In Praise of Laura Ingalls Wilder, (for Michelle, on 11-11-11)

There are plenty of reasons for a man to get married. Mine apparently has something to do with Laura Ingalls Wilder, though I wouldn’t have believed it until last week. As my wife approaches her 43rd birthday, I have become glad and gladder that she is a reader, and that she has a fondness for the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

My wife and I are very different people. She’s from the West, I am from the East. I’m from the city and she’s from… I’m not sure what you’d call it, near the Silicon Valley.  She’s moving into in her mid 40’s now and I’m in my early 50’s. Reagan was president when she was in her teens, so conservatives ruled her world. Carter was president in my teens, so I remember real liberals. My folks worked in factories, hers in a lab and in computers.  She’s a voracious reader, and I seem to be turning into a voracious writer.

And as we dated and learned stories of each other’s childhoods, there came what would become an ongoing theme — the idyllic picture of my future wife, sitting in her father-built tree-house, reading. Occupying a special place in books she read numerous times were the “Little House On The Prairie” books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. And when she was done reading them, she’d come in and watch TV with the family – you guessed it – Little House On The Prairie with Michael Landon as “Pa”. I learned my lessons about justice and family from such fare as “Batman” and “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father”, she was into that more “girly” stuff while I was into the more “masculine” images, of course.

If I were to write a book on life lessons, it would be “Everything I Needed to Know Was Found in Folk\Rock Music”.  If Michelle was to write a book, it would be “Everything I Needed to Know is in The Little House Books”.

In the summer of 2010, this bi-focused life was experienced in the “Rock and Roll Prairie Tour” – the first few days on our westward vacation were dedicated to Rock Music – Martin Guitars, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and later a history of Oklahoma Rock and Roll at a museum in Oklahoma. The rest of the trip was about “Laura”, whom we would get to know as a person over the course of days. We saw Laura’s house when she was an author, a replica of the actual “Little House” described in one of the books. There was a play about the Little House books and how they came to be writer. I think we took the same general path of Laura’s life. My wife took a piece of grass from the prairie near the cabin. It was like that. All of that seemed a bit much to me, but I’m sure the entire history of Rock and Roll in the car seemed a bit much to her.

One of the other differences that had to be worked out in our marriage was gender roles and expectations. I had been told that I might be better off to marry a feminine, dumb woman, but it didn’t fit me. What would we talk about if I had to spend the rest of my life with her? So, I married a genius or near genius and, at times, it’s a challenge because she can argue me under the table even if I’m right. But she likes men and I like women, so for nearly twenty years, we’ve been trying to make it work with all those differences.

She has thought a lot about being a woman and I… well, I’m just a guy. I never wanted to be a MAN (grunt, grunt). I want to be a GUY (hand me that wrench and pass me my beer after I watch the Three Stooges). I mostly took male “normalcy” for granted until I got married and I still try to, but in a house of two daughters, a female cat, a female dog, and a female housemate, it gets harder and harder to do.  My “guy-ness” never had any interest in dominating women and I always thought women could be anything they wanted to, so I’m not threatened by them, but their world is still weird.

As you may have guessed by now, women were, are, and remain, a mystery to me. What they do in “women’s world” (when they’re by myself) is a giant Black Hole in my knowledge base. I feel like Sargeant Shultz from the old “Hogan’s Heroes” TV show – I know nothing. As my children approach their teenage years, I see more of what goes on, on that planet, but it’s still weird.  All those years of, “It’s a woman thing, you wouldn’t understand” – said by men or women – led to this weirdness.

Prior to our meeting some twenty years ago, I had always assumed that growing up and “being a woman” meant “being feminine” – all dainty and unable or unwilling to work at hard physical labor – certainly un-required to do all that. In the East, it’s what “ladies” in the Big City aspire to be, at least as far as I know. As I’ve said, I’m not a “real” macho man, so I don’t really like “feminine” women. I don’t want to work that hard. I wanted a partner – an equal.

But, the Western woman – and the mid-Western woman — is very different, especially when it comes to being “dainty”. She is “female” and “a good woman”, but she is not a “lady” per se, averse to hard work. She doesn’t expect to be fawned over, even if it would be nice every once in a while.  Fawning and the “dropping of the handkerchief” thing is not all that practical. The western woman of literature is practical, and a partner.

Now, I want to be a leader and be a Beta-male. She wants to lead in the world, and the whole gender thing gets funky at times, but it’s a good thing it does. So, here we are, going through life as “Harry Chapin meets Laura Ingalls Wilder” – which leads us to last week.

Last Saturday night, (two Saturdays ago, by the time you read this) we had a nasty, nasty storm. There was– a week before Halloween – 6 inches of snow, mixed with rain, on top of the leaves in our trees. There were loud “booms” in the neighborhood and my daughter would announce “transformer” as each one nearby blew. She also announced “flicker!” each time the lights did, until they didn’t do anything at all.  On Sunday, we didn’t have power, so Michelle emptied the freezer and the fridge “until the power comes back on”.  Would I have done that?  No. It wouldn’t have even occurred to me.  The only part of food I know anything about is eating it – and cooking it if it’s something I grew up with. Picking it, storing it, worrying about it? Not my deal.  If it was winterizing the car, I’d know what to do. (So there.)

Anyway, that was Sunday. Monday, we still didn’t have any power, and my wife knew just what to do.  She got out the grill and the briquettes.  Then she went looking for wood, just like Laura would do, though she, of course, did it with a car. She came home (while I was at work) and lit a fire in the fireplace, just like Laura would do. The next day, I had the kids while she went and taught a class, just like Laura did later in life. Tuesday night there still was no power, and we had a funeral to go to, so — like the family in the covered wagon — we packed up many of our worldly goods in the station wagon and went.

Wednesday, she had class, so she got to combine teaching (as Laura did) with traveling with the family in a wagon (as Laura did) only to return home and cook over an open fire, (as Laura did).  I came home from counseling people to her discussing the finer points of grilling and food spoilage with family friends. Did it bother her to be grilling in the cold and the dark? Not so you’d know it. After the company left, she lit the fire using a variety of materials, pulled out the lanterns and candles and sectioned off the rest of the house so we could all huddle in the one room with a fire. Did I mention she’s not afraid to work? My wife generally has more energy than the Energizer Bunny and this past week was no different. She was in direct contrast to the house with no energy and the family that required it.

Thursday, this whole thing was getting tiring, but I had an office with electricity and new internet to go to and I stayed there most of the day. When I came home, I was sure the power must be on. CL & P had said it would by last night at midnight. It wasn’t on, but my wife had gotten better at keeping the house warm – opening the windows during the day, closing them at night, blocking off sections of the house, lighting a fire (and probably a few other things as well) all kept the house a nearly warm 55 degrees at night. We had also begun offering hot showers to our friends, as part of the western hospitality thing that Laura would have practiced. There weren’t as few people in our neighborhood as Laura would have seen in her little prairie house, but it did seem like were in the middle of nowhere without any neighbors or modern conveniences. Thank goodness no one came over the ridge into our neighborhood wearing only their union suit, like in the Christmas episode of the TV show.

Friday, it was back to teaching class, taking the kids with her and reviewing their schoolwork\projects afterwards.

Saturday, while I went to work cold and groggy, she got up and took the kids once again. But this time she took them to a place that used to be more rustic than our house – Camp Wightman – where she and the kids cleaned up around cabins, buildings, and other places.  After that, she and the kids moved into one of the cabins overnight. The cabin had heat, and electricity, and the promise of internet – three things that our actual house no longer did. In addition to all of this, she stayed up and worked on sermon she was preaching the next day and doing laundry. (I can do laundry, and have done so for years, I just don’t know where to find washing machines unless they are a) in my basement or b) at the Laundromat in our neighborhood. I was impressed that she found the machine and did the clothes before I got there from a long day of working and driving.

Sunday morning was difficult. She had plans and knew how to pack and move and do all those things and I couldn’t think clearly. Anyone that knows me can tell you, I’m not a morning person. Also, as the one who was giving to hope to people all day in my office and trying to give hope about the house lights, I was all out of hope. When someone at the camp asked when power was coming on, I said, (with my morning voice, but quite seriously) “Never ever”.  So she went off to preach and I took the kids hither, skither, and yon to all the places they had to be – church, choir, special meal after church, etc. Sometimes, we’re the good modern couple (remember, Harry Chapin always wanted to spend time with his kid in “Cat’s In The Cradle”). Sunday was one of those times.  By mid- afternoon, it became apparent that neither hope nor our electric lights were coming back on. I was fit to be tied. (Pa never got mad, at least on TV, but I sure was that day and she handled it).

Our friends had gotten their power back on so the girls went to their house while we adults toughed it out at the house. Our housemate lit the fireplace while we went and had a change of pace – dinner and a movie, out. Harry’s not as comfortable on the prairie as he is with all the modern conveniences. It was a good night, but our neighborhood still had no power and I had moved onto the third stage of grief – after denial, and bargaining with the new life. I had moved into anger, but kept it together while Laura didn’t seem to mind at all.

Monday night, I needed creature comforts and went to our friends while she needed alone time and stayed at the house for the night. By Tuesday, power was on and “Laura” had toughed it all out.

So, as I said, I married a thrown-out-of-time, real life, Laura Ingalls Wilder. I still haven’t read the books, but she doesn’t have the entire Harry Chapin catalog, either. We manage. So now, in the 20th year of our marriage (20 years in May, 2012), I am singing the praises of someone from a “girl” book, someone I thought was kind of silly and boring for years, someone who is female, but not necessarily a “lady”, someone who picked up the slack when her husband was out doing his job, (which includes raising the family).  I think highly of that woman who survived our “winter” in the wilderness. I celebrate Laura Ingalls Wilder.

 

Peace,

 

John


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