Flu season is here – stock up your pantry and your reading table!

My husband and I have been doing more than than the usual amount of running around town lately, getting those last minute gifts, mailing packages, etc. Sunday morning we did a marathon food shopping trip, trying to stay ahead of the mobs. People were already out there, but it wasn’t hectic yet.

Monday morning I woke up feeling weird, my husband felt weird – we realized pretty quickly we had The Freaking Flu.

Sheesh I feel stupid when I get sick, I wonder – have I really been washing my hands? Didn’t I just rub my nose  and eyes while standing in the check out line? Oh, SHIT!

I immediately recalled the Big Flu of 2007. My older son was attending his second semester at Butte, it was February, and almost exactly on his birthday he got sick. Within a couple of days my younger son was sick, my husband was sick, and then I got it. Each of my family got sick for three or four days, and seemed to “sweat it out.” I got sick and I went down like an old Slinky – seven days in the sack, and seven more after that hanging onto furniture to get around the house.  I couldn’t get rid of the fever, it hung on like that last party guest.

I remember drawing a bead on a part of the room, and making it for that spot. It was like being drunk.

Laying in bed was no comfort – I couldn’t sleep, the body aches and the nausea didn’t let up even in a nice warm bed.  The worst thing – watching tv or reading made me nauseous too! So I laid there cursing and staring at the wall.

I had thought I was so smart – when I knew what was coming and still felt okay, I had gone grocery shopping and picked up two huge volumes at the library – “Cinderella Man”, by Jeremy Schaap, and “Boys of Summer” by Roger Kahn. My younger son was about 13 and has always been a sports fan, so I thought I’d be reading these books with him. “Cinderella Man” had just been a big hit at the box office, and “Boys of Summer” was one of those books I had heard of all my life but never read. Baseball was something my son and I could enjoy talking about – we’re both Giants fans. No matter what.

I am a reader, always have been – I can even read speeches by Ralph Nader, I’ll read anything. So those books laid next to my bed and I’d reach out and open one and read a few pages at a time before I had to put an ice bag back on my head. Both were almost impossible to put down. “Cinderella Man” is the story of James Braddock – a guy who is portrayed as a sort of Depression Era Super Hero. I didn’t watch the movie, so I was able to see it in my head the way Jeremy Schaap (son of Dick Schaap) wrote it. My family was working class, so I knew guys like Braddock – grown up in a working family, during the Great Depression (in  my case, a crapped out town), couldn’t stay in school because of a hot temper and quick fists – in those days, boys like him were kicked out of school and expected to go to work. It was when he ran away from home at 15, arrested and returned to his angry and worried parents, that his older brother tried to give him a whipping and found out – Braddock actually had a talent for fighting.  His brother, already an amateur boxer, became his first  trainer and manager.

I am not a boxing fan. I remember the old fights between Ali and Frazier, it was on tv, but it didn’t appeal to me. Ali was a colorful character, but I couldn’t care less about the fights. It was Braddock himself that appealed to me, his stubborn determination – he didn’t really want to fight, but once he got a little money, and got a wife and kids, he found himself forced again and again by the economy to go into the ring. When his over anxious manager hatched an idea to toughen him up for an important fight by hiring some big guys to spar with him, Braddock ended up with broken ribs. But he was so desperate to fight, they shut down his training camp to outsiders and kept the injury a secret lest the officials should call off the fight while he nursed himself back to shape.

The other character I learned about was Max Baer Sr., an  important opponent of Braddock, who was a hugely popular figure of the 1930’s. My dad was a boy then, and used to tell us stories about Max Baer Sr as we watched his son Max Baer Jr cut it up on “The Beverly Hillbillies”. My dad never mentioned Braddock, I suppose because Braddock was a working guy who also happened to fight, compared to the almost pimp-like character of Baer, a guy who loved flashy suits and dated Hollywood  starlets before his retirement, marriage, and children.

“Cinderella Man” is what most people would consider voluminous, a regular door stop of a book, but I was caught up so much in the story of this man I only put it down when my head started to swim with nausea.

I hate finishing a book like that, you feel you know these people, and now they’re gone. So I immediately picked up “Boys of Summer”. Starting with sketches of Kahn’s childhood in 1930’s New York, this book is also fascinating. Kahn’s life growing up in an apartment house is completely foreign to me, his dad taking afternoons off to ride the bus to Ebbet’s and the Polo Grounds to watch the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. Later Kahn tracks down former players and follows up on their lives since those days – including his friend Jackie Robinson.

The best part of this book is Kahn’s childhood, but he also presents us with the golden era of baseball and players who were only legends to me until I read this book.

By the time I finished these books, I had my family interested, coming in for updates.  I was up and tottering around the house, eating better meals, feeling like myself again.

This time around, I, like my husband, was able to “sweat it out” over about three days. I didn’t take anything, I just tried to rest with my feet up and drink a lot of water.  I wrapped myself up like a mummy and slept in front of the tv set.   Although I was tired, I was still hungry. The worst part of eating was having to make something to eat.  Luckily we had just gone out and bought food, I was afraid to call our older kid over and pass it along to him and his wife.

After staying inside most of Monday and Tuesday, walking out to the mail box and back to entertain the dogs,  I woke up in the middle of the night, soaking wet, my pillow and hair were wet, my pajamas were wet, and my feet were slimy with sweat and colder than a pair of mackerels. I was shivering, so changed my pajamas, toweled my hair, and dug out a fresh pillow case and an extra blanket. My husband had a similar experience Monday night. By Wednesday morning I was feeling a lot better, able to go to the post office, and my husband set some pork ribs in the smoker for dinner. 

I hope that was the end of flu season in our house, but it’s out there people – take care of yourselves! Get a good book or two!




How about a Spring cleaning for my brain?

Punxsutawny Phil said there would  be six more weeks of Winter. Is that an East Coast thing? Cause here in California, Winter has packed her bags, and she’s got one foot out the door. Yesterday the mercury hit 60, the mosquitoes came out of nowhere, and all around my yard little tidbits of color are popping out.

The almond blossoms are sweet, too sweet – as soon as we get close to that tree, our faces begin to twitter – ker-CHEW!

Not that I ain’t been waiting. I actually took a nap in my lawn chair yesterday, the sun felt like an old friend. Where you been Friend? Where’d  I put that hammock? 

I woke up to the screeching of a couple of hawks, a third sitting in a nearby tree. The two males performed outrageously, swooping and circling back, very dramatic. They flew off, the female trailing behind, I have no idea how this love triangle ended.  These birds come every January, like part-time neighbors, they make a loud entrance, pair up, and set up a nest  in somebody’s big tree. Then they become very shy, we have never seen the actual nest, we can only guess they are here somewhere. Every now and then we see them snatch some prey – they’re very shy about eating, if you look at them, they’ll leave. After the way they carry on in Spring, you’d think they want everybody to pay attention to them,  but I guess they’re just happy.

I try to be happy too, but things get to me, I get stuck in the negative rut. I tell myself, “It’s January, you hate January…” But now it’s February, and I’m waiting for that thrill of Spring. It’s just not coming, something’s bothering me, I can’t  tell what. I worry about my husband’s health, I worry about my kids’ progress and happiness, I worry I worry I worry. It’s hard to let things go, that feeling that something bad is going to happen, or that  things are just crappy, keeps washing over me. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a little boat in the ocean, and I can’t see over the waves.

Sometimes I am just terrified of what will happen tomorrow. Usually when I feel this way, I try to think of something positive that is going to happen in the future, some little thread.  But lately, the world around me is very dark – this whole Trump thing is what my dad would call “eating shit and running rabbits…” I know, the Texans talk funny – that means “crazy”

And here in Chico, we just dodged a major disaster – the enormous dam at Oroville almost blew. By the grace of Mother Nature, we were spared a mayor catastrophe – the moonscape left behind would have dwarfed every big fire we’ve ever had, people would not only have died, but our economy would be sent back to the stone age. A whole  community would have been displaced, and the surrounding communities would have been overwhelmed with refugees who might never recover. 

The worst thing about it was how hysterical our “leaders” got – no matter how they denied anything bad would happen. During back-to-back tv interviews, District 1 county supervisor Bill Connelly and US congressman Doug LaMalfa both contradicted the official evacuation  advice, telling people to go in different directions. Connelly seemed completely freaked out  and at one point said he really  wasn’t sure what the sheriff’s department was advising, but he thought people should  “head east”.  LaMalfa also became a little hysterical, unable to name highways, using Cycle Land Speedway as a landmark.  

When they finally convened a press conference with county and state officials, Sheriff Cory Honea seemed more interested in clearing his own reputation than advising the public. When tv news people from Sacramento began questioning his evacuation schedule he got very defensive. They pointed out that over the weekend he was telling people not to panic, the dam would not burst, then suddenly Monday, in the middle of a busy weekday afternoon, it was “Get Out! Get Out Now!” There was pandemonium, nobody knew where to go, there were no recommended routes, just “Go to Chico!” 

Our local news offered very little coverage. We were visiting friends in Forest Ranch, just 15 minutes up the hill from Chico, and we saw better coverage on Ch 3 out of Sacramento. They sent a helicopter, or we wouldn’t know how close O-ville came from being a scratch mark on the hillside. 

Officials have lifted the evacuation order because, despite promises to the contrary, there has been looting. But there’s a “significant” storm moving in tomorrow, what next? 

I don’t know why I feel so much anxiety, Chico is not in danger. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to barf.  When I try to distract myself with the mundane chores, I find myself clumsy, forgetful. I don’t think it’s just this dam thing, I think life is  getting more stressful in general.  So I found this book called “Feeling Good.” It’s full of what I would call “positive thinking” exercises, I’m going to give it a whack. I feel like I’m making myself sick with negativity, time to do a mental cleansing.

I’ll keep you posted! 




Frog and Toad: not just for kids

The “atmospheric river” has run through our town, on it’s way to Nevada to wreak more havoc.

This morning I was surprised to see the moon shining in the bedroom window, bright and full. The only sound outside is a steady plop-plop from the rain spout.

We’ve been trying to stay busy during the rain, mitigate the outdoor damage when possible, clear the gutters and pick up storm debris. Things get moldy in this weather, the laundry won’t get dry, motivation gets wobbly. It is so tempting to crawl in between the flannels and go to sleep for a month or two. 

Reminds me of Frog and Toad Are Friends, a collection of buddy stories by Arnold Lobel.  I think “Spring” is my favorite story, because it’s so true. 

It’s Winter and Toad has been sleeping. Frog rushes to his door to wake him up, declaring,  “It’s Spring!”  But the only response from inside the door is “Blah!”

“The sun is shining! The snow is melting! Wake Up!” shouts Frog outside the door.  Toad answers, “I am not here…”

We’ve all had days like that, and friends like that.

Not one to be put off, Frog bursts into the house and actually pushes Toad out of bed, dragging him to the porch into the bright sunshine, where Toad complains he can’t see anything. “What you see is the clear warm light of April,” cajoles Frog, promising skipping in meadows, running through woods, swimming in the river, and counting stars on warm nights. 

This only drives Toad back into the bed, where he pulls the covers over his head. “You  can count them Frog, I will be too tired.”  

“You have been asleep since November,” complains  Frog.

“Well then,” says Toad, “a little more sleep will not hurt me…Come back and wake me up at about half past May…”

Frog is never flustered or put down, he always thinks of a solution. Standing in Toad’s house, realizing how lonely he will be over the next month, he sees the calendar on the wall is still on November, and begins tearing off the pages of Winter.  Arriving at May, he has a sudden flash of brilliance.

“Toad, Toad, wake up.  It is May now.”  

I don’t know if it’s okay to pull this type of prank on your friend, but I would say, it’s good to look out for each other. 


I’ve been watching this daffodil bud, I think today’s the day.

Book In Common, The Long Winter: One selfless act leads to greed

While I love this rainy weather, I have found it hard to get outside to deal with the related storm clean-up. Did you notice – oak leaves seemed to be hanging in there this year, then they all came down in that last dumper – WHOOSH! What a mess. I’ll say, it is nice to get outside and sweep aside rotten leaves to find  the shoots of Spring flowers.  Just when Winter is getting on my nerves, I get a little boost.

In De Smet the Ingalls have little to be cheerful about. At last completely out of food, they and other townspeople pin their hopes on a rumor of a homesteader some 40 miles from town who might have a supply of wheat.

Two headstrong young men have made the impossible trip and found the grain, got it back to town against seemingly insurmountable odds.  Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland were too stubborn to watch their neighbors starve. Now that they have the grain enough to feed everyone,  there comes a sudden hitch in their plan – GREED!

Wilder and Garland knew the homesteader would have to be compensated for his grain. They knew they would have to offer him a very good price to convince him that it would be worth parting with seed he may not be able to replace in time for Spring planting. A man could easily be ruined over the span of one growing season, they knew they must be more than fair. So, before they undertook their venture, they looked for funding – which they got from Mr. Loftus, the storekeeper.

But next day, recuperating from near frost bite and exhaustion, Almanzo is surprised by a visit from Cap and some other men – apparently, Mr. Loftus is asking top dollar for the wheat, insinuating that he paid the boys to haul it.

They find a larger group has met at Mr. Fuller’s store, which, while largely empty, still serves as their daily meeting place.  As the men began to chatter excitedly, “Mr. Ingalls rose up thin and tall from the box by the stove…’let’s all go reason with Loftus…'” 

To this a man responds angrily, “Now you’re talking! Come on boys, let’s help ourselves to that wheat!”

Ingalls commands the room, they all respect him because he doesn’t talk so much. “Reason with him, I said…”  But the group is worked up, ready to fight. Now young Cap Garland finds his man voice, and tells the crowd, “Wilder and I have something to say about this, we brought in the wheat. We didn’t haul it to make trouble.” 

Almanzo agrees, but the others remind him that he and his brother have plenty to eat – easy for Wilder to be reasonable on a full belly.  Now Cap Garland turns to Mr. Ingalls again. “How much you got to eat at your house Mr. Ingalls?”

“Not a thing,” Pa says. “We ground up the last wheat we had yesterday, ate it up this morning.” 

Wow, just imagine – you don’t have any food for your family, and at least a month of storm weather left, no where to go, no way out. And this guy is sitting on a pile of food, charging as much as he can get for it. How reasonable do you think you would be?  Ingalls and the two younger men remind everyone that they are a town, a community – what kind of community would they have after such a fight? What would become of their town, out here, where people needed to depend on each other? 

Mr. Ingalls words sober the group, and they agree to troupe over and “reason” with Mr. Loftus. But Loftus is adamant, even in the face of threats – “that wheat is mine, and I’ve got the right to charge any price I want for it.”

This is an uncomfortable conversation in a capitalist economy. Yes, Mr. Ingalls agrees, “This is a free country, and every man has a right to do what he pleases with his own property.” Pa turns to the crowd and reminds them, everybody is free to do as they please, including, shop where they please when Winter is over. “You’ve got us down now,” he turns to Loftus, “that’s your business, as you say. But your business depends on our good will.”

Now Pa is reminding Loftus of what he told the group before – a community is only as strong as the relations between it’s members. A fight like this now would leave bad feelings long after the snow melted.

Standing behind Ingalls,  Garland reminds Loftus – “we didn’t make that trip to skin a profit off folks who are hungry.” Wilder, still standing on swollen feet, recalls the harshness of the trip and tells the store keeper, “there’s not enough money in the mint to pay for that trip.”

Reminded that he did not risk his life to get the grain, Loftus is beaten and ashamed, agreeing to sell the wheat for the same price he paid for it, a dollar and a quarter a bushel. This act guarantees that many people will make it til Spring that might have been very shortly starved to death, including the Ingalls.


Book In Common: The Long Winter – determined to stay alive, determined to keep their friends alive, two men set out on an impossible journey

Larry Wahl once told me, “you better be careful what you ask for…”

He was so right.  Which one of you smart-asses asked for rain?

Oh, I guess we all did, ‘scuse me!

I am not in Chico right now. My husband and I have come with our son to get him settled back into his dorm room at college. We had planned to come home today, but all day yesterday the snow kept falling, the roads started to disappear, and we were wondering if we might be stuck here longer than we figgered.

It’s all pretty, until it starts to close in on you, and you can’t do what you want!

Makes me think of the Ingalls, trapped in their little house, flirting with carbon dioxide poisoning.  Christmas is somewhat jolly, but the supplies quickly run out.

Their neighbors, the Wilder brothers, have secretly been keeping them supplied with wheat, while also driving out of town on sunny days to fetch more hay for the townspeople to burn for heat. They are storekeepers, so they sell the hay to make money, but they won’t part with their seed wheat, afraid the trains will arrive too late for Spring planting.

But Almanzo realizes the town is hanging by a thread. He and his brother have plenty for themselves, but if they tried to supply the whole town, everybody would quickly starve.

The Wilders were raised in a Christian house, and have the appropriate feelings of guilt. They’ve also heard rumors of a homesteader some 40 miles from town who had raised a huge amount of wheat and must have it stored up – a rumor nobody even remembers where it came from.

But it plagues Almanzo’s mind, even with his older brother forbidding him, he decides to team up with one of Laura’s classmates, Cap Garland, the boy who had gone to the store to get the men when the school children were lost in the blizzard.

Almanzo has good horses and sturdy sleds, so the two set out the first sunny day, using their intuition and bits of rumor. They look for a lone cottonwood tree, the only landmark available on the snow covered prairie.

Thinking of my husband or sons setting out on a mission like this chills me to the bone. Some people are of the mindset, when something needs to be done, they must do it. My husband is not foolhardy, but I know he would do something like this if I didn’t stop him. When Mr. Ingalls muses about going along with the boys, we see a side of Laura’s mother that frightens the girls – she is fierce and dark, maybe a little crazy, when she forbids her husband to go.  He’s older than Wilder and Garland, and worse than that, starvation has reduced him to a shadow of himself. His hands are so cut and stiff from twisting hay she is afraid he would be unable to handle a horse.


So one sunny morning, Wilder and Garland hitch up their sleds and head out of town. Although it starts out like a jaunt, the prairie trails are lost under the snow, it’s treacherous going. Everywhere, the prairie grass holds up the snow, creating the illusion of solid ground. Again and again their horses and sled founder in the unfamiliar terrain.  They must unhitch the horses and tramp down the snow in front of them to lead them out, then drag the sled out and re-hitch it. A journey of 40 miles would not be much in good weather, but they struggle for hours.

By noon the sun is weak overhead, but darkness loiters in every corner of the sky. They have passed the cottonwood tree, hoping they are going in the right direction, but they are still uncertain. They are freezing cold, sometimes jumping off their sleds to run alongside to stay warm, beating their free arm across their chest. They have just about given up and thought about turning back to town when Almanzo thinks he sees a brief flash of light in a snowbank up ahead. As they struggle toward the snow bank, they both see the blink of light again – the opening and closing of a door. They plow through the snow until they hit the snowbank – a snow covered “soddy”.

Pounding on the outside of the little earthen house, they are greeted by a very startled homesteader. Living alone, he has not seen another soul since he went into De Smet for supplies in Fall. He has spent months buried in the snow, making his way out only to feed his livestock (no, she never talks about going to the bathroom in any of her books). A single man, he has plenty to eat and is able to keep his house warm enough with the little supply of coal he brought home in Fall.

Almanzo notices a door at one end of the soddy, although the man’s bed is in the main room, so he assumes this is the man’s granary. The man chatters freely, being very lonely, about how he raised a huge crop of wheat over Summer.  When he asks what brings the men out this far from town in such weather, they don’t hesitate to tell him – they have a town full of starving people who need his wheat. They are ready to pay “top dollar.”

But the man is not interested in money. His face shows his dilemma – of course he cares that these people are in trouble, but he could easily be in the same jam himself if he does not have wheat for Spring and the trains don’t come. You can’t eat money, but, as the Ingalls have found living in town – it sure disappears fast when you don’t have more coming in.

It is easy to see that Laura Ingalls Wilder had a great amount of respect and admiration for Almanzo Wilder, who would later become her lifelong partner, and Cap Garland, a boy on whom she had a mild crush on first meeting. She portrays them as men among men, even at their young age. I know it’s just a book, but I like them too. They are thinkers.

They would be ashamed to go home without wheat, but that is not the first thought on their mind. They know there are people starving in town, they can’t go back without the wheat.

So they pressure the man, unashamed. They offer him more money, reasoning, he will  have enough money to make it another year without planting if he has to. Seeing that his needs will be covered, he finally relents to sell them enough wheat to get the townspeople through the rest of Winter.

It’s a tough rule of survival – sure you have to help others, but you better never depend on help from anybody else.  You really have to look out for Number One, because who would help the others if you were lost?

The three make their deal, and they all feel good about it. Their host serves them a simple but hot and plentiful meal of his own bread and meat, and then they quickly go about loading the wheat on their sleds. The man expects them to stay overnight, but they remind him – the calm will not last long, lately there has only been one or two days between storms that could last a week. They must get back with food, or people could starve.

With just a few hours before sunset, Wilder and Garland feel more confident than when they started – they are fairly certain of their position, and of the town. Within a short time they find the old cottonwood tree, but the sun is completely gone, and the strange darkness begins to overtake the stars – another blizzard may hit them before they can make it to town.

I bet you know they made it back, but it’s worth reading about the kind of determination it takes to complete a task like this.

But the best part is what happens when they get back, I’ll tell you about that later.



Book In Common: In De Smet, when the going gets tough, the tough get going

Hard Times. That means something different to everybody. 

For one thing, it’s the name of a movie with Charles Bronson and James Coburn. I watched it when I was a kid, smitten with both actors.  It’s about a man who makes his own Hard Times, and drags his friend along behind him.

A lot of people make their own Hard Times – poor decisions, selfish, short-sighted and greedy. Many times those people manage to make Hard Times for everybody else too.

Hard Times are almost unavoidable at some point, they are around every corner, one mishap and you’re a resident of Hard Times. 

Hard Times are different for everybody – some people actually thrive in hardship, others wither at the sight of it.  You know, one person’s hardship is another person’s luxury. 

When the supplies start to run short at the Ingall’s house in De Smet, Ma laments how quickly people have forgotten to fend for themselves as she makes a candle out of some axle grease and a rag. Mrs. Ingalls had been a child of the frontier, growing up in “Indian territory,” living in a cabin with a dirt floor and tiny shuttered port holes for windows, she thinks people have gotten soft with the new technology.  

What would she say about us today? Flip a switch and live in instant comfort. Flush toilets – wow, that would blow the mind of a person who had lived their life following a mud path to a pit toilet.

Imagine living through a prairie blizzard – 40 degrees below zero – with no heat. I’ve never experienced below zero temperatures, but I know I’d be dead in minutes. I get very uncomfortable at 30 degrees above zero, and anything below 20 makes me feel dysfunctional. 

Even coal heat cannot keep the house warm, so the Ingalls move entirely into the kitchen of their town house, huddling around their dining table, spending the long dark days passing the coffee mill in which they grind wheat for their daily bread. At night they steal up to their beds carrying iron bed warmers, which Laura remarks have little effect. She speaks regularly of the nail heads in the roof above her attic bed being white with frost.

When Pa realizes they only have a few more days of coal left, he has an idea that seems to energize him – all that hay he cut last Summer, thinking he might sell the extra – hay burns.  

But Laura reminds him – it burns so quick, the ashes don’t even have time to fall before it is burnt up. You’ve seen burnt grass maybe – it’s true, it burns so fast the ashes retain the shape of the grass. It holds no heat.

Pa has thought this out. He is sure his idea will work. He blusters out into the storm to feed the animals one morning, and comes back with armloads of hay, tossing them into the little lean-to off the kitchen. There he and Laura sit while he works on his plan – twisting together bunches of the rough prairie grass into hard “logs”. 

This is hard work, and must be done all day long. The grass is sharp, it cuts not only their hands but the sleeves of the big coats they must wear in the freezing lean-to, where snow blows in the unfilled cracks in the walls. Soon their hands are slashed and swollen – Pa is no longer able to play his fiddle, and that seems to make the cold more severe, the blowing wind more sinister.

But they are able to stave off Winter, hopefully til the trains return, Some Day. Ma bakes her rough bread, they sit around their grass-fed fire and drink hot tea. Day after day after day.

Sure, they could have taken the train back to the East with people like Eliza Jane Wilder, but to where? Go back to be a burden on family? 

When I was a kid my parents split up, and that was my mother’s choice – go home to her parents, where everybody in town would know, or be independent, make a go for it, try to keep us fed while making the mortgage payments on our little green house.   At that time she waited tables in a couple of different cafes, driving her old ’55 Chevy back and forth between Willows and Dunnigan, working til 2 am, having to scrub the grease trap before she left work, etc. Once she cut her finger on a cheese slicer and lost a whole day of work (TIPS!), not to mention the ER bill. 

I remember coming in from play one afternoon to find my mother sobbing on the phone to my grandma. She couldn’t do it anymore, she said. We were a handful, that’s for sure. She had to sleep in the daytime with one off to kindergarten and two tots running loose – there was no such thing as “daycare” then and she could only afford a teenage babysitter from four to midnight. The girl went home and  left us sleeping and everybody hoped for the best. I remember waking up and standing in the front yard calling for my mommy in the dark until her wobbly headlights turned the corner, and the neighbors didn’t like that. They were good people, and their concern was genuine, but they were starting to get worn out with my mother. 

They hadn’t liked calling the cops late at night when my dad was knocking the crap out of her, but this did not seem better.

So she finally had to ask my grandparents for help. They had been champing at the bit, they were there almost instantly. They took us to their house, and my mom started making arrangements.

She and my grandma arranged for her to go to Heald College in San Francisco. My mom had started college but dropped out to get married, being young, impatient, and not too sharp. Now she was ready to get a job, knowing what raising kids by yourself was all about. 

We were still residents of Hard Times, but Hard Times became a somewhat nicer place to live. We all slept in one bed at Grandma’s house – but it was a really nice bed, with an electric blanket.  We wore hand-me-downs – but now we had a bigger selection because of all the cousins  and neighbors that did same. We were summarily denied the things we saw on Saturday morning television – but hey, we had a television! 

And no matter what, my grandma managed to spoil the hell out of us even as she held us to strict rules. She always seemed to have a cookie in one hand and a switch in the other. And my grandpa had eyes in the back of his head, that is the truth. That old man could turn up on a dime as soon as you even  thought of doing anything. He didn’t speak much, but he had a look that could make you wet your pants. “Git!” and you’d be gone.

My grandparents were Calvinists, even if they didn’t know it. They came from hardworking families. I learned, life is what you make it. Life is a bed, and if you make it lumpy, those are your lumps. Nobody else can  smooth out your lumps, you have to do it yourself. They helped my mother because they felt we kids did not deserve to be punished sleeping in my mother’s lumpy bed. 

Pa Ingalls had  a similar outlook: God made us free and independent. We can do what we want, not like the animals, who do as God directs them. He uses the example of the muskrats’ house – they only make one kind of house, and it’s a good house, but it’s what God directs. And like Bing Crosby said – they can’t write their name or read a book!  Men can make any type of house they want, and if it’s a bad house, then it’s on them. God allows us our freedom, even if we’re good Christians, we can build a lousy house and end up out in the cold.

Or we could build a really good house, and we could keep it all to ourselves! 

At the same time, Pa knew people had to work together and help each other. Whenever there’s a problem the men all gravitate to the store at the center of town. A small strong group leads the others to do the right thing. When the wheat that’s been  keeping them all alive begins to run out, they gather to make a desperate plan. 




Book In Common, The Long Winter: The Ingalls must make due with a bucket of wheat


Winter is beautiful.

Winter is beautiful.

Christmas is over and life goes on. I feel good about the New Year, it’s going to start out cold and wet. 

I had a good Christmas – family, friends and food, in the right quantities. I gave and I got, and I’m happy about that too. 

But Winter is just settling herself in. Our last PG&E bill was a harbinger of doom – the next one will be worse, I’m guessing.  

We’re taking the usual precautions – we even brought out the Styrofoam boards we bought to cover the windows last Summer, now sealing out the cold. I’ve been leaving them in til almost noon lately. But the heater rumbles along, with little effect. The furniture is cold, I have to put a pillow on my computer chair. 

I feel like a woos complaining as I read from “The Long Winter,” the book I picked up before Christmas. The Ingalls had their nice Christmas too – small and intimate, like my  family, with small but meaningful gifts we all enjoyed gathering and giving. 

And then Christmas is suddenly over, leaving them to one of the harshest Winters still on record for South Dakota, the winter of 1880-81. The woman who would later become Ingalls’ sister-in-law wrote of that Winter, “Many families were reported frozen to death and others lived wholly on turnips, some on wheat ground in a coffee mill.”  While she did not yet know the Ingalls, Eliza Jane Wilder supported Laura’s descriptions of the bitter winter, adding that by October the trains were stopped regularly by snow, and there was little or nothing left in the stores.  At that point, Wilder reports she left her brothers Almanzo and Royal to go to their parents’ home back East for Winter rather than trying to make it in her claim shack on the prairie. The Ingalls moved to town thinking they would be safe.

They had no idea the snow would get deep and frozen enough to stop the trains they depended on for everything. Laura wrote, “the blizzard winds had blown earth from the fields where the sod was broken, and had mixed it with snow packed so tightly in the railroad cuts that snowplows could not move it. The icy snow could not melt because of the earth mixed with it, and men with picks were digging it out inch by inch. It was slow work because in many big cuts they must dig down twenty feet to the steel rails.”

Eventually the crews, including Laura’s father, gave up, knowing they were in a grim situation, they returned home to make the best of it. No coal for heat or cooking, no kerosene for light, no wheat or meat for food, it looked like the entire town would freeze and starve to death. 

But people have a curious willpower. Some people rise to an occasion. Mr. Ingalls is a proud man, and so is his wife. They are not about to let Nature get the better of them. They will their family to stay alive. 

Mr. Ingalls is well-respected man because he’s one of the only men who’s lived many years on the prairie, keeping his little family together and fed through all kinds of mis-haps.  You just have to read the books – the locusts, the hail storms, the prairie fires. At one point he mis-reads a map and settles on the wrong land, at the end of a bountiful Summer they are told they must get off. But somehow Ma and Pa stay together and keep their biddies safe, through triumph and tragedy.

De Smet is the town they eventually settled in for good. The Winter they suffered with their neighbors is the kind of make or break event that settles your destiny. Sometimes when things are bad, people turn on each other. In De Smet, they huddle together. Despite some screw-ups, they put up with each other’s weaknesses. 

When Mr. Ingalls realizes the last of the wheat is almost gone, he pays a visit to the Wilder brothers. The Wilders are bachelors who brought out a lot of supplies. As others are starving they sit in the back of their dry-goods store, frying ham and pancakes. When Ingalls shows up at their door in a blizzard, they welcome him warmly, noticing his cheeks are sunken, they insist he sit down to breakfast. Mr. Ingalls, usually a proud man, does not hesitate. The Wilders remind him – he has to stay alive, or his family will die too. “Fill your plate again,” they tell him, “and come back anytime.” 

But Mr. Ingalls has come for something else. While the Wilders say they sold the last of their wheat, he believes they have put some aside for Spring planting, he knows these are smart fellows. After he finishes the last bite on his plate, he stands up and walks around the little room, admiring the saddles hung on the far wall. He walks over and takes down one saddle – Almanzo immediately becomes nervous. Mr. Ingalls reaches for the saddle peg and pulls it out of the board – a tiny stream of wheat starts showering down. 

The Wilders know they are had. Mr. Ingalls is certainly nice about it, he promises not to tell. Almanzo has saved and saved that wheat, seed he grew back east to plant on his claim – and he is adamant about not selling it. If he is not able to get wheat from back East before planting time, he will lose his claim.

Then he takes a good look at Ingalls. Mr. Ingalls is the picture of starvation, sunken cheeks, hollow eyes, a funny gait replacing his usually sure step. Almanzo realizes – there are five other people at Ingall’s house, and he relents to give, not sell Ingall’s a bucket of grain. This is how people become lifelong friends. 

And the rest is legend among girls everywhere – Ma grinds the grain in her little coffee maker and makes sourdough bread. 

But how do they bake bread when the coal runs out?