where wildly different is perfectly normal
Poor Ma Ingalls
Poor Ma Ingalls

Poor Ma Ingalls

I blame Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I grew up on the Little House on the Prairie series, and it’s influenced my life in subtle ways; I see it most often in August or so. Mid to late summer, the cicadas are buzzing, the sun is gloriously hot…and ya gotta make hay while the sun shines. Winter is coming and we have to seal all the cracks in the cabin with leaves and mud and secure them with large rocks hauled from the fields. It’s time to start storing food for the winter to come; time to butcher hogs and smoke venison and fill the house with staples, for you never know when a storm will come barreling out of the northwest, catching you by surprise and freezing you into a pioneercicle without notice.

Never mind that I live minutes from a large mall and several supermarkets, have eleventy billion weather apps on my miracle of a phone and a NOAA weather radio, have central a/c and heat, running water and flushing toilets (Blessed Be and a moment of respectful and appreciative silence for flushing toilets), and have no idea how to butcher a hog…that time of year grabs me in the prep center of my brain every year. Winter? I’m mentally reviewing how to twist hay and grind wheat in a hand-cranked coffee mill. I have a shiny new furnace and can’t eat wheat, so… Come spring I feel a pull to spring clean my house inside and out, and thankfully have managed to ignore that pull, because that’s just nuts.

If I’d grown up reading the Harry Potter series, I’d be pissy every summer that my owl didn’t show again. Actually, I am a little put out that my owl still hasn’t shown up.

As a kid, I always thought it would be kinda fun living back in the pioneer days. A simpler, more grounded life. But once puberty hit, with all the irrational irritability and screaming cramps monthly fun that accompanies it, I was less enthusiastic, and when kids entered the picture I came to my senses and was all “f*ck that,  hail the Diaper Genie and Huggies.” I’d love to read those books rewritten from Ma’s point of view. Late summer I’m sure she was at the end of her fraying rope. God knows I would have been at the end of my fraying rope all times of the year…kinda like now, but without the beloved indoor plumbing.

<wavy lines from the imagination machine…>

Late summer, prairie. Hotter’n blazes. Long sleeved, high necked, to-the-floor dresses that you made yourself. Oh, and a full length apron, because good lord do not stain that dress; there is no Tide Stain Stick in the 1870s and it is not laundry day. And shoes and stockings and petticoats and good lord how did women just not go on a murderous rampage? Late summer I’m in shorts and T-shirt and barefoot with a lovely breeze through my not-a-dugout house and I still get a bit stabby about life.

So not only did Ma have her regular daily chores, now it’s survive-winter-prep time. Gathering and storing food. Help and support Pa, who conveniently disappears all day every day, leaving her with a passel of brats the kids. Make sure everyone has stockings (darn the heels if you need to, because there is no Costco selling wool socks in August) and petticoats (they double as emergency bandages! and diapers! and maxi-pads!) and one tin cup to share. How many “MA! Mary backwashed her bear meat into the cup again!” arguments did poor Ma have to referee?

And Ma was the ultimate homeschooler because she had no other option. She didn’t insist on the one-room schoolhouse because she couldn’t teach the girls herself, she insisted on it because it was the only time the poor woman could get a breather. Her math lesson for the girls: If Pa is gone from sunup to sundown shocking the wheat or hunting down a deer or butchering a hog or it doesn’t matter it just ends up being more  work for me in the long run, estimate the statistical probability that he will get any tonight; extra credit for determining the the hour at which you darling girls will pass out snoring so you don’t hear us trying to make you a brother again. Reading lesson for the girls: Ma’s hidden profanity-laced lament on the difficulties of life for women in the 1860s. Spelling lesson for the girls: patriarchy, vote, persistence, equality.

I have to believe that Ma was like all moms everywhere. Sometimes, especially in late summer when we’re all kinda sick of everyone being underfoot, surely she just wanted them gone for awhile. I’m sure at some point she told her girls to fill their pockets with honey and go on a bear hunt go outside and play with the inflated hog bladder, just as I’ve told my kids to get the f*ck out and play in traffic get on their bikes and come back when the street lights come on. There is one vast difference, however. MA HAD TO DO THIS ALL STONE.COLD.SOBER. No wine for Caroline.

Dammit Charles, you’re gone all blasted day and come home wanting a hot dinner. It’s so bloody hot in this mud hut that Bambi tartare is a hot dinner; it’s just not cooked because you have no idea how hot it is in here, wearing this dress and this apron and these stockings and shoes and who the hell came up with the idea of petticoats? NO! You have no idea because you’re out all day! Yes, it’s hard work shocking wheat and hunting deer and whatever the hell else you’re doing out there to bring back to me to deal with; it’s hard work in here too, but you don’t also have to keep these little cherubs out of the stove or the Big Slough or the non-flushing outhouse. “GO SORT THE BUTTON BOX” DOESN’T CUT IT ANYMORE, CHARLES!

And then there was winter. Winter, when you couldn’t throw the children outside to go snipe hunting play, when the threat of an unpleasant death set up camp in the lean-to, when cabin fever was a real thing and not just 21st century boredom. How did Ma Ingalls do it? She had several small children, a husband, and an odoriferous bulldog in a cabin the size of most master bedrooms. Again, allow me to remind you of the no indoor plumbing. Also no central heat, no electric lights, no gas appliances. NO WINE. Imma pour a little out for mah homie, Caroline.

Charles, I will trade with you. I will dig out the cows for the third time this blizzard. You stay here and keep the girls out of the wood box while cooking from the dregs of the pantry while damning the darned socks….darning the damned socks… The letter to the folks back home has to be finished today, and I think Carrie is teething. Jack’s stomach is rumbling in a disturbing way, and Mary and Laura both got up on the wrong side of the bed. Oh, and remember to keep a pleasant demeanor the entire time; little pitchers have big ears.

I despise winter with every fiber of my being;  out on the prairie I’m positive I would have ended up being one of those women who went absolutely batshit crazy and had to be hauled back east to a rest home. Winter is nearly over, only now we’re into an isolate-at-home period of time with a tentative end date. Going batshit crazy is still a possibility, but I can’t help but think what Ma Ingalls would think about that.

Really? You have to stay home? With indoor plumbing and central heat and electric lights and endless entertainment for the whole family and the kids can educate themselves and a few months of food stored away and medicine and the ability to not only talk to your extended family and friends but see them on a magic device? Sign me the hell up, buttercup!

And then she’d say, “Charles,” in that quiet and meaningful way of hers, and I’d find myself out in the yard with Pa, picking my own switch.

<wavy lines from the imagination machine…>

Stay home, folks. (Caroline could only wish for a home such as ours). Wash your hands (With water you didn’t have to haul to the house and heat up, with soap you didn’t have to make). Have imaginary conversations with real-yet-fictional characters from history (Without being considered batshit crazy and hauled off to a rest home back east).

Whaddya think?

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