Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Laura Ingalls Wilder and Me, Part 2

Today I would like to reminisce about my childhood experiences that made me feel such a strong kinship with Laura Ingalls Wilder.

First of all, when I was four years old, my family moved from Massachusetts to Illinois. I distinctly remember my parents telling me we were going “west where the cowboys and Indians live”. This made me feel like a pioneer—minus the covered wagon, of course. I think we went west to the prairie in a maroon Nash, instead.

Secondly, about the time I was reading the Little House books, my parents and a group of their friends bought an actual “Little House in the Big Woods”. This was a real log cabin built in the 1840s by early settlers, the Root family. It was five or six miles from our home so we kids could ride out to it by ourselves on our bikes. (Those were the days of “free-range children” and we really ranged free.)

This log cabin was surrounded by forest and perched on top of an extremely steep hill that led down to a creek that was very like Plum Creek—mud, leeches and all. I seem to remember that we kids used to cover ourselves in mud and play “Monster from the Black Lagoon”. We also attempted to make “pots” out of the mud like the Indians did. Here are my sister, Carolyn (left) and me (right) playing in the creek in the best “Mary and Laura” tradition. Only without the sunbonnets.

Inside the cabin was a large stone fireplace.  For cooking there was an old-fashioned wood stove.  I think it was quite a challenge for my mother (shown here).  I remember that once we went to the cabin for Thanksgiving and Mom roasted the turkey in this oven. Of course, for us kids, this antique cookstove was as exotic as anything in the Little House books.

One of the things I liked the best about reading Laura’s books were the descriptions of interesting things to eat.  I tried to replicate these every chance I got.  Whenever it would snow, I would boil maple syrup (probably Aunt Jemima’s poor imitation of the real stuff) and pour it on snow. One time, I spotted buttermilk for sale in the grocery store. After Laura’s description of how delicious buttermilk was, I asked Mom to buy some for me. It was one of the great disappointments in my young life. Disgusting. Of course, I also made butter out of cream – I don’t know why I never tried drinking what was left after the cream turned to butter, which I presume was technically “buttermilk”.  After trying that stuff from the store, however, I wasn’t quite as adventurous in my antique culinary endeavors.

Finally, when I reached 8th grade, my teacher was Mrs. Maybelle Hettrick, who had homesteaded as a child in Oklahoma. She was a Pioneer Girl just like Laura! Her father worked in town like Pa, while Maybelle and her mother and siblings lived on the claim. She told us many stories of her childhood, such as the time she met Geronimo, who had been captured and jailed in her town. He put his hand through the bars of his cell and patted Maybelle on her head.  He said his daughter had worn her hair like Maybelle did – in pigtails. Maybelle said that they were always much more frightened of the cowboys than of the Indians. As I recall (although I could be wrong) her mother usually had a gun concealed in her skirts to scare off the cowboys when they rode in the wagon to see her father in town. She also told about the time she, her mother, her infant brother or sister, and a freshly baked apple pie were making the trip into town. They had to drive across a usually shallow river to get there.  There had been more rain than usual and the current was much stronger. The wagon tipped over.  Luckily some men were nearby (I think they might have been surveyors or a crew working on the railroad).  Anyway, they were just around the bend and came to the rescue.  Maybelle said they fished the baby out of the stream. The pie, however, went un-rescued.  Maybelle said she was grief stricken watching that delicious pie float away out of sight.

So between our own Westward Migration, our own “Little House in the Big Woods”, my "Plum Creek" experiences, my antique food experiments, and a real “Pioneer Girl” for a teacher, I grew up feeling very close to Laura Ingalls Wilder indeed.

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