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Your Turn: Quakertown Church and memories of a simpler time

When I grew up in Old Mystic in the 1950s, my family attended a former meetinghouse in Ledyard founded by the Rogerene Quakers in the 18th century.

Both of my parents had descended from Rogerene followers and both were born at home in Ledyard in the early 1920s. Over time, religious practices at Quakertown changed from their simpler early belief of a God within each of us to a “church” that was more evangelical and fundamental. For a kid, the best part of attending Quakertown Church was that Christmas was a cause for an exuberant celebration.

Sometime in the early 20th century, the weekly worship service had become mainly music and lots of “praising” with people jumping up spontaneously to shout, “Praise the Lord!” They would mention the sick and needy during the praising and ask for blessings. Some people, overtaken by the Holy Spirit, rolled on the floor in the center aisle while speaking in tongues, a nonsensical language (to a child’s ear) over which the speaker supposedly has no control. For me, it seemed like a curious venting of adult emotion. These were folks who had disavowed dancing, smoking and sinning in general but this rave effect on Sunday morning was allowed. Kids didn’t speak this language but grownups appeared to feel better after the attack of tongues subsided. When they got back to their seats, often with assistance, they would be smiling and perspiring.

At Christmastime kids could have fun, too. There were trees laced with paper chains and ropes strung with cranberries and popcorn at the front of the church. Choirs and soloists sang carols backed up by an entire orchestra, two pianos and an organ. Children performed pageants and recited poems. In 1950, my grandmother inscribed the poem that I had to learn for the Christmas Eve service on the back of an empty greeting card box. Nothing went to waste in those days. She wrote it out in longhand and, because I couldn’t read at age four, she spoke each line for me to repeat after her until I could recite the whole thing. I still remember the first two lines:

“The nicest gift the world has known was just a little boy.
He came from Heaven down to earth to bring us love and joy.”

I see myself standing in front of the congregation that night amid twinkling colored lights next to a huge evergreen tree decorated with many small boxes of red and green hard candies, each box tied to the tree with ribbon. After my recitation, all the other kids came forward to receive a box of candy and a fresh orange. Our behavior was almost angelic in this high-stakes situation: God, Jesus and Santa Claus were all watching.

I remember my parents, Bob and Estella Whipple, as generous – especially at Christmas. Beginning in the 1940s, they owned and operated nursing homes in Mystic and Old Mystic and a holiday tradition was a huge party for the patients, staff and family members.

Santa Claus always showed up at a surprising moment in proximity to a real or makeshift fireplace and sometimes there was entertainment like a one-man band or watching Hop-a-Long Cassidy on eight-millimeter film. Everyone received a gift.

After the Quakertown church service on Christmas Eve, we went home to carry out deliveries of Christmas baskets, filled by my mother and grandmother, all over town by car. Sometimes it snowed and we saw trees festooned with snowflakes in the headlights. We would arrive at houses that were mostly dark except for perhaps a small light in one window.

My father, in his best suit, wool overcoat and gray felt fedora hat, would heft up to the front door a huge wicker basket filled with fruit, presents with notes from Santa, chocolates, and perhaps a whole chicken or a turkey. My brothers and I would stay in the car and see the door of the house open slowly, then people rushing from inside with arms outstretched, and a collision of happy voices.

It was usually a quick drop-off and then on to the next house. My father never seemed comfortable to stay very long. He liked to give but he had difficulty receiving.

Recently, I found the small cardboard box on which my grandmother had transcribed the poem I had to recite long ago. My mother saved everything, and after she died I found it in a chest of drawers along with an envelope containing two of my baby teeth.

I hadn’t seen this box with my grandmother’s careful handwriting on the back in more than 60 years, but I recognized the sentiment. The rest of the poem said:

“His coming made us all so glad
that on this natal day,
We try our best to honor him
by giving things away.”

Based on all the things I eventually found in my mother’s house, she clearly saved more than she gave away. Thankfully, she kept this poignant reminder of a tender time that first introduced me to an authentic, generous way to celebrate Christmas.

I enjoy my memories of Quakertown Church with its simplicity, generosity and impassioned moments of frenzy. I love the fact that we children were made to recite poetry. I think of the twinkling lights of Quakertown Church at Christmas as a beacon of another time and I’m grateful for all I can remember.

Ruth W. Crocker is a freelance writer and author living in Mystic. Visit her website at ruthwcrocker.com.

Your Turn is a chance for Times readers to submit stories and commentary. To submit, email times@theday.com.

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