Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Happy Birthday Laura Ingalls!

Despite appearances otherwise, this picture of a belligerent pioneer girl is from my own childhood and NOT the childhood of Laura Ingalls.  It was taken when I was four, on one of the re-enactment wagon trains which my mother so adored . . . and I was absolutely convinced was a level of hell which Dante forgot to include.  The only reason I tolerated these weeklong excursions on horseback across the Dakota Prairie was because I hoped it would bring me closer in spirit to Laura.  From an early age, I was completely in love with the stories of her life which she told in the Little House books.  Today is the 150th anniversary of her birth, and I am reflecting on the impact which Laura had on my life.

As a child, I read and re-read all the books in the Little House series.  Laura's adventures seemed so real to me.  I learned the lesson of always obeying one's mother when Laura's life was saved from a possible bear attack because she did exactly as her mother told her.  I knew Laura & I had to be kindred spirits with her love of her dog Jack, just as I loved our dogs Mop and Aaron and Sadie.  When Jack went missing during their wagon travels, I was heartbroken.  And when he found the family again, I was as joyful as Laura must have been.  I worried about Mary when she went blind, detested Nellie Olsen for being such a snob, and understood why Laura loved working with Pa on his farm.  As a child, my concept of true love was based on the courtship of Laura & Almanzo.  The life which Laura wrote about influenced so much of my perception of my own world.  Even the dresses I chose as a child tended to have a "prairie" influence!

Before I could read the books myself, my mother read Laura's stories to me.  These stories became something that strengthened the bond between us.  My mother knew she could "shorthand" any lesson she wanted to teach me by referencing something that Laura experienced.  We took many trips to visit Laura's homes.  As a child, my mother would let me pick out a doll or another memento when we visited one of those historic sites.  As an adult, I would buy any book about Laura, and then my mother would read it to me as I drove during our travels.  We saw the Little House in the Big Woods in Pepin WI, drove to the cemetery in Independence KS to pay our respects to Dr. Tan who saved the Ingalls family from Malaria, hiked to the site of the dugout on the Banks of Plum Creek, and visited the hotel at Burr Oak IA that Pa Ingalls briefly managed.  Many family trips were taken to DeSmet SD to tour the Surveyor's House, visit the replica of the Brewster School, see the still-standing Cottonwoods that Pa planted on his land claim and read the historic marker there (on which Bette the Poodle enjoyed posing), and pay our respects at the cemetery to Pa, Ma, Mary, and Carrie.  One of my favourite memories was the visit that my mother & I made to the home of Laura & Almanzo in Missouri.  We had an amazing time there, and I learned a great deal about Laura as a writer.  Even more important: I learned that Laura & Almanzo had a herd of goats at Rocky Ridge Farm!  

Through these travels, I learned that the Laura Ingalls Society sponsored an annual essay contest.  In 2007, I wrote an entry about my travels with my mother to Laura's homes, how these experiences drew us closer, and the lessons that Laura & I both learned from our mothers.  It was a humbling moment to be able to surprise my mother with the good news of the recognition I received for that essay.  She was in the last months of her battle with cancer, and I was tremendously excited to surprise her with the essay I wrote on our travels together and the award I received for it.  Laura Ingalls may have lived so long before me, but her words taught me lessons, exposed me to new ideas, and allowed me to experience her adventures.  Reading these stories with my mother deepened the bond between us and I am terrifically grateful for the happy memories which we shared through our love of Laura's books.

When I was a child, an adult asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I can still vividly recall how she laughed at me when I said I wanted to be Laura Ingalls.  I was quite indignant as a five year old that this adult could not appreciate my life goals and told me dismissively that I could not be Laura Ingalls.  And now at age 40, I am a teacher, I am a farmer, I have travelled this country, I am a writer, and I own goats . . . Life goals achieved!  Laura's words still influence my life.  Frequently when I think of leaving the farm for a quick errand while looking an awful mess, I recall Laura's admonition that when you go to town you are always representing the farm community -- and then I get dressed up as Laura would to best represent farmers.  I am grateful that my mother inspired me to love reading and introduced me to Laura, I am fortunate that I found such a remarkable woman to inspire my mind as a child, and I am grateful that Laura Ingalls taught me that a person's life lived with dignity can impact others long after they have passed.  

Happy Birthday, Laura!

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