The long winter
The “Little House on the Prairie” series was one of my favorites as a child. I read each book probably ten times. I followed a certain ritual. First, I took a few slices of that thin, cheap lunch meat from the fridge and fried it to a crisp in the microwave. I had no idea what venison was at the time, but I figured this was pretty close. Then I crumbled some cheese bits into a small wooden box.
With my venison and cheese, I found a sunny square of carpet somewhere in the house, splayed open my books, and transported myself back to the prairie. “By the Shores of Silver Lake” was my favorite of the series, because Laura and Almanzo finally, finally fell in love, but coming in close second was “The Long Winter.” Oh, the image I had of Pa out in the lean-to, twisting straw into tight sticks of fuel, and the way the whole family took turns grinding wheat in the coffee grinder to make a course flour for bread.
Every Thursday night the boys and I drive over the bridge to Wisconsin for piano lessons. It’s a 40 minute drive each way. Seth thinks I’m a little silly, but I love our piano teacher, who is Russian trained and simply phenomenal. But truthfully, I also love the time. It’s a straight shot up and down a country lane, past acres and acres of corn fields and farms, buried in snow. In fall we drive with the setting sun. In winter it is all blackness. Orion and Ursus Major shout down at us from the sky.
While I drive, we listen to books on tape. We are listening now to “The Long Winter” because this is the land of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her presence is felt everywhere.
We listen up and down that country lane, listen as Pa twists the hay and they all wait for the train to come because the family has no more kerosene or coal. We listen through the black night as Christmas comes with no train, but there is a small package of candy for each child, and a bit of lace that Laura has made.
It must be admitted that I cry every single week as I listen to this story. Because our winter has been long and cold and dark, but I have Wal-Mart and Target just five minutes away, plus central heat. I have more clothes than I know what to do with and I can serve meatballs for dinner. I worry when we run low on bananas.
Often I want to wring the collective American neck and say, “Do you realize all that we have?” We are so mired down with stuff, with tasks and that endless hunt for happiness. Are we watching what happened in Egypt? It is our dinnertime talk, each night, as the professor has become quite an expert on the topic. Look at what we have here in America. Look at what other people want so bad they’re willing to risk their lives for it.
More importantly I want to pause the audio tape every five minutes and ask my kids, “Do you get it? Do you understand what these frontier people did for us, clearing the land and laying the framework of our country? Do you have perspective to see how good we have it? Do you understand that there is never cause to complain, that we have so much goodness we cannot hold it all?”
It snowed all day yesterday. All day, in a slanted, harsh, driving way. Outside the world is shut down. No university classes, or violin lessons. On the driveway there are another seven or so inches of snow we’ll be shoveling this morning.
But inside, within these warm and stable walls, I am still a little girl looking for that patch of sunlight and a good story. They’re everywhere, you know.