena to the wild, sweet accompaniment of the Atlanta Pipe and Drum Corps! But that’s a whole ‘nother story…
(We also danced at each other’s weddings, naturally enough, no fewer than a dozen of which came out of that delightful jumble of mixed company.)
I find it appropriate that my annus mirabilis was a Leap Year, in itself something of a wonder. And there was only one appropriate response to such a happy fact: a party! Drawing from Victorian traditions of feminine forwardness connected with the day (it was actually considered permissible for a woman to propose to a man on Leap Day!), my sister and I plotted an elaborate scheme of dances and tongue-in-cheek games to celebrate the night with our friends. The whole thing was so brilliant we could scarcely believe we’d come up with it—we only hoped our mother could be equally convinced of our inspiration.
I remember distinctly pitching the idea to her, waving my arms about our open-plan dining room and living room in indication of what could be done with the furniture.
“We can slide the table up against the far wall for refreshments, and we can turn the sofa against the plate glass windows, and we can put the harvest table in the den.” I dismissed it with a flick of the wrist. “And all these little side tables and chairs can go…somewhere.”
“We need lots of room for the dancing,” my sister explained.
My mother listened with a look of faint resignation—the same look I’d seen some years before when I’d explained how easily this same space could be converted into a stage, complete with a curtain (“It’ll only take a few nails…”) and seating for the audience.
“Besides,” my sister added with characteristic philosophy, “the next time Leap Year comes around, we’ll all be too old to dance.”
My long-suffering mother sighed. And, just as on that former occasion, she smiled and said “Yes” to the upheaval of her entire house in the name of one of my “ideas.” God bless her for it.
We accordingly dispatched hand-written invitations to a Leap Day party, which were received with eagerness, if not a little puzzlement. Fortunately for our plan, the day fell on a Thursday, a night already sacred to dancing in our set, and it would be easy enough to shift the weekly after-class party from the coffee shop on the Square to our house a few blocks away. Liz and I came up with a set list of dances we knew and dances that just sounded awesome, like “Frost and Snow,” and “Byron’s Strathspey,” and we made dance cards for everyone out of playing cards—the girls’ had long ribbons so they could dangle from the wrist and never be out of reach. We cut hearts from red paper with famous couples’ names on them, then we cut them in half for a fun little partner matching game. Apart from that, it was understood that, on this night, at least, the girls would do all the asking.
I was so excited I almost wished the class away so that we could get home to our party. But, at long last, it was time, and Liz and I raced back to the house just ahead of our guests to make sure that the fire was dancing and the food was on the table. We’d just lit the last candle when, with an explosion of laughter and shedding of coats, the Clan was upon us.
Twenty years later, it still makes my heart glad to look back upon that night and to remember all our young joy. My parents’ house rang with the music of our happiness as we whirled and reeled, laughing our way through the dances, yet still pulling them off with something of their intended beauty. I see couples flying “down the middle and up” of our long, ranch living room, and suddenly my eyes are blurred with tears and there’s a funny burning at the back of my throat. Such a time of sweet intensity and longing and unbounded hope! Goodness knows we all had a lot to learn, and not a one of us came through that season without being scathed in some way by life or love or the ordinary pains of growing up. But how glad I am that I got to do so much of my growing up in company of such fun-loving, noble-hearted, intelligent and altogether interesting young men and women. They gave me so much joy, and I owe them more than I can say.
Liz and I had one last surprise for our friends the night of the Leap Day party: a custom dance that she and I had written especially for the occasion. We set it to the lively ballroom track “Miss Grey” from the Sense and Sensibility soundtrack (arduously spliced in order to make it long enough for an entire set to dance), and it included, among other notable figures, the pretty little move from the film wherein the dancers face one another through a ring of their joined arms. It took some doing to coax fluidity out of the guys with such an unfamiliar step. But, as on other occasions, they were up to it, and once we’d all become comfortable with the figures of the dance, we danced it again and again. And again.
We’d named it, appropriately enough: “Ladies’ Choice.”