Friday, November 29, 2013

Reflections on Storytelling: A Visit to the Wilder Homestead

"On a day when she was particularly blue and unhappy, the neighbor to the west, a bachelor living alone, stopped as he was driving by and brought a partly filled grain sack to the house. When Laura opened the door, Mr. Sheldon stepped inside, and taking the sack by the bottom, poured the content out on the floor. It was a paper-backed set of Waverly novels.
"Thought they might amuse you," he said. "Don't be in a hurry! Take your time reading them!" And as Laura exclaimed in delight, Mr. Sheldon opened the door, closed it behind him quickly and was gone. And now the four walls of the close, overheated house opened wide, and Laura wandered with brave knights and ladies fair beside the lakes and streams of Scotland or in castles and towers, in noble halls or lady's bower, all through the enchanting pages of Sir Walter Scott's novels.

She forget to feel ill at the sight or smell of food, in her hurry to be done with the cooking and follow her thoughts back into the book. When the books were all read and Laura came back to reality, she found herself feeling much better.

It was a long way from the scenes of Scott's old tales to the little house on the bleak, wintry prairie, but Laura brought back from them some of their magic and music and the rest of the winter passed comfortably." - From the chapter, "A Year of Grace" from Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The First Four Years."

While Laura was trying to escape the isolated prairie with the outlet of a book, I read Laura Ingalls Wilder and other storytellers to escape what feels like suffocating crowds as I rush about New York City's Port Authority bus terminal, the maddening pace as I make my way to and from work, and the congestion of the area I live in. In this season of gratitude, I'm giving thanks to storytellers. I need storytellers in my life for my mental soundness as much as a doctor for my physical well-being. They walk with me in my life, their words become part of my spirit.

Remembering Laura's words as I reflect on my visit in September to the Wilder Homestead in Malone, New York. This is the boyhood home of husband Almanzo Wilder and is the setting for her book, Farmer Boy, based on his childhood spent there.

"In the corner between the window to the east and the window to the south was a small stand-table with an easy armchair at one side and a small rocker at the other. Above it suspended from the ceiling was a glass lamp with glittering pendants. That was the parlor part of the room, and when copies of Scott's and Tennyson's poems were on the stand it would be complete. She would have some geraniums growing in cans on the windows and then it would simply be beautiful." - The First Four Years.

Geraniums outside the boyhood home. I will always have geraniums. Maybe love of flowers gets passed on. My grandmother in Switzerland kept geraniums, as did my mother, and I do too.

I couldn't take pictures in the home, but so admired the Willow ware. Here, Willow ware from the Pioneer Farm Museum in Eatonville, Washington, and also thinking of the red-checked tablecloths Laura referred to. We'll visit here at a later time.

We hear about the loss of the American dinnertime when families ate together, but I think too of the storytime. It was a constant thread in Laura's life and books, whether it was reading favorite novels or poetry, serials in the paper or latest news events. Even in commercials today, Americans are portrayed as sitting on their couches glued to their devices without interaction. Is dinnertime and storytime part of your family and was it part of your childhood?

In the parlor, recalling this scene from "Winter Night" in Farmer Boy,

"Mother knitted and rocked in her high-backed rocking chair. Father carefully scraped a new ax-handle with a bit of broken glass. Royal carved a chain of tiny links from a smooth stick of pine, and Alice sat on her hassock, doing her woolwork embroidery. And they all ate popcorn and apples and drank sweet cider, except Eliza Jane. Eliza Jane read aloud the news in the New York weekly paper.

Almanzo sat on a footstool by the stove, an apple in his hand, a bowl of popcorn by his side, and his mug of cider on the hearth by his feet. He bit the juicy apple, then ate some popcorn, then he took a drink of his cider."

Flash forward to Almanzo and Laura as a young married couple with daughter Rose,

"While Manly ate his evening bowl of popcorn and Rose worked her arithmetic sums by the light of the kerosene lamp, Laura read to them all. During those evenings they read The Leatherstocking Tales, Five Little Peppers and How they Grew, Pride and Prejudice, Ben Hur, The House of Seven Gables and Martin Chuzzlewit." - from William Anderson's Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography"

Charles Ingalls made sonic stories with his fiddle. Laura said,

"How it made merry with us when we were glad and sympathized with us when we were sad. It gave us songs of praise when we had been good or successful and acted as confessor when we had been bad. Whatever religion, romance and patriotism I have I owe largely to the violin and Pa playing in the twilight." - Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography

Some 127 songs are included in the Little House books, and musicologist Dale Cockrell was the force behind "Pa's Fiddle"  a PBS special that is available on DVD and CD and three other CDs. I love the seed was planted simply by Dale reading the books to his young son at night. This is not just a series for girls. His goal is admirable, trying to "change the music consciousness of the nation with the legacy of the music that has been left behind." He says he has been pushing this rock up the mountain for several years, and I think many of us who hope for richer American culture than what is in the mass media now feel like they are pushing a rock up too. Let's push together.

After her visit to San Francisco in 1915 to visit Rose and attend the world's fair, Laura's love of her country home life was reinforced. My soul is so tired of working life in New York City, and can appreciate her words, "We who live in quiet places," Laura wrote in the Ruralist, "have the opportunity to become acquainted with ourselves, to think our own thoughts and live our own lives. " - Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography. I want to live in a quieter place, and seek a less harried life.

Laura's mother, Caroline Ingalls wrote in a composition as a schoolgirl, "Who would wish to leave home and wander forth, in the world, to meet its tempests and its storms? Give me a place at home, with a seat at the fireside, where all is happy and free."

There's a whole home industry that tries to convince people their home isn't modern enough. When I watch the HGTV channel, I think how did we come from a nation of this hardy stock who made everything to complaining about walking all the way to their basement to do laundry (imagine), not having a double sink vanity or granite countertops? Oh the suffering. I even saw a commercial suggesting one updates their kitchen for the holidays! Steve and I have been in every house imaginable during our estate sale visits and I've concluded home is about the people in them, not the finishings. Besides, there is always a certainty about anything "modern." Given enough time it will be outdated.

All I want is a place that's snug and cozy.

The New York Public Library issued a list of the 100 Great Children's Books of the past 100 years, and I couldn't believe that none of the Little House books made the list. She has so much wisdom to share. Her words to schoolchildren in 1947 are as relevant as ever,
"The Little House books are stories of long ago. The way we live and your schools are much different now, so many changes have made living and learning easier. But the real things haven't changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong." - From Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography.

Those timeless simple pleasures are recalled in Laura's stories. Pioneer families delighted in blueberry season just as I look forward to New Jersey blueberries each summer.
"Before dawn next day they were all riding away in the lumber-wagon, wearing their oldest clothes and taking pails and bushel baskets and a big picnic lunch. They drove far into the mountains near Lake Chateaugay, where the wild huckleberries grew.
The woods were full of other wagons, and other families berrying. They laughed and sang, and all among the tress you could hear their talking. Every year they all met friends here, that they didn't see any other time. But all of them were busily picking berries; they talked while they worked." - from the chapter, "Summer-time" - Farmer Boy.

Laura: "What's that sweet smell, Pa?"
Charles: "It's the smell of the prairie, mixed with the smell of cut wood."
Laura: I'll never forget this smell as long as I live." - Little House on the Prairie - the television miniseries.
So much of the Little House books and films to me are about nudging the memory. Of scents, sounds, places and faces. We live in such materialistic times so focused on excess and the next new shiny toy, we get away from what's most essential. Leaving you with Laura's memories of childhood, none of which involves any "thing".
"The early memories of home were images that Laura always loved to recall. Later in life she began calling them "the pictures that hang in my memory." The snug, cozy feeling of warm evenings, the voices of Ma and Pa and the soft firelight on the log walls made pictures that never faded for her."
"The first remembrance is of my Father always," she wrote. "My first memory is of his eyes, so clear and sharp and blue. Those eyes could look so unerringly along a rifle barrel in the face of a bear or a pack of wolves and yet were so tender as they rested on his Caroline, my mother, or me when I was sick....His arms were so strong...and they carried me many a night when I was sick and restless. I can hear his measured steps yet, back and forth across the floor, feel the comfort of those strong arms and hear his soothing, 'There, there.' And also his kind voice saying, 'Now Caroline, you lie down and sleep'." Of Ma she writes, "lessons learned at Mother's knee last all through life. But dearer than Mother's teachings are little personal memories: Mother's face, Mother's touch, Mother's voice." Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography.
The Sweet By and By, the song Charles Ingalls requested be played at his funeral.



  1. Catherine, what a wonderful post. I also long for a quiet, cozy place to be with my family. The older I get, the more I thrive on peace and quiet and the more the hustle and bustle annoys and drains me. I've only been to the JFK airport in NY, I can't imagine living in NYC because Seattle is more than I can stand!! BTW, I did not know about the Pioneer Museum in Eatonville and I just looked it up: it's only 60 miles from me! So I can't wait to go there in the spring with my son. We are homeschoolers and we love places like that! I read the Little House books to my son 2 years ago, when he was 10, and he was transfixed. I teared up and couldn't even speak at the end of Little House in the Big Woods when she talks about how "this can never be a long time ago" (I'm paraphrasing, I don't have my own copies of the books any more, unfortunately) since I remember reading those words when I was the child---how can it be that I am now the mother? Sharing the books with my son was just so wonderful. I hope to see the Wilder homestead some day. Wishing you peace and love this holiday season, Lilypad

  2. Thanks Lilypad! And enjoy your springtime visit to the museum. Steve and I stumbled upon it on our road trip when we were visiting Mount Rainier. They mentioned a lot of home school families come to see it. Even though it's geared for children, I asked them would them mind giving a quick tour to us (I am a child at heart!)

    So glad you shared these wonderful stories. Who knew Laura would be such an influence in my adult life? Looking at my thrifted copy of the book, she ends Little House in the Big Woods,

    "She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago."

    Thank you, and wishing you a most joyous and healthy holiday to your family!