Wednesday, August 18, 2010

One Little Home in the West

The Prairie Is My Garden by Harvey Dunn

"Father and Sister Mary and I walked to the church thru the beauties of the sunny spring Sundays. I have forgotten what I was taught on those days also. I was only a little girl, you know. But I can still plainly see the grass and the trees and the path winding ahead, flecked with sunshine and shadow and the beautiful golden-hearted daisies scattered all along the way. Ah well! That was years ago and there have been so many changes since then that it would seem such simple things should be forgotten, but at the long last, I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all."

Summer is passing over now. The flowers have all grown leggy. The tomatoes are ripening at a rapid pace. The morning light has a different look, softer and more diffuse. Evenings are coming on a bit faster, a bit cooler. That feeling you have in April, to uncover, open up and empty shelves; to let in the light and breath of summer is being replaced by the desire to stock up, tuck in and hunker down. Too soon the winter winds will howl. Too soon will summer be lost again for another year.

It has been a glorious summer here, hot, sunny, green, the flowers lush. I've enjoyed every minute and really hate to see Summer go. I've spent the season much as I did as a child, letting the days slip by in lazy succession while I drowned myself in books. I found myself rereading The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It's been 35 years since I read them, and my perspective has changed considerably over the years. I was a young woman full of romantic notions then, vastly different from the woman I am now. And as the years pass I find the memories of those long ago days come more often and are twice as sweet.

Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, I've lived in many little houses in the West, and my mind often returns to the ones I loved best. One in particular is very dear to my heart, a little white clapboard house in Loveland, Co. It was 1974 and I was 14. John Denver was on the radio, Nixon was about to be impeached and magazines were filled with quilts and granny square afghans. The "back to the land movement" was at its zenith. Natural was the way to be and live.

The house was old, how old we never knew, but we found postcards in the attic dating to the early 1900's. It was just 2 bedrooms, an oil stove, a pantry made over into a bathroom with a claw foot tub, and a real Wizard of Oz root cellar. Poppies and raspberry canes lined the white picket fence, and the entire backyard was garden. I remember my father coming home to find Mom barefoot and knee deep in mud, a straw hat on her head, pulling bind weed. He said she looked like a Chinese woman at work in her rice paddy.

Mom never conquered the bind weed, but she did cultivate a peach tree. We canned everything from pickles to peaches that fall, and mom carried every dishpan of peelings and pits out to mulch her garden. Hence the tiny peach tree that sprouted the following spring. I can still smell the damp dirt of that root cellar and see the rows of jars on the old crooked shelves. String beans, corn, tomatoes, bread & butter pickles, peaches, pears, applesauce. Jelly jars of raspberry, strawberry, plum and tomato jam. That plum jam was something that dreams are made of, and I have never stopped craving the taste of sweet tomato preserves, ruby red with bits of lemon rind spread on toast. To this day nothing gives me greater pleasure than stocking my pantry. Mom called it my full larder syndrome, some holdover instinct from those long ago days of stocking up in preparation for winter I guess.

It was in the little house on Harrison Street, that I came to know the Ingalls family. I was smitten, entranced. Maybe it was the house. Maybe it was my romantic, impressionable age. Maybe it was the times we were living in. But something about all of it came together in a very special way there when I began to read those books, and it changed me, molded me, impressed me in a way nothing else ever has. I feel as if I've been on one very long journey back to that time and place and girl ever since. Rereading about Laura and her family took me back there to that little white clapboard house at 309 Harrison Street and my years within its walls and those that came immediately after.

We'd left the only neighborhood, home and friends I'd ever known and started life over in a small tightly knit town that had remained nearly unchanged for decades. Change was slow in reaching Loveland, but change was coming and in a big way. Those little front range agricultural based towns with their one block main streets and one local high school, where everyone knew each other and no one ever left and no one new ever moved in, were on the verge of disappearing forever. They would meld into one very large sprawling suburban entity where all bits of individualism were lost, the mom and pop stores became Walmart out on the 4-lane and farmland became rolling hills of cookie cutter homes painted taupe. I nearly wept the last time I saw Berthoud, Colorado. I had always dreamed of owning one of the big turn of the century homes that made up the tiny town square, but it was gone, swallowed up by housing developments and nothing I recalled from those days when I'd attended the livestock auctions with my friend Irene remained.

“I began to think what a wonderful childhood I had had. How I had seen the whole frontier, the woods, the Indian country of the great plains, the frontier towns, the building of railroads in wild, unsettled country, homesteading and farmers coming in to take possession. I realized that I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers, and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American History. That the frontier was gone and agricultural settlements had taken its place when I married a farmer. It seemed to me that my childhood had been much richer and more interesting than that of children today even with all the modern inventions and improvements.”

~Laura Ingalls Wilder, October 16, 1937~

Library's were good friends to me back then. Some of my best book memories come from my loneliest leanest years. Why after years of passing up Laura Ingalls Wilders books, I suddenly decided to give them a try I have no idea. And at what point it went from being a singular experience to my reading them aloud I can't answer either. It just happened. I have never forgotten the night Mom and I stayed up till the early morning hours as I read The Long Winter aloud. We just had to know that Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace made it through all right. Or how we cried at Mary's blindness and the death of Jack the brindle bulldog.

Money was very tight for us, but Mom understood why I just had to have my own copies of the Little House books. I hold those tender paperback copies in my hands now, the covers worn, the pages falling out, each marked $1.50 on the cover, and I remember the nine months or more it took to buy them. Mom tucked those quarters away for me, and we'd make a trip to the bookstore downtown once a month or so for the next book, and then we read them all again. I can even remember catching mom reading them on the sly when I came in from school. I'd find her sitting at the kitchen table, book in hand, wiping tears from behind her glasses.

I don't think I ever really realized how hard my parents were having it financially during those years. I remember good times more than bad. Laughter. Love. Good food. I don't remember wanting for anything. Mom bought a winter coat for me at the old downtown J.C.Penny's and paid on it all summer. That was the first I'd heard of "lay away." I brought that coat home just in time for the first snowfall. (later that coat would be stolen from my locker, but that's another story). Mom and I took trips to collect pine cones, yucca and milkweed pods in the hills, packing sandwiches and our schnauzer, Buttons along with us. Mom spent long days and evenings crafting them into wreaths she sold to pay for new glasses. I picked cherries for a day in the summer of '75 and all I earned was a sunburn so severe I was physically ill. I baby sat for a young mother with two little girls who drove a Volkswagen bug with no heat, her guitar tucked in the back seat. She'd left her husband and gone back to college and I thought she was utterly fascinating. Probably the closest I ever came to a real life hippy. We watched the Watergate hearings on television an lived through the Big Thompson Canyon flood in July of 1976.

My oldest sister, Gloria and her husband Bill, left Colorado for the wilds of Montana to make a living off the land. Bill worked skinning logs and running a small welding business, while Gloria tended goats, rabbits, and a huge vegetable garden. I still remember her Blue Hubbard squash with skin so thick they could break a knife anf her kohlrabi that my mother dubbed Sputniks. She and her chickens worked side by side unearthing grubs and pulling weeds.She baked bread and made butter and grew her hair in braid that reached down her back. I remember her letters home and Mom reading them aloud at the kitchen table. Another sister was living on the plains of Kansas and the third raising a brood in Buena Vista.

Letters were a big deal back then, photos too. Who knew how all that would change? You sat there at the kitchen table, beneath a light bulb buzzing with summer insects or windows blocked with blowing snow and held in your hand those pages filled with a loved one's handwriting, maybe a couple photos too. Phone calls were expensive. There were no cell phones in your back pocket. I can't imagine what the phone bill was then, but I'm sure it never came close to the one I pay today.

Before long the lure of Montana called my parents too, and the next thing I knew we were packing up and leaving that little white house and heading over the Rocky Mountains to a little green house near Hamilton, Montana, that came complete with its own cat. But Montana didn't stick. Dad couldn't find work that paid enough, my parents savings was diminishing and I think Mom and Dad grew fearful they might lose everything. In less than a year we were headed back to Denver. Back to a house in the suburbs. Back to familiar locales. But things were never the same after that. Some dreams died back then I think. The years flew by and Dad was gone by 1989. Mom's gone now too. Rereading the Little House Books I was there again at that kitchen table in Loveland, with zuchini bread and a glass of milk. Buttons asleep in the old blue chair, and plenty of food down cellar in a teacup as Pa Ingalls would say.

Those may have been hard years for my folks and sometimes lonely ones for me, but they were also filled with excitement, promise and adventure. And lots of love. We touched again that pioneering spirit that was not only part of our family heritage but seemed to permeate those times as well. I think back and wonder what in the world my sixty year old parents were thinking uprooting like that. We moved five times in rapid succession and I attended 3 high schools in one year. And then I read about Pa and Ma, Mary and Laura again and I see the American Spirit at work. The looking to better times, to starting fresh, hard work and the rewards it brings. Maybe Mom and Dad were just looking to the simpler times they remembered as farm kids growing up in Minnesota. Simpler times before the world became so very big and full of itself.

I remember those years with great fondness. I was convinced I'd find my own Almanzo Wilder in Montana and end up a ranchers wife. I remember long letters written and received from friends I left behind. I remember being the big city girl in a tiny town where ladies still dressed up to go shopping, no one had heard of John Denver, the Captain and Tennile or feathered hair. There was a lifestyle there that appealed to me. The pioneer spirit was certainly alive and well in places like Hamilton, Montana. Life was about hard honest work, caring for your neighbors and community, value of family. Things that I'd never experienced except in books. There was also a backwardness and distrust of outsiders, the being made to feel odd that was hurtful,. But always there was Mom and Dad, the security of home wherever we were together and it didn't matter where that home was.

They were years filled with an abundance of love and laughter. I was growing up and those times molded me into a woman who would continue to love adventure and suffer wanderlust. That woman who loves parks with evergreens and swings, root cellars, the smell of barns and sheds with dirt floors, old libraries with stain glass windows and real card catalogs. Country fairs, quilts, canning jars, orange cats, picket fences, painted porches, windows you prop open with a stick, wainscoting and squeaky stairs. Maybe there was a me that lived once before, a long time ago, and that's why it felt so right and so familiar in so many ways. I am thankful for those little houses and those days, and I cherish the memories I carry of those late summer days all over the west.

In one of her final Missouri Ruralist columns published on August 1, 1923, Laura expressed her gratitude for the home of her childhood and its love, which still nurtured her as an adult.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old time is still a-flying

And this same flower that smiles today,

Tomorrow will be dying.


“Out in the meadow, I picked a wild sunflower and as I looked into its golden heart such a wave of homesickness came over me that I almost wept. I wanted mother, with her gentle voice and quite firmness; I longed to hear father’s jolly songs and to see his twinkling blue eyes;I was lonesome for the sister with whom I used to play in the meadow picking daisies and wild sunflowers.

Across the years, the old home and its love called to me and memories of sweet words of counsel came flooding back. I realized that all my life the teachings of those early days have influenced me and the example set by father and mother has been something I have tried to follow, with failures here and there, with rebellion at times, but always coming back to it as the compass needle to the star...

...For when tests of character come in later years, strength to the good will not come from the modern improvements or amusements few may have enjoyed, but from the quiet moments and the “still small voices” of the old home.

Nothing can ever take the place of this early home influence and, as it does not depend upon externals, it may be the possession of the poor as well as the rich., a heritage from all fathers and mothers to their children.

The real things of life that are the common possession of us all are the greatest value; worth far more than motor cars or radio outfits; more than lands or money; and our whole store of these wonderful riches maybe revealed to us by such a common, beautiful thing as a wild flower.”


Anonymous said...

Dammit,woman!Ya done made me all misty-eyed. ;)

Seriously though,that was beautiful.

Tigerlily said...

Dear Anonymous. I'm sorry I made you misty-eyed, but thank you so much for reading. I wish I knew who you were so I could be more personal. I'm so glad you liked it.

Anonymous said...

Just a nobody not worth knowing,but keep writing and I'll keep reading.