Iowa Writes

from “That Glorious Time of Old”

Squeezed together on the hard wooden benches in the meeting room of the country schoolhouse, we sang Christmas carols, a slow, modal sound echoing off the plain pine walls. It came upon the midnight clear. Outside, the storm cocooned us in snow, the flakes swirling through the darkness, covering the horses at the hitching post. It was the night of the Christmas program in my neighborhood, a rural Iowa community where I am one of the few “English,” or non-Amish. Several families were delayed, their sleighs inching over waist-high drifts. Mahlon, the minister, kept us singing, his hand moving up and down with a steady rhythm. That glorious song of old.

Then some older boys extinguished the kerosene lanterns hanging from the ceiling hooks. Our voices hushed. A chorus of young voices arose from the basement steps, the notes pure and clear. Thirteen Amish children and their teacher—who couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old—wound through the meeting room. Each child carried a single white candle, the light glowing in the darkness. With angels bending near the earth.

The candles were snuffed, the lanterns re-lit, and the children went into a sing-song rhyming recitation of a poem dedicated to “Grandma.” Just one grandma? I thought. There have to be others here. The room was packed with older women, their shawls draped over their shoulders, their white hair pulled back into buns. But when the poem was finished, just one grandma stood up and bowed. She was the ancestor of all the children, these siblings and cousins smiling out at us with the same grin that swept across the old woman’s face.

About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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Mary Swander's most recent work is a book of non-fiction entitled The Desert Pilgrim (Viking). She is a Distinguished Professor of English at Iowa State University and lives in Ames and Kalona, IA, where she raises ducks and geese and a large organic vegetable garden. “That Glorious Time of Old” can be found in the anthology In the Middle of the Middle West: Literary Nonfiction from the Heartland, edited by Becky Bradway (Indiana University Press).

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on March 12, 2007

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