Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Laura Ingalls Wilder and Me and The Long Winter

"Laura felt a warmth inside her. It was very small, but it was strong. It was steady, like a tiny light in the dark, and it burned very low but no winds would make it flicker because it would not give up." 

— Laura Ingalls Wilder (The Long Winter)
When I was growing up, I read a lot. No, I mean I actually read everything I could get my hands on. I was particularly fond of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. I felt an affinity with Laura and her older sister Mary. I was a little bit like both of them. Laura’s tomboyish ways and love of mischief fit me to a tee, but I also loved the bookish, quietness of Mary. 

My favorite book in the series was The Long Winter, but the hardships that Laura and her family and the whole town faced during the terrible blizzard of 1880 didn’t resonate with me from personal experience. I had never come up against anything remotely comparable to those tough times. The closest I came was living on the farm with no inside bathroom and only cold running water that had to be heated on top of the stove. The farmhouse had no insulation and was cold and drafty and we had no central heat, only a coal stove in the kitchen whose heat rose through an open grate to the bedroom above it. There was also a coal stove in the living room and one in my parents’ bedroom. It was lucky for us that my dad hauled coal for a living. I still love to catch a whiff of that acrid smell coming from a chimney, although it is becoming more rare these days.

Our farm lay snuggled between hills and we didn’t get the bitter, driving winds of the prairie. Winds that were so harsh, at times they drove the heavy snow into drifts as high as the top floors of the houses. I don’t remember ever running out of food, because the supply train couldn’t reach town through the ice and snow. We always had a cellar full of canned foods that my mother and sisters diligently put by all summer long. Mom even canned meat when we didn’t have a freezer. I’m sure Caroline Ingalls did those same things, but it was a long, long winter on the prairie, with many mouths to feed.

Where we live now, in west central Ohio, is on the far eastern edge of the prairie. It is flat. Our house sits across the road from large open soybean fields and we often get gale force winds that drift the snow in waves across the length of our driveway. Luckily our house is also surrounded by trees that break the force of the wind. Having trees was number one on the must-have list when we moved here almost eleven years ago. The majority of houses that were built here in the last twenty years sit in what once were soybean and corn fields, on five-acre grassed lots. I can just imagine how alone and desolate I would feel living in one of those exposed houses when we’re having a storm of this week’s magnitude, cutting off power and contact with the outside world, even for just a little while. 

I had planned to write a post last week on how I am always complaining about winter and how much I hate it. Then I read an article in our Columbus Dispatch by John Switzer, a regular columnist who writes about birds and nature and weather. In the previous week’s column he had written that, only six weeks into winter, he was tired of it, and was hoping for an early spring. He received an email from a disgruntled reader:
"Winter has just started officially, and you are already wishing it over.
"I think your blood is getting thinner with old age. Summer drags on for four or five months, with uncomfortable temperatures in the 80s and 90s, occurring May to October.
"At best, we get two or three months of consistent cold temperatures. For some reason, snow scares the hell out of most central Ohioans. The average snowfall of 30 inches is virtually nothing.
"In case you can’t tell, I love the cold and snow; grew up in the snow belt of Cleveland and miss having real winters."

So, that started me thinking. Without the freezing days of winter, there would be no killing off of pests such as fleas and ticks. We would have no purpose for all the downed trees made into firewood and carefully stacked inside the large barn. And, there would be no maple syrup, which brings me to one of my favorite parts of The Long Winter.

When Almanzo and his brother are nearly out of food, the only thing left for them to cook is flapjacks made with water and buckwheat. They didn’t have any molasses left, which was the most-used sweetener in those days, so they used something like today's brown sugar between the layers of flapjacks. Those pancakes sounded so delicious with the sugar melting a little with the heat, but still retaining a bit of the crunch. My mouth would water at the picture in my mind. There was even an illustration showing the steam rising from those stacks of golden flapjacks. 

When I was old enough to be trusted in the kitchen by myself (by this time, we had moved to town and had a more modern house), I decided to finally experience what Almanzo and his brother had so long ago. I didn’t have buckwheat, so I used self-rising flour, which is what Mom always used. I fried those pancakes in Crisco in an iron skillet until they were golden brown and crispy on the edges, slathered them with lots of butter (I know, not technically correct either), and sprinkled a good layer of brown sugar between each layer. What a disappointment! Oh, they were good. How could they not be with the half pound of butter? I suppose I wasn’t hungry enough, but the brown sugar just didn’t cut it for me. And in those days, I didn’t even know what maple syrup was. The only syrup we ever had was simple sugar syrup that Mom made in a saucepan. Two parts sugar to one part water; boiled. But I much preferred that simple syrup over brown sugar.

Thankfully, my disappointment didn’t ruin my love for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books and I would read them many times throughout my childhood and even as an adult to my own children.

This brings to mind one winter when our children were young and we lived in the country with rural electric co-op service. We had an ice storm such as we had this week, with one-half inch of ice coating the ancient power lines and the surrounding trees. On top of that, Mother Nature decided to dump twenty inches of heavy, wet snow. Many thousands of residents were without power for a week or more, with temperatures falling into the single digits.  We also didn’t have water, even though we had county water lines. The pumping station needed electricity to get the water to us. David had to take five-gallon buckets to the firehouse to fill with water to flush the toilets and also containers for drinking water. Our house survived freezing pipes because we had the foresight to install a cast iron wood-burning stove the first winter after we bought the house. It was a necessity. We couldn’t afford to heat with electricity.

I also used that wood-burning stove to cook our meals that week. To this day, my kids still talk about the sausage and “the best pancakes EVER” that I made in an iron skillet on top of that stove. They were the best pancakes ever. And we topped them with "Mom’s" syrup.

From Mr. Spitzer's column:  The name of the February moon is “snow moon” and it will be full on the 18th. The Potawatomi Indians called it the “baby bear moon”, because that is when the mother bears gave birth to their young. Other Indians called it the “hunger moon”.


Sandy Nawrot said...

I do love your stories. I was born and raised on a farm (we did have indoor plumbing!) so I really appreciated Laura and her little house on the prairie. I think I read them all at least a dozen or two times. (I re-read the first in the series a year or so ago, and it brought everything back!). However, I am quite at peace with my 80 degress today, and my shorts.

Kathryn said...

Lovely post and photos. I love winter. Peace, serenity, and a chance to catch my breath before spring (and our busy season at work).

California Girl said...

Susan, wonderful reminiscence. You should be writing the stories as little chapters and assembling into a memoir. Sounds like you'd have a winner. They are charming and certainly ring true for me.

My father was born on a farm in southern Illinois, 1910. He loved to regale us with having to run out to the outhouse in Winter. My MIL too. I guess it was a rite of passage. Dad's family often had buckwheat panckes with molasses. I didn't know until recently that brown sugar is white sugar flavored with molasses. Perhaps that is why you tried the brown sugar? Dad made us buckwheat pancakes w/ molasses when we were kids. I turned out to be allergic to buckwheat. I'd break out in hives.

WE moved into a 3 story townhouse when we first moved to NH 7 it had two woodstoves, Franklins, in the basement floor & the middle floor. Our first winter here, we had a great ice storm. It took out our power for 4 days. We used to stove to keep warm, cook, etc. Luckily, we were downhill from the well so we never ran out of water. Folks in nearby Maine were w/o power for up 10-11 days. Everyone was rushing to the local gym to shower. It was quite an adventure. The boys, 9 & 10 at the time, loved it. I remember the trees looked like they were made out of diamonds. One of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

Thanks for your memories.

The Bumbles said...

Oh I loved to read all of those Little House paperbacks as a girl. I don't remember the details, which is a trend in all of my reading from my youth. I do remember the TV series though. We used to run home from the school bus to get in front of the TV in time for the show to start. Almanzo was soooo dreamy ;0)

P.S. if that winter lover lady wants to trade places she can come live in Boston - I'll trade with her any time.

ds said...

Beautifully told, Susan. You are a natural storyteller! I have been thinking of all you hardy Midwesterners and this winter that has shown you no mercy (we've had a bit--today's ice is now thawing). I never tasted real maple syrup until adulthood: my grandmother always made brown sugar syrup, or we used molasses. But pancakes fried in a cast iron skillet? oh, yes. YUM!
Thanks for the memories--stay warm and safe!

Ruth said...

More! More!

Why'd you have to stop? I would like to listen to you read this, or just tell it, by the fire, with the snowstorm outside.

Let me again tell you that you must read the Moberg quartet of books about the emigrants from Sweden who settled in Minnesota. Chilling stories!

Please keep telling yours. I could taste that pancake from the black skillet! It's so wonderful having memories like that with your kids.

Susan said...

Sandy, you do know how to tease me with that beautiful weather down there! I'd give just about anything right now to feel some warm sunshine.

I knew you would be a fan of "Little House", especially growing up on a farm.

Susan said...

Thank you, Kathryn. Winter does have some charms, but I sure don't like not being able to get out of my driveway, or losing power in single digit temps.

Susan said...

Thank you, Cali Girl. That was a lovely compliment. Someday I may do just that. My kids would love it and I'm sure the grandkids would someday, too.

I think most people of our parents' generation who didn't live in urban areas, grew up similarly. You should have heard some of the tales my parents shared with us!

I'm not a fan of buckwheat pancakes myself. I like multi-grain sometimes, but I don't want them to taste too much like something else.

Sounds like your family had quite an adventure in the wilds of New Hampshire! I'm sure your boys do have fond memories of that time.

Trees are very beautiful covered in ice and they make a LOT of noise when the branches and twigs start breaking.

Thank you for sharing some of you memories with me. :)

Oliag said...

Hi Susan! I have been thinking of you as I have listened to the weathermen talk about the big midwestern storm and wondered how you were faring...I am sure that you could handle any storm as well as Laura Ingalls:) Somehow I never read the little House books until I had my own children to read them to and we loved them! They were our read aloud chapter books that we couldn't put down:) Just knowing that much of it was real made the books all the more exciting.

I am happy to say that I have always had the luxury to take maple syrup for granted but pancakes with sugar sounds pretty good to me!

Reading this memoir was like sitting by the fire on a cold wintry day listening to stories:)

Love that second photo of your house among the protective trees...

Char said...

i loved those stories too but could never really get the coldness of the blizzard living here in the south. but like you, i have the wonderful memories of how mother warded off what was thought to be cold by us - the floor furnace. on cold mornings mom would hang our clothes over the furnace so they would be warm and toasty when we got into them. we would go into the kitchen where she would have oatmeal (or cream of wheat) in the oven warmed room. at night before bed she would hang our pjs so we could slip into the bed warm and cozy.

beautiful memories - thank you for sharing them with us.

Judy said...

Sis, I remember these memories very well, not to mention the perfectly baked biscuits that Mom made every morning in the wood stove oven. You have a real way of telling the memories that makes them come to life. Thank you for helping me remember some of the very important happenings of our childhood. My love always

Deborah said...

Is this synchronicity or what? I swear I hadn't seen this post when I wrote my FB comment to you this morning about your comments bringing to mind 'Little House'.

I loved those books too, and was telling MFB about them just two days ago as we drove through the snow-covered Provencal countryside.

What struck me about your story is that you could say things like 'The closest I came was living on the farm with no inside bathroom and only cold running water that had to be heated on top of the stove. The farmhouse had no insulation and was cold and drafty and we had no central heat, only a coal stove in the kitchen whose heat rose through an open grate to the bedroom above it.
Well, you might not have been living in a sod house, and you might never have run out of food, but what you DID experience was pretty darn harsh. Compared to my city upbrining, yours was a lot closer to a pioneer way of life.

I love your stories, Susie. They're always interesting to read, and you tell them without embellishment. Good humoured and straight up, no complaints. Keep telling them - not just for us, your lucky readers, but for your kids and grandkids. You're living history!

Susan said...

Molly, my kids and I loved the series, too! In fact, you're about the same age as my oldest, I think. My dream guy was a little older though...I went for Michael Landon. :)

BTW, the "winter lover lady" (Kathryn) lives in British Columbia, so if she lives in the coastal areas (I can't remember), she probably does have a lot better weather than Boston. Maybe you guys can do a vacation home trade! Now would be a good time...right?

Susan said...

ds, thank you! I'm much more of a straight storyteller than a deep thinker, that's for sure. And that's okay with me. I've tried the deep thinking and it hurts my brain too much. ;-)

I never had maple syrup until I was well into my adulthood. I didn't like it at first...didn't like the tang of it, or I just had bad maple syrup, not sure. We have wonderful local maple syrup. Just west of us is a little hilly area with an abundance of maple trees. There are several syrup farmers there and we buy from them every year. Delicious stuff!

I love molasses whipped with butter for biscuits, but I've never cared for it on pancakes.

Staying warm, hope you are, too!

Susan said...

Ruthie, I promise I'll give you more as I get my memory jogged. Maybe I'll record some of my stories someday if I can ever figure out how to use Podcast. Even though I hate to hear my recorded voice. Do I sound like that really? ugh.

I promise I will look on today and see if they have the Moberg books. I believe they would go well with a hot cup of tea in front of a roaring fire.

One of my biggest regrets is that I didn't keep a journal all my life. I've forgotten more than I'll ever remember. :(

Susan said...

Oliag, I don't know if am as tough as Caroline must have been, but I'm a whole lot better equipped! :) Now there was a real woman! She had very trying times and still managed to be a lady through it all. That is class with a capital C.

I'm so glad you and your girls shared these wonderful stories. The best thing about them is that anyone of any age can find enjoyment there.

That is actually our barn in the second picture. I wish our house was that interesting! :)

Thank you for that nice compliment. XO

Susan said...

Char, you are definitely pretty far south to relate to this kind of winter, but you've had a little taste of it this year. It just doesn't last as long as it does here. I'm so glad I don't live any farther north.

When my mom remarried after my dad died, my step-father's house had a floor furnace. On cold winter days I loved to straddle it and get really warm before I had to head to my cold bedroom.

My mom would always make oatmeal and cream of wheat for us, too. I love cream of wheat with buttery toast and crisp, salty bacon. Yum!

Susan said...

Sweet sister Judy, we need to collaborate on a few stories that I don't remember as well as you do. Those biscuits were wonderful, weren't they? I wish I could eat one right now. David's Grandma Hinkle made them the same way. I've always said that the test of a good biscuit is one that tastes as good cold as it does hot out of the oven. And hers did.

I'm so glad you like my memory telling. Love you much.

Susan said...

Deb, I thought for sure when I looked at FB this morning that you had read this post first! That's awesome! Synchronicity--we has it!

The only thing I can say about living a harsh life is that I didn't know anything different, so I never desired anything different. Pretty much everyone around us lived the same way, so we didn't look on any of those people with envy. Of course, I was pretty young when we moved off the farm and probably only remember the good things, and maybe that's the way it should be.

Thank you for your wonderful support. I'm so glad you enjoy the way I tell my stories. I write just the way I talk, so I suppose I'm talking my stories.

The drive through Provence sounds loverly.

Dutchbaby said...

You sure know how to tell a great story, Susan! Yes, more!

I read the LHOP books out loud to my kids, from the first one through "Farmer Boy". What was it that made those books so cozy? Yes, we felt fortunate that we didn't have to make do with a corn cob for a doll, but on the other hand, the simplicity in their lives was enviable.

Susan said...

Thank you, Dutchbaby! I think the reason LHOP is so universally loved is the fact that there is not a false note to be found in those pages. Everything rings true. And no matter how harsh their lives were, there was so much love there.

eileeninmd said...

Lovely post and your photos are beautiful.

Susan said...

Eileen, thank you for visiting and your very nice compliment!

You must be very busy keeping up with your many blogs! Your bird photos are beautiful.

Anonymous said...

As a transplant to the Cleveland snow belt I have to admit the harsh winters have grown on me. The snow doesn't bother me, I usually look forward to it. It's not as easy to be cooped up for months now that I have an infant, but soon he'll be excited about the snow too :)

VioletSky said...

I really don't mind winter, though it can get pretty drab and grey. I used to live in the 'snow belt' and much preferred that to where we just get snow, then slush.
I do get rather annoyed when people start complaining of the cold/snow/winter after only a day or so of bad weather. Our winters are not nearly so bad as in the midwest, so shut up, I say.

You know I have never read those book and never heard of her until the tv series. In fact it was years before I realized the series was based on real books and a real memoir! (obviously, I didn't stay for the credits...)

Susan said...

Stacy, I like your positive attitude about winter! All I can say is, I'm glad it only lasts 3 months! I do have to confess that I like snow much better than mud, which is what we'll have in about a month. Not fun with dogs.

Susan said...

Sanna, that's one of the main reasons for my dislike of winter...the grey, grey, and more grey days. We get a lot of those here. If the sun would shine after a storm passes through (once in a while it does), I would feel a lot more kindly toward Old Man Winter.

It's never too late to start reading LHOP. They're as enjoyable as an adult as they were when I was a child.

Wanda..... said...

I returned as usual to view your replies, but don't see my comment to you...Lost I guess.

Your memories of sugar syrup are similar to early ones of mine, of mornings with my grandmother who lived with us. With my own young family, we too lived in a rather remote area at one time...the power outages left us with some great memories also.

Love your reminiscing, Susan!

Anonymous said...

I just loved this post, Susan. I had a teacher who read to us everyday and she introduced me to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series.

It was so nice to read this today. It brought back many memories. Some of your experiences with storms and houses with no insulation and no central heat were part of my childhood, too.

Wonderful post.

Susan said...

Thank you, Wanda. When my kids were young we had plenty of opportunity to use our pioneer skills as our power was off frequently. One of my favorite things to do was make a game of learning all the states and their capitols.

Susan said...

Thank you, Bella! Your kind words and support mean so much to me. I think a lot of people our age grew up similarly. I wouldn't trade it for the made me who I am today. :)

Barb said...

Hi Susan, My little granddaughter in second grade is making her way through the Little House books. I like your snowy photos. I am a lover of winter - and it's a good thing since about 10 months of the year is devoted to it in the mts of CO!

Susan said...

Barb, isn't it wonderful the many generations of children who have enjoyed those books? I need to start reading them to my grandkids soon.

I can't say I'm a lover of winter, but at least in CO you have sunshine a lot of the winter, where here it's mostly gray, gray, and more gray. :(