Laura Ingalls Wilder really messed with my head.
Growing up, her stories were endlessly fascinating to me. Descriptions of things like headcheese would send my mind racing. What was it? Cheese that was aged in a pig’s skull? Cheese that contained actual head tissue? Or, could it be…gasp…both? I didn’t care. If Laura liked it, then spread it on a piece of brown bread and call me “Half Pint.”
I was envious of the Christmas when Mary and Laura gave Carrie a bracelet out of buttons and then made candy by pouring syrup into pans of snow. Even the simplest domestic details, like how Mary and Laura would wash the dishes, make the beds and run out to toss the old pig bladder around on the prairie grasses, would make me wistful for a covered wagon and dirt floors.
It didn’t matter that I hated these things in real life. I despised being dirty. Doing the dishes with my own sister was like being in the third layer of hell and running around outside without shoes on was a good way to get glass stuck in your tender foot flesh. If someone had tried to give me a button bracelet for Christmas I would have chucked it at their head.
But I liked sitting on my comfy couch in my air conditioned living room and reading how much Laura liked those things. It sounded like a good life to me – if you could overlook the plagues of crows and scarlet fever blindness.
I wanted a life of self-sufficiency. I wanted to use it up, wear it out, make it do.
So, when a friend introduced me to Pinterest a few years ago, I took to it like a grasshopper to Pa’s wheat field.
I had dabbled in the domestic arts before. My mom taught me how to embroider tea towels. I made cookies from scratch more than once. I read cookbooks for fun. But Pinterest offered me endless tips on how to make my own cleaning supplies out of vinegar and 1,001 uses for castille soap. I had a pioneer manual right in front of me. All I had to do was click “Pin It.”
I started to embroider tea towels again. I learned how to bake my own bread, make gifts out of scrap fabric and bottle my own ketchup. I stopped buying boxed cereal and made my own granola.
And it was good. Until it wasn’t. I couldn’t keep up. The kids ate the ketchup too fast and wouldn’t eat the granola at all. And the bread, my god the bread! Do you know how long it takes to make a loaf of bread?
Then there’s laundry. We didn’t throw out our washing machine or anything, but we did stop using the dryer. I’m mostly ok with this. I like lined-dried clothes. But now it takes two days to do a load of laundry instead of two hours and our jeans feel like cardboard when we first put them on.
And then our wagon wheels turned down a bumpier path. Reading about all this clean living stuff had me worrying about things like armpit cancer. So I started to make my own deodorant. That worked fine until we actually started to sweat. Then I had to look up how to get sweat stains and body odor out of our shirts. That gave way to a couple of good recipes for homemade laundry detergent. It sounded feasible and was going to save us a billion dollars year, so I whipped up a batch. Now my husband is getting ring around the collar. I thought this phenomenon had been eradicated decades ago, like polio or Communism.
All of this has left me feeling like a bit of a failure. And like I might be becoming the butt of a joke. It’s like I’m two bottles of mead and a petticoat away from being a “Portlandia” sketch.
But Laura had promised me that the simple life was good and rewarding. Why was I sucking at it? Was my reward a pile of smelly clothes and a house that reeked like vinegar?
Things came to a bit of a head this weekend when I tried to make aprons with my daughters. “What a fun way to end spring break!” I thought. “What great memories we’ll make!”
Only it wasn’t fun and I’m pretty sure the only memory they will have is me muttering things like, “What the frick is basting?” and “I’ll rip you a seam.”
Caroline Ingalls I am not.
So we put away the aprons. And I decided to cut myself a break.
I might still make the odd bottle of ketchup or batch of granola, but I’m not going to beat myself up if I break down and buy a bottle of Heinz. The ghost of Laura Ingalls Wilder will not haunt me if I don’t put shiny tin cups and peppermint sticks in my children’s Christmas stockings.
We will still hang out clothes out to dry. I like to see our underpants waving at me from the backyard. I just imagine they are out there blowing in the prairie winds.