Sunday, May 21, 2017
The Missing Chapter in Little House...
There's something about Laura Ingalls Wilder that has always fascinated me. Perhaps it was her tenacity and rebelliousness. I mean she was the one who refused to say "obey" in her wedding vows. Perhaps it was her resiliency through every disaster and hardship a person could experience. Perhaps it was her determination and drive to succeed despite the odds always being stacked against her. Perhaps it was her wandering spirit and desire to see and do more. Or perhaps, since I related to none of the aforementioned characteristics when I read her book as a 6 year old, it was the her tiny house and her family that I felt most connected to. A middle child with brown hair, bucked teeth, a tomboy attitude and a little house I called home.
With a Dad that worked nights and a mom that worked days this house wasn't always filled to the brim with the five of us. And nothing was ever perfect. While Laura's Pa struggled with the stresses of bad crop seasons and making ends meet on the salary of a farmer, my Dad struggled with the stresses of a bad shift and making ends meet on the salary of a city beat cop. Yet like Laura I looked up to my Dad as a hero. Someone invincible, indestructible and steadfast. While Laura's Ma struggled to educate her children and keep them fed, my Mom struggled to work a full time job with minimal childcare and an incredibly tight budget. And I looked up to her as someone who could make it all work.
My parents married very young. By the time they were my age they had three children under the age of ten, two of the most stressful jobs in this country, a mortgage, and an ever growing stack of bills. Overtime and holiday pay meant we could stay afloat and like the Ingalls', we were ok for another month. And it continued to be this way, within this tiny house, for years. While my Dad never pulled out a fiddle and sat around the campfire, he did introduce me to the twin fiddles in George Strait songs and we all huddled around that kerosene heater during the Blizzard of '94.
The more books in the Little House series I read the more I drew parallels to my life and Laura's. When my family moved to the country I could only reason with myself that I had actually entered the books as Laura herself (now with orthodontic assistance) as snow engulfed our house, we grew most of our own food in the summer time, there was a general store, and there was nothing to see for miles but wide open spaces and mountaintops. Our house was bigger yet my parents worked tirelessly to provide for their children. My sister and I never shared a cup and our presents were never shiny pennies or candy sticks we had to save. But like Mary and Laura the competition between my older sister and myself was strong. And in the same likeness so was the discipline handed down to make sure all three of us knew better.
As I grew older the idea of laying roots grew more obscure and the dream of having wings took shape. I had the drive in me to venture away from the little town and make something of myself on my own. Like Laura, my heart was set on independence and roaming with a purpose. And I looked to my parents as two strong oak trees that would withstand the strongest winds in the Big Woods and survive the raging waters that sometimes came to the banks of Plum Creek... just like Ma and Pa .
But the book ended.
It ended without a preface in italics preparing you for what was to come. There were no Garth Williams illustrations to make the impact of the finality more comforting. The Ingalls Family was no longer comparable to mine. And the parallels I had spent over 25 years drawing between my family and Laura's came to an abrupt and permanent end. While the children were grown and on their own, the home Laura would come back to and the faces around the dinner table she knew would be there when she walked through the door, were gone.
The finality of Ma and Pa... the finality of my parents... was nowhere to be found in a Little House on the Prairie book. I knew how to prepare for floods, famine, failed jobs, bullies, blizzards, and blindness. But despite every disaster Laura held my hand through she never guided me through divorce. And after more than 30 years as the daughter of a Mr. and Mrs. I find myself the daughter of two people who share the same last name but no longer the same address.
Can I be angry that my family dynamic has changed into something I never predicted it would be? No. I try to rationalize that being angry serves no purpose but to create friction and tension. Can I be confused and apprehensive as to what the next steps are in this new uncharted territory? It's absolutely inevitable. Not only did Laura Ingalls Wilder not prepare me for this detour in my life but there are actually no books out there for grown children who have recently divorced parents. There are plenty of books for children on this topic essentially letting the child know "it's not your fault" but it's as if adult children should know what to do and how to do it without question. Unfortunately that's not the case. We may not have to worry about custody agreements but we're faced with the looming question, "What now?"
What about Christmas? Mr. Edwards can't come and fix this one with presents he has packed in brown paper and sweet potatoes he hid in his pockets. No. Christmas means figuring out a balance between each parent while trying not to lose yourself in the mathematical equation of times, places and side dishes. Holidays mean a separate but equal existence in a situation I never thought could be shared. Reservations arise about the first date small talk I'll have to make and saying the words, "they're divorced." Hesitations arise about first dates in general because not only will there be mine in the future... my parents will have their own.
You're continuously told "you want them to be happy, don't you?" and "it's always for the best" and my personal favorite, "nothing is really changing since you're an adult." Everything is changing. Maybe despite all my growing, life experiences and spreading of wings I still find myself a little girl in that little house sitting around that kerosene heater. I still find myself the untamable teenager staring down the road to what's ahead yet looking back over my shoulder at the two solid oak trees standing side by side knowing what's behind me.
Without question I want my parents to be happy. And at times I feel selfish and immature for taking a while to process what happened and how it happened. But at the same time, unlike a little kid, I had a longer time period to see my parents together and establish what "normal" was for our family. Divorce is not easy on any party involved. Everyone is hurt. Everyone is confused and knocked off balance for a while. It may not all come at once to each family member. One may feel it first. Stand back up. And walk straight. While another starts to waver, loses their step and begins to process. There is no playbook for this situation. There is no manual. There is no 19th cross-stitch embroidered quote sitting on the Ingalls' hearth that will answer all the questions divorce creates.
But there is time. There is patience. There is honesty. There is the realization that decisions made by one person or two people have a ripple effect. Everyone is essentially brought into the situation. I guess that's the problem with a family. You think your actions are solely yours but they actually shuffle the entire deck thereby changing the cards everyone is holding. It's ok to feel like you need time to wrap your head around the new normal. Just as it's ok to make decisions that you believe are made for the greater good. It's ok not to be ok.
It was always obvious that Pa Ingalls, despite his continuous set backs and trials, knew that everything was going to work out in the end. The crops would grow. The wagon would be fixed. The horse would be found. Ma Ingalls would provide that moral support and do what was best for the family at the end of the day. And perhaps I find some comfort in that as I try to find the Ingalls in my parents once again. Divorce is not failure when it's done because it's what is best for the family and with the mindset that everything will work out in the end.
So perhaps that's the crossroads we stand at right now. Through time, patience, honesty and an understanding that the new normal will somehow find it's way into each of our own little houses. My Dad's little house. My mom's little house. My siblings little houses. And my little apartment. We're no longer all under one roof, stepping on each other's toes and reaching for that last piece of cake at the dinner table. We're a group of little houses that have their own kitchen tables. Their own tin cups. Their own kerosene heaters. Their own fiddles and nighttime stories. And hopefully we'll all be able to take a piece of each little house we call home and bring it together to eventually make that one little house again. A house that's no longer broken and divided but pieced together to create a little house, in it's entirety, that's just... our family.
I may no longer be the daughter of a husband and a wife. I may no longer be Laura Ingalls Wilder inside her parent's home eating Ma's cooking and listening to Pa's stories around the kitchen table. And that's ok. Because the one thing that can't be taken from me is the pioneer spirit in my heart. And one day, like my own covered wagon across the prairie, I'll take an Airstream and pick up where Laura left off. And still come back to a little house...