One of the pleasures of parenthood is rediscovering your favorite books of childhood with your own children. The Bean-girl and I have started the “Little House on the Prairie” series; the other week we finished the first book, “Little House in the Big Woods,” and are already several chapters into the second book, “Little House on the Prairie.”
It’s strange, re-reading these novels aloud. I remembered the description of a pig butchering, the scene where Laura and Mary use a blown-up pig bladder as a ball (toy stores being in scarce supply at the time); the scenes of Pa fiddling at night and the cozy warmth of the log house in the deep snow. Bean-girl loves these adventures, too. She laughs and her eyes widen when Ma and Laura face a bear, and when Grandpa Ingalls is chased by a panther. She identifies with Laura, of course, a little girl not much older than the Bean-girl herself when the series starts. But reading with adult eyes, I wonder now about Ma. I wonder—how did she do it? How did she raise those three little girls, all alone during the day in a cabin in the deep woods, miles from town or the nearest neighbor? Today’s suburban stay-at-home moms complain about their isolation—we’ve got nothing on these pioneer gals. And then in the second book, Pa Ingalls uproots the family and takes them even further into the wilderness. They leave a community where extended family—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—lived at least within a wagon-ride distance and could gather together for Christmas and special occasions. But Pa claims that the Wisconsin woods are getting too crowded for his taste and feels the need to move West. The family travels by covered wagon to the great prairies. There is nothing and no one about them—only the tall grasses, the birds singing and flying overhead, the wagon tracks stretching before them and the wilderness all around. Roughing it for weeks with a baby and two preschool-aged children—can you imagine?
And here’s the kicker, the scene that I can’t stop talking about to any adult who will listen. In the middle of the great prairie, miles from civilization, Ma Ingalls stop to do the wash. She washes the children’s petticoats and underpants and dresses. She leaves them to dry flat in the sun. And then she happily irons them. She irons! Hell, my husband and I don’t bother to iron anything and we and our kids have to go out in public every day. Laura Ingalls Wilders describes the scene lovingly—the heating of the irons, the hiss of steam, the smooth pressing of cloth. All for the pleasure of freshly pressed frocks that no one outside the family will even see.
Way to make me feel like a slacker, Ma Ingalls.
There are patchwork remnants of prairie about our house. An overgrown field lies next to our property, just the other side of a little footpath. The field is tall now with grasses higher than my head, with Queen Anne’s lace and red clover and chicory. Wild raspberry bushes grow amidst the weeds near the bottom of the path. Little birds chirp hidden in the grass and then fly out suddenly.
“This is what it must have been like in Laura’s day,” I tell the Bean-girl. “Imagine, the whole country was once nothing but wild meadow just like this.”
My husband and I marvel at the idea, and Bean-girl and her sister Legume ignore us, running free in the golden light.