Book In Common: Laura Ingalls Wilder takes me back to my own childhood

When I was a kid I lived on my grandparents’ farm out in Glenn County. We lived there fulltime when we were little, our parents having divorced and my mom having a rough time getting set up with a job and a new place to live. Even after we moved away with our mom to her new job in Sacramento, we spent holidays and summers at the old place along the river between Princeton and Butte City.

My mother would take us for a weekend whenever she didn’t have too much work – she’d rush home early, we’d load up the car and take off. She could  sleep late because Gramma and Gramps were there to watch us, and then spend the day doing laundry and reading her paperbacks.  We could play and eat all day, knowing that was exactly what Gramma wanted. Grandpa was our best playmate when he was not busy, and when he was busy, we’d be busy with him a lot of times.  We “helped” him so much he’d go and hide in his travel trailer to take a nap. 

Sometimes we arrived on Friday afternoon and didn’t go home until early Monday morning, just in time to make it to school.

Looking back I realize it was a very special time, I was a very lucky little girl.  It might sound cliche – but I grew up in the bosom of my family and a community that really cared about each other even if they didn’t really like each other.

I remember the community parties, the potluck dinners, bingo games, Christmas pageants, church doin’s  – everybody came, even when they weren’t in a very good mood. They’d share their miseries as soon as their joys, and they’d share yours too. Of course, they’d talk bad about you when you did something they didn’t like. People would come up and ask you about personal stuff you thought was your own business, but they weren’t just being nosy, they had a genuine interest in the well-being of the community and that included you, pinhead.

Something I realize whenever my husband and I are driving a lonely stretch of road, and we pass a little house sitting all by itself – it’s a hard, lonely country out there, for all the peacefulness and  beauty, and you really need to be able to depend on your neighbors. 

I grew up an old-fashioned childhood. We were spoiled in certain ways, but held back in others. Sure we had a tv – it was a good way to keep us in the house. Highway 45 sped past our front driveway, and we were surrounded with irrigation ditches. There was a rice dryer across the road that brought trucks all year round, but they literally flew by all day during rice harvest. My grandma loved the tv because she could look out the kitchen door and there our butts would be lined up across that floor – one-two-three-four-five.  

Five kids is a lot for an old lady to keep an eye on, especially a pack of brats like us. Whenever we managed to sneak out, we had to watch for friends of my grandma’s, who would pick up a phone as soon as they got home – “Erma, do you know your grandkids are playing on the railroad  tracks!” She’d put down that phone, grab a good switch off the old quince bush, and come looking for us. She’d hold one hand and follow you in a circle with that switch! That’s good lovin’!

Grandpa helped when he could – he’d load us all up in the cab of his truck and take us to deliver a load of prunes or nuts or  gravel or whatever needed hauling. Prunes and nuts went wherever the price was good – there were dryers in Colusa and  a couple in Chico, so that was a road trip.  If we were good we got an ice cream cone somewhere.  Gravel was scraped out of the Sacramento River with an old tractor he kept down along the slough there at Packers Lake. That meant a trip down to the river, where the woods were thick and creatures abounded. We saw geese, swans, deer – and one time, my gramps came running to get us. He showed us a big footprint in the wet dirt, and he spit his words – “Puma! Git to the truck!”

He explained later, he wasn’t mad at us, he was mad at himself for letting us wander so far he couldn’t see us. I know we gave him a fright, we tried not to frighten our grandparents because they were so old we were afraid to give them a stroke. It’s hard not to frighten old people that love you so much. 

My grandma was always trying to distract us with things to do in the house. Being a teacher, she gave us books early and encouraged us to learn to read. As soon as I learned to read I couldn’t put books down. I remember struggling with a book about Davy Crocket. I couldn’t read it, the words were tiny and meant nothing, but whenever an adult sat down in my house I took my book and began to “read it” to them, making it up as I went along. They never teased, instead, acted very impressed. Slowly they’d point out small words and help me figure them out with phonics. It turned out to be a pretty boring book – which  is hard to believe given the subject matter – and I got a new book from my Uncle Dryden – my “Better Homes and Gardens” reader. 

I still have that book, and still enjoy reading the rebus version of “Little Red Hen.” I taught my kids to read out of that book, started with that same story. 

I don’t remember how old I was when my Gram gave me a loaned copy of “Little House in the Big Woods,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder, but it was the beginning of a lifelong relationship. I read each one in turn. By sixth  grade I had read all of them, but I’d take one out at the library now and then just to pass the time when I didn’t have homework. Living in town was very different than living on the farm, and my city friends just didn’t get it.

As an adult I’ve turned back to those books because they reflect the simple values of my family. Life is wonderful, full of surprises both good and bad. Life is not perfect, sometimes very unfair, but every morning there is a new opportunity for wonder and joy, taken in small doses with boredom and disappointment. It’s also about relationships – not only among family, but with people you meet. This family moved alot, but they managed to develop strong relationships even when they didn’t last very long. You can see this made a deep impression on Wilder, she wrote a lot about relationships and how she felt about people growing up.

Every year at this time I think of the book I like the best, “Long Winter.” I have not read it since my kids were little. They enjoyed listening to me read, I read to them a lot. I knew they wouldn’t pick these books up on their own.

I don’t know if you’d pick it up either, so I’m going to read it and tell you about it. It’s a good book for cold,  dark days. There’s timeless lessons in this book, it’s a good book to read with your kids. I get sick of dealing with the library, so I bought a paperback copy online,, about six bucks.  I will probably start collecting the series, looking forward to a time when I don’t have a computer anymore, and I want to sit by the fire and read.

There’s a good story in one of the books, I can’t remember which, maybe this one. Laura and her ma and sisters are home alone on the place, Pa has gone to town and not come home yet. It’s dark and snow is falling, and they have to go out and tend to the cow. Laura and her ma wrap up in their shawls and boots and head for the barn. In the darkness Laura reaches for the cow but the dark shape in the stall does not feel right, the fur is rough and long. Her ma says steadily, “Laura, go to the house.” Laura is an obedient child, she turns without question and heads for the house in the dark, her mother shoving her along from behind. When they get inside, her mother tells her it was a bear and not their cow in the stall. She explains that sometimes bears act this way in the cold, starved and confused, they just want to be left alone. The bear could have riled easily, Ma says. “If you hadn’t been such a good girl and done what I said, you might be dead!” she concludes.

This is a story that caught my family. Both my kids tended to argue when I asked them to do something, they always seemed to think they knew better than their ma. One day my husband shooshed them both with, “if you were Laura Ingalls Wilder, we’d all be dead!” That became a good joke in my family, meaning, “you argue too much!”  

So, let’s have some family fun, read a good story by the fire. 










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