Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chapter 9: Going to Town

"After the sugar snow had gone, spring came. Birds sang in the leafing hazel bushes along the crooked rail fence. The grass grew green again and the woods were full of wild flowers. Buttercups and violets, thimble flowers and tiny starry grassflowers were everywhere.

Pa said that as soon as he had the crops in, they would all go to town. Laura and Mary could go, too. They were old enough now.

They were very much excited, and next day they tried hard to play going to town. The could not do it very well, because they were not quite sure what a town was like. They knew there was a store in town, but they had never seen a store.

Once Laura and Mary find out they're finally going to town, they spend their days telling their little dolls that they are MUCH to young to go to town. Maybe next year. If they're good. At last the day arrives when Pa says they will go to town tomorrow. Even though it's the middle of the week, Laura and Mary have another bath and afterward Ma puts their hair up in rags.

The next morning the whole family dresses in their best and climbs into the wagon for the long trip into Pepin. There is lots to see in the forest during the spring, but at last the road gets sandy and Laura can see glimpses of blue water through the trees. Then Laura sees Lake Pepin for the first time. It is so big it looks like it goes to the edge of the world. By the shores of the lake sits the town of Pepin, so wonderful Laura can barely breathe.

Pa leaves the wagon at the edge of the lake and ties the horses to each side. Then it is time for the store! It is full of calico, plows, sugar, axes, shoes of all sizes, and everything else in the world! And the most wonderful part of all is when the storekeeper gives Mary and Laura each little candy heart. Laura takes hers home; it is much too pretty to eat.

After a picnic at the lake, Pa goes back to visit with the other farmers at the store, Carrie takes a nap on Ma's lap, and Laura and Mary run up and down the lake shore picking up pretty pebbles. Laura puts so many in her pocket that the seams rip, but Ma can fix it, so the day ends all right after all.

Even to this hardy pioneer, it is a little early for lake sports, especially since the weather has tended towards the rainy/windy side of things. But I had another project that would just fit the bill for this chapter. There is a little "everything" store in town that I've wanted to go to since I first saw it last summer. The problem is that it is always closed; the proprietress got tired of staying down there all the time, so you have to call for an appointment.

"Laura could have looked for weeks and not seen all the things that were in that store. She had not known there were so many things in the world."

In a serendipitous arrangement of circumstances, the same rain that kept me off of any lake also kept the farmer that owns the store out of his fields. So he had nothing better to do than to come down and let me explore his shop. It was a lovely place, full of everything a hardy pioneer might want, and quite a bit a hardy pioneer wouldn't have a clue what to do with. I saw a number of things I could use for Pioneer Immersion Week, but I didn't get them yet (just in case I chicken out).

I did get a couple of inexpensive things for PIW. They had a lovely matching set of easy chairs--only $1.00 each--for the discerning pioneer decorator, and a cordless toaster/roaster oven for only $1.00, too.

There were so many treasures to choose from that I had a hard time making up my mind. But I couldn't take everything home with me! A genuine pioneer is frugal and remembers to save for a rainy day. And around here, there are a LOT of rainy days.

"Pa got enough calico to make Ma a new apron. Ma said, 'Oh, no, Charles, I don't really need it.'
But Pa laughed and said she must pick it out, or he would get her the turkey red piece with the big yellow pattern. Ma smiled and flushed pink, and she picked out a pattern of rosebuds and leaves on a soft, fawn-colored ground."

Besides the Pioneer Immersion Week items, I picked up a bird cage and a wicker handbag for $1.00 each, and a birdwatching sign, also for $1.00 (that was pretty much my price limit!)I also got Laura a jump-rope and a scooter, plus the proprietor gave her a reading pillow.

For my kitchen, I picked up a woven tray, a rolling pin, a cherry-red tea pot, and a mama chicken and two baby chicks. All together, I spent the jaw-dropping total of $15.00. Back in Laura Ingalls Wilder's day, that would have been quite a sum, indeed!

But I have my eye on that wringer, a washboard, a sad iron, a scythe, and a few other things I might need to survive on the frontiers of North Dakota. Maybe I could install that beautiful pump on my kitchen counter so I can have running water in the house.....Just kidding. I actually do have running water--for the moment anyway.

After we finished browsing, I wandered around back and took a few pictures of the spring colors. Such a relief to the eyes after winter. I've learned that you can't appreciate springs until you've been through a real winter. Maybe that's why God sends us so many "winters" in our lives.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Chapter 8: Dance at Grandpa's

"People had begun to come. They were coming on foot through the snowy woods, with their lanterns, and they were driving up to the door in sleds and in wagons. Sleigh bells were jingling all the time.

The big room filled with tall boots and swishing skirts, and ever so many babies were lying in rows on Grandma's bed. Then Pa took his fiddle out of its box and began to play, and all the couples stood in squares on the floor and began to dance when Pa called the figures."

After a wonderful run of maple syrup sap, Grandpa and Grandma decide to celebrate with a dance at their house. Everyone is so excited; Ma will get to wear the special delaine dress she keeps wrapped in tissue paper. Laura and Mary have never been to a dance, so they are filled with anticipation.

The day arrives and they all pile in the wagon for the trip to Grandma and Grandpa's house. Pa helps Grandpa in the woods all day and Ma helps Grandma, Aunt Docia, and Aunt Ruby prepare for the party. At last it is time and Uncle George goes out on the porch and blows his horn to summon the neighbors.

So many people come the house is filled with laughing, shouting guests. Pa plays his fiddle and the crowd dances the complicated patterns of the square dance until they can't dance anymore. Than it is time for maple syrup on snow, and after that a groaning table loaded with pies, cookies, cakes, bread, cold boiled pork, and sour pickles. By that time the syrup is graining and everyone gets a little dish of maple sugar candy to top it all off.

The music and dancing went on and on and before Laura knew it, it was morning and she was waking up in Grandma's bed. Time to go home and take care of the animals, but what a fun, fun time they had to remember!


This week was a perfect juxtaposition for me; I needed to host an end-of-the-year party for my preschoolers and I needed to try square dancing. Voila! Square dancing preschoolers were the answer. Of course, since we had it on a Sunday, other family members were invited, so it wasn't just preschoolers. But we all had one thing in common---we had no idea how to square dance.

The square dance originated in 17th century England with various other European influences. However, it developed so strongly in North America that it is thought of almost wholly as an American dance form. There are two main types of square dance, Traditional and Modern Western. Modern Western is a standardized form where you are expected to be at least functionally proficient with the moves before joining a dance. As it turns out, I'm really more a traditional square dancer.

I went to the local library figuring, "I'm in the country now. There will be a whole section of how-to books on square dancing. Probably some videos and sound tracks, too." There were two books. In the basement. The lovely, helpful librarian had to go down there and fish them out for me. One was a serious tome on the subject. It had phrases such as:

"A caller must be a teacher and a leader, and very capable in both roles. No one can call for a teacher and no one can teach for a caller. Leadership is all-important. You are working with something alive and vibrant; a thing of motion, a constantly changing pattern. The Square Dance has lived and breathed for over three hundred years. It lives and breathes, changes and grows, as does any living organism."

Come again?

Needless to say, the other book was much more help. It had simple "games and mixers" which were just about all we could handle. In all honesty, it turned out they were all we could handle, and then some more complicated routines in the back. Each dance had the page music to go with it, though in retrospect, I should have copied the calls so the caller didn't have to squint over the pianist's shoulder, all stuck back in the corner where no one could hear her. And I could have used a copy of the movements to refer to!

"Aunt Docia and Aunt Ruby helped each other with their corsets. Aunt Docia pulled as hard as she could on Aunt Ruby's corset strings, and then Aunt Docia hung on to the foot of the bed while Aunt Ruby pulled on hers.

'Pull, Ruby, pull!' Aunt Docia said, breathless. 'Pull harder.' So Aunt Ruby braced her feet and pulled harder."

There were no corsets to don, but there was a pleasant, panicked flurry to get ready for the party. Just as Aunt Ruby and Aunt Docia styled their hair, all the ladies had to have appropriate pioneer hairstyles. Sadly, some of us had our pioneer locks chopped off a short time ago due to the fever, so we had to content ourselves with our best approximation.

After the usual preschool preliminaries it was time for our square dance tutorial. I chose the "Irish Washerwoman Mixer" due to its simplicity and the fact it was first in the book. It went like this:

All join hands and go to the middle. (All walk 4 steps to the center of the circle)
And with your big foot keep time to the fiddle. (Stamp foot four times)
And when you get back remember my call. (Take four steps back to place)
Swing on the corner and promenade all. (Each leader swings the partner on the left around, places her on his arm, and promenades around the circle for the chorus)

We would have struggled anyway, but it was made especially challenging by the fact that a large percentage of our group was none to clear on terms like "left" and "counterclockwise". In fact, some of them seemed a little confused about "in a circle", as in our practice couples wandered off in all directions, some of the pairs led by high schoolers! Nevertheless, I felt us least as ready as we were likely to get. Here is a video of our professional-quality performance.....

It didn't go as badly as it could have, and after a few tries, an 'elite' team of eight dancers decided to try the more complicated routine. To the tune of "Turkey in the Straw", we were to perform these movements:

First Pa and Ma go straight uptown, (first couple walk across set to couple #3)
Bring that opposite couple down, bring them down. (first couple walks backward with couple #3 following)
And push them back. (couple #3 walks backward to place with first couple following)
Separate, go round the track, lady go gee, gent go haw (couple #3 steps apart and lets first couple go between them)
Right allemande just Pa and Ma. (when first couple meet back again, they take right hands and turn once)
All swing on the corner like swingin' on a gate. (All swing the lady on the left)
Promenade corners and don't be late. (promenade new partners round the room)

You're supposed to keep this up until everyone has had a turn and you're back with your original partners. If it sounds complicated and hard to follow, that's because it is. Particularly when one must remember whether one is a gentleman or a lady for that particular go-round. Within one try things had devolved into a sort of line dance that very shortly ended in chaos. But everyone enjoyed themselves, so like Laura's somewhat more traditional square dance, it was a resounding success! Here is the video of our second dance. It looks much better on tape than it did in person.

Then it was time for refreshments. We had old-fashioned kettle corn from the microwave, old-fashioned ginger snaps from the bag, chips and salsa for a international flair, old-fashioned apple pie from a box in the freezer, and of course, a piece of maple sugar candy to top it all off. That at least had some faint flavor of authenticity, since it was left over from last week's experiment.

It was fun to try something new, even though it was something I'm absolutely not good at. I have never had grace or flair; my talents lie in a sturdier direction, but no one was worried about how they looked or how they performed. That's the beauty of childhood, and an attitude we lose all to quickly as we age. I enjoyed stepping back into it for a little while. In fact, I was so loosened up that I even had a "Sound of Music" moment in the field out back after the party. You'll have to admit, that's pretty doggone loosened up!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Chapter 7: Sugar Snow

"In the morning the house was warm from the stove, but when Laura looked out of the window she saw that the ground was covered with soft, thick snow. All along the branches of the trees the snow was piled like feathers, and it lay in mounds along the top of the rail fence, and stood up in great, white balls on top of the gate-posts.

Pa came in, shaking the soft snow from his shoulders and stamping it from his boots. "It's a sugar snow," he said.

Laura put her tongue quickly to a little bit of the white snow that lay in a fold of his sleeve. It was nothing but wet on her tongue, like any snow. She was glad that nobody had seen her taste it."

Signs of spring are everywhere in the Big Woods. The sun is shining and the snow has all melted from the yard, leaving a sea of mud. Tomorrow Laura gets to go out and play, but that night a storm blows through and covers everything back up with snow. Pa calls it a "sugar snow", but Laura doesn't know what that means. Pa can't explain at the moment because he is hurrying off to Grandpa's house.

That evening Pa returns with a package and a big wooden bucket. The bucket is full to the brim with maple syrup and the package holds two big cakes of maple sugar, plus two little cakes for Laura and Mary from Pa's pocket. Grandpa has been making maple syrup.

Laura learns that snow this time of year is called a sugar snow because it keeps the trees from leafing out as soon and that means the maple sap will run longer. And THAT means more sap in the buckets and more syrup for the table. Yum!

Maple syrup making is a long-standing family tradition of mine. Of course, I've never actually made any myself, but I am VERY professional at dispatching the results of our Wisconsin relatives' labors. So I expected to be a natural at this chapter.

The snow has actually melted at last, so there would be no snow candy (something I've always wanted to do. That is where you take boiling molasses or maple syrup and drizzle it on the snow to make fine strands of hard candy. Pretty easy, but since there was no snow, I decided to try my hand at maple sugar.

There are no maple trees out here, and the time for tapping them is long since past anyway, so I had to use store-bought maple syrup for my base. If you ask me, that is a lot easier anyway, but considerably more expensive, so I diluted it half and half with plain white sugar syrup.

It was still early in the morning before the prairie wind could really get going, but there was still enough of a breeze to interfere with the fire so I set up on the lee side of the house. There is quite a trick to laying a good fire, and as you can see from the picture, I am an expert.

Once the fire was going, I prepared the sugar mix (should have done that before) while Laura watched the fire. When I came back out, she'd set up a whole hobo camp there and was looking quite disreputable. Her improvements did make things more convenient, though.

Once the fire was going, I set the pot on the bricks and began to stir. And stir and stir and stir and stir. It was rather smokey work, and certain unflattering comparisons were raised that rhyme with "itches", but I chose to rise above those mundane and petty distractions to concentrate on my higher task, that of wondering how long it would take this stuff to boil. Besides, Laura had to take her turn, too, and as you can see, the comparisons were just as applicable.

(You can understand why I never had a career in radio...Stupid mouse voice.)

"The instant the sap is graining, Grandpa jumps to the fire and rakes it all out from beneath the kettle. Then as fast as he can, he ladles the thick syrup into the milk pans that are ready. In the pans the syrup turns to cakes of hard, brown maple sugar."

Once it started to boil I began to worry that it would get too hot. I had never made anything like this before, and I deliberately chose not to look up instructions online---I wanted to do it just from the book this time. Let me tell you, the Little House books are not intended to be recipe books! I knew that crystals should start to form, but when? And what did they look like?

The syrup was bubbling away, constantly being stirred, and I knew enough about candy making to know sugar does certain things at certain temperatures, and you NEVER want to go past the right stage for your candy. But what was the right stage? I never did see any crystals, but when I took some syrup out, it showed signs of hardening as it cooled so I decided it was time.

Laura watched as I poured the thick, bubbling syrup into the muffin cups. I was pretty sure it was going to be hard, but would it have any crystallization like real maple sugar? I had two big variables---did I boil it long enough or too long, and did adding the white sugar syrup change its reaction? After peeking into the fridge every few minutes, the candy was cooled enough and ready to come out.

"Each bit off one little crinkle, and it was sweet. It crumbled in their mouths. It was better even than their Christmas candy."

Wonder of wonders, it actually turned out. Now I can't swear this is the maple sugariest of maple sugars, but it does have crystallization and is curiously addicting. I would definitely say this one was a success. Even though Laura and I smell like we were smoked in Pa's hickory stump now!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chapter 6: Two Big Bears

"The nearest town was far away. Laura and Mary had never seen a town. They had never seen a store. They had never seen even two houses standing together. But they knew that in a town there were many houses, and a store full of candy and calico and other wonderful things--powder, and shot, and salt, and store sugar.

They knew that Pa would trade his furs to the storekeeper for beautiful things from town, and all day they were expecting the presents he would bring them. When the sun sank low above the treetops and no more drops fell from the tips of the icicles they began to watch eagerly for Pa."

The winter is almost over and Pa bundles his fur catch together for the long hike into town. He is carrying so much weight that he has to leave his gun behind. But he plans to walk fast, do his trading quickly, and get back before dark.

But something goes wrong and Pa doesn't return. Time for chores and Pa is still not back. Ma and Laura go out to milk the cow and find her in the barnyard instead of the barn. Ma gives Sukey a slap, only to realize the next moment that it is actually a bear in the barnyard, not Sukey. The bear is just as startled as they are, and they're able to get back to the house in safety.

The next morning Pa is home and is able to tell of his adventures. He was delayed by the wet, heavy snow and got to town late so there were many men in line ahead of him. By the time he finished his trading it was almost sundown, and the last light faded after he'd gone only a mile.

Pa walked by the light of the stars until he reached an open place and saw a big bear in the middle of the road, standing up on its hind legs. Pa tried to scare it, but the bear refused to budge and Pa finally had to attack it with a sturdy tree branch. It was then he discovered the bear was an old, burnt-out tree stub.

How Mary and Laura laugh to hear of Pa's adventures the night before, and how happy Ma and the girls are to have Pa back safely. They love the new fabric Pa has brought for each one to have a beautiful new dress.

Bears are in somewhat short supply in North Dakota these days, and even if they were still here, they'd be Grizzly bears and not friendlier black bears. So bear slapping was definitely out as a possibility, even though I love that in this chapter it is Ma who has the adventure while Pa is out beating shrubbery with a club.

I was interested in the fact that Mary and Laura had never been to town--that they could remember--and the town was only 7 miles away. Granted, this was 7 miles in the thick, dark woods, not on the prairie where you can see til next Tuesday, but still... And that probably meant it had been a long, LONG time since Ma had been to town either. So in sympathy with their lack of transportation, I decided to walk from my house to town.

"Pa said that by starting before sun-up and walking very fast all day he could get home before dark."

The nearest town is only 10 miles away; I can see the town's grain elevator from my house. I've walked longer distances than that before and I wouldn't even have to wade through melting snow to get there. I planned to walk in, rest for a while, and then walk back. Since I had no furs to pack, I brought furry animals, which is almost the same thing. Laura and I left about 6:15 in the morning, not quite still dark, but the sun wasn't up yet and the whole prairie was covered with a soft mist.

I had to return to the house several times to grab items I forgot, including my cell phone---somehow I doubt Pa had that problem. Finally, it was off to Westby, Laura and I walking and the dogs running in circles around us. The sun rose shortly after we left and bathed the prairie in a beautiful light. It was a gorgeous morning and I felt lucky to be out in it. Laura felt whiny.

After about two miles, someone who shall remain anonymous became acutely interested in the physical processes of friction and what happens when you start out on a 10 mile walk in borrowed hiking boots that go past your ankle with paper-thin socks that don't go past your ankle. Mother-love was seriously strained, but I traded socks with this someone because I was wearing lower shoes.

We had walked for a very long way before I remembered one other item I forgot to bring. A roll of Sears Roebuck Catalog. And it would have been nice to have right about then. But we were passing an old, collapsed farm building, so while Laura sat on the rock pile and tried to pretend she didn't exist, I--ahem--admired the scenery on the other side of the building.

When I was finished, I walked along the building to the front where Laura was. I like to poke around in old things, so I was bending down to get a better look at the inside when something, I have no idea what, alerted my senses to a life form in the grass and debris about 8 feet away. It was black. And white. In the same instance this peculiar fact penetrated my brain, I also became aware of a particularly familiar musky smell. From here the two eye-witness accounts vary slightly, but Laura is a flighty person given to exaggeration, so I feel comfortable that my account is the one with greater accuracy.

Calmly, with a voice soft and low as gentle breeze, I told Laura, "Laura, do not be alarmed. There is a skunk. Let us move quickly and quietly to the road." At the same time, I backed in a non-threatening and orderly fashion far enough away from the skunk that I could turn and saunter up to the road.

Laura says, "Mom, I was about to tell you to look at the cat. I didn't even know it was a skunk until I heard you yelling and saw you running away. THEN I ran." A likely story, but since I had to creep down there and retrieve the glove I left in my hasty exit, I think there might be some truth to her version of events.

I'm sure God was blessing us because even though the dogs were running freely through the area and all around the building, they never saw the skunk. If they had, ALL of us would have been very sad, especially those of us engaged in activities that would have prevented hasty retreats.

Laura thought it would have been hilarious if the skunk had sprayed me, but I was at one corner of the house, she was on the large rock in the middle, and the skunk was at the other corner. The maximum effective range for skunk spray is 20 feet, so as you can see from the picture, Laura wouldn't have found it quite so funny if it had actually happened.

Not too long after this, one of my dogs, Anika, ran out of energy. Finley was still determinedly leaping through the fields, but Anika has a health problem and she was finished. I sent out an emergency call on my pioneer cell phone, and not long after my dad showed up to pick her up. Only he brought his Beautiful Border Collie Baby Jackie, so we still had two dogs. SHE had all her energy and we were almost to the main road, so I let her off her leash to get the wiggles out. And how! Afterward she came, collapsed in a small snow pile, and took a snow bath to cool off.

Westby came into full view at last and only 3 miles to go. These were by far the longest miles of the trip. One sad trick of the prairie is to make things look much closer than they are, so even though we could see the finish line so clearly, it still took forever to get there. But all good things must come to an end, and at last we reached our destination.

However, my suffering was not yet over because now I had to endure comments like, "I bet Pa didn't collapse on the couch when he got to town." And the plan to walk back home was cast off without regret. I'm sure Pa would have done the same thing if he had a Bad Knee from an Old Injury.

So in the end, Pa, Ma, and I each had our own wild animal encounters. I guess I'd rather meet a skunk than a bear, but what a choice! I'm feeling much more grateful for modern methods of transportation that allow us to make a trip, without a second's thought, that once was the event of the whole year. I think my Laura is a little more grateful now, too!

Journey's End---Almost!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Chapter 5: Sundays

"Now the winter seemed long. Laura and Mary began to be tired of staying always in the house. Especially on Sundays, the time went so slowly.

Every Sunday Mary and Laura were dressed from the skin out in their best clothes, with fresh ribbons in their hair. They were clean, because the had their baths on Saturday night.

On Sundays Mary and Laura must not run or shout or be noisy in their play. Mary could not sew on her nine-patch quilt, and Laura could not knit on the tiny mittens she was making for Baby Carrie. They might look quietly at their paper dolls, but they must not make anything new for them. They were not allowed to sew on doll clothes, not even with pins."

Sunday is a hard day for Laura to sit still through, especially in the winter. One day, late in the afternoon, she begins running and shouting with Jack. Pa tells her to sit down in a chair, and instead of doing it nicely, Laura cries and kicks the chair with her heels. Pa gathers her in his arms and tells her the story of "Grandpa's Sled and the Pig."

After the story, Laura and Mary lay in bed and listen to Pa play on his fiddle until they fall asleep. In the morning, it is Laura's birthday. She gets her birthday spankings from Pa and 5 little cakes from Ma, one for each year. Mary gives her a new dress she made for Charlotte while Laura thought she was working on her quilt.

I can readily identify both with Laura's frustration on the restraints of Sundays, and her parents' struggles to keep two lively young ladies content and well-behaved until the close of the Sabbath. It is a challenge to make the Sabbath a special day for children, not one just centered on a long list of don'ts. It's not as hard once you reach adulthood and all you want at the end of a long week is to sleep or catch up on some inspirational reading.

I wouldn't want to return to the rigid days described in Pa's story about his father and the pig (very funny!), but I do feel that we've lost some of the specialness about the Sabbath. It's the day God writes us in His daily planner for a whole 24 hours, and that makes it too special to waste on everyday things.

"In the wintertime Pa filled and heaped the washtub with clean snow, and on the cookstove it melted to water, Then close by the warm stove, behind a screen made of a blanket over two chairs, Ma bathed Laura , and then she bathed Mary"

Of course it wouldn't do to be dirty on Sunday, so the whole family took a bath on Saturday night. The lucky one got to go first, but each family had a different hierarchy to decide who that lucky one was. Some washed from the littlest to the biggest. Some from the biggest to the littlest. Some chose to wash from cleanest to dirtiest, and some put the ones that squawked the loudest about it in first place. I would have been firmly in the "Mom always goes first camp."

This particular activity was an easy one for me to do because I have been doing it now and again all winter for various reasons. Sometimes it was because my pump wasn't working and I had to haul water by hand. Lately it's been because the drain pipe of the bathtub wasn't installed correctly and at the moment isn't even hooked up. Whatever the reason, I am an old pro at modern pioneer bathing. Of course, this isn't my only solution to the issue of cleanliness. Most often, I find myself inexplicably in Westby around bath time. Funny thing, that.

I know Pa started the process by filling a large kettle with snow to melt on the stove, but since I have a perfectly nice well, I decided hauling the water in a bucket was enough authenticity for now. My well is just outside the pump house, but the pipe comes through the floor, so I am able to pump my water in comfort. I use "I" loosely, because it is really the electric pump that does the work, but I have to plug it in, so you see I must suffer some.

Then it is inside to heat the water on the stove. While it heats, I can work on warming up the bathroom if the weather is chilly. When the water is nice and hot, I pour it in the "tub", a large storage container I bought to hold my winter gear. After that, I add enough cold water so I don't cook like a lobster. Washing is accomplished by pouring water from a large cup.

After the refreshing bath is completed, the tub is hauled outside and dumped. In pioneer days, if water were in short supply, after everyone in the family had bathed, I would wash the clothes in it, then use it to scrub the floors, then pour it on my garden. I'm glad I don't have to do that, because the water would be solid dirt by the time it got to my plants.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Chapter 4: Christmas

"Christmas was coming.

The little log house was almost buried in snow. Great drifts were banked against the walls and windows, and in the morning when Pa opened the door, there was a wall of snow as high as Laura's head. Pa took the shovel and shoveled it away, and then he shoveled a path to the barn, where the horses and the cows were snug and warm in their stalls.

Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread and rye'n'Injun bread, and Swedish crackers, and a huge pan of baked beans, with salt pork and molasses. She baked vinegar pies and dried-apple pies, and filled a big jar with cookies, and she let Laura and Mary lick the cake spoon."

It's almost Christmas and the little log cabin is full of activity. Uncle Peter, Aunt Eliza, and the cousins are coming to spend the whole of Christmas day, and when they arrive, what fun everyone has. The children play in the snow and the adults get to enjoy each others' company. Everyone finds it hard to sleep Christmas Eve, wondering what Santa would bring them the next morning.

The next morning the children are delighted to find their stockings full of wonderful things. Each child gets a pair of bright red mittens and a stick of peppermint candy. What riches, but Laura gets the best stocking of all, because in it, besides the mittens and candy, is a beautiful rag doll. Laura names her Charlotte.

After Christmas dinner, it's time for the cousins to begin the long trip back to their house. They wrap up in as many layers as they can because they have to ride in an open sled. Ma slips piping hot baked potatoes into their pockets and Aunt Eliza's flatirons go under their feet. On go the blankets, quilts, and buffalo robes, then it's good-bye.

Laura was the happiest of all. Laura had a rag doll. She was a beautiful doll. She had a face of white cloth with black button eyes. A black pencil had made her eyebrows, and her cheeks and her mouth were red with the ink made from pokeberries. Her hair was black yarn that had been knit and raveled, so that it was curly.

Christmas was a lot simpler back in pioneer days. A lot simpler. But I don't think we've gained all that much since then, with our piles of toys (and piles of credit card bills). Imagine how happy you could be if a new pair of homemade mittens was enough to make you that excited! Nobody was complaining, and nobody was tired of their toys the next day and waiting for more. A stick of candy and bright red mittens was just about as wonderful as you could get.

I decided to make a rag doll, a charming Charlotte of my own. The only way the experience could have been worse would have been if I'd had to do it by hand! Making the body of the doll went fairly smoothly; just cut out a gingerbread man shape on steroids, then sew and stuff. I drew the eyebrows, sewed on the buttons, and painted the mouth and cheeks. Frozen strawberry juice (in the absence of pokeberries) did NOT work, so I used acrylic paints. I should have done the face before I sewed the body, but that would have been the easy way, and evidently I had taken a vow against ease for the duration of this project.

After the body, it was time for the dress. The original Charlotte had a dress of pink and blue calico, but since I didn't have any calico of any shade, in true pioneer fashion, I improvised. I took a skirt from my niece's desperately-grasping fingers and carted it home to be sacrificed for art. And sacrificed again, because the first dress I made didn't fit and went in the trash. This was supposed to be a how-to article, but I can pretty much sum it up in one sentence. Buy. A. Pattern. Seriously.

My second dress went better, but at 11:00 last night, I was blearily working away and wishing I'd picked a different project. At last I had the dress finished except for the detail work, and was ready to start on the hair. I used to have a real loom for sewing doll hair, but got rid of it years ago (I'll never use THIS again)and had to improvise with four chopsticks and some duct tape. I don't know how the west was ever won without duct tape. That's probably why it took so long.

Then I had to stop because all the rest of my supplies were at "Mom's Sewing Emporium" in Westby. After a quick shopping trip this morning, I was able to finish the rest of Charlotte. She was happy when she got her hair sewn on and could quit being bald. Now that I'm finished, I almost think it was worth it. Almost.

Even though I have a Laura of my own, at 15 she's a little old for Charlotte, so I am giving her away to some (hopefully) lucky winner of the "Little House on the Prairie Essay Contest." To enter, post a comment with your best idea for an upcoming activity. I am not making a hard and fast promise until I see what kind of ideas you come up with, but I will think about doing the winning suggestion during "Pioneer Experience Week" later this summer.

You don't have to use an idea straight from a "Little House" book; it's fine if you come up with your own, but do some research and make sure it's true to pioneer experiences in the 1870's. Originality is important, but simplicity might win you points, too! I can't get too complex or I will bog down. And ideas that involve life-threatening activities will not be too popular with the judging panel.

Have lots of fun with your entries and make sure to have them in by May 31st. Soon one of you will have your very own Charlotte to cuddle or share with a special little girl in your life. The rest of you are out of luck, because I don't think I'll be making another doll anytime soon!