Wednesday, January 13, 2010
"Ma" is short for martyr
I'm talking here about the generalized definition of martyr, the "constant sufferer" definition. And the Ma in reference is poor Ma Ingalls, wife of Pa Ingalls, mother of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the woman who so famously penned her memoirs in the Little House series of books.
When I read these books years ago, I was amazed at how different Laura's life was from my own, and also amazed at how similar we were. There she was, living out of covered wagons and spending her days quilting, seeing very few other people, traveling to so many different homes in so few years. And yet, we both had pigtails, we both had sisters, we both loved to go barefoot and wade in creeks, we both got tired of being well-behaved. It was uncanny how our experiences could be so dissimilar and so parallel at the same time. I loved those books.
For years, I carried a happy, glossy memory of the entire series, the characters described therein, and the exciting events each title regaled.
Now, I'm re-reading the books aloud with my son. We'll see whether we finish the series; he may become bored near the end, as the main characters (girls) grow older and more of the story is about social interaction instead of howling wolves and screaming panthers. So far, he's liking them, even though there is much he doesn't understand yet. I explain some of the finer details, and other times we just keep reading; he gets the gist of the story, enough to maintain continuity and make sense of what's happening. I'm enjoying it as much as he is. Sort of.
What I don't recall from my first, childhood reading is the sadness and anger—mostly anger—that I'm feeling for Ma's sake this time around. When I was a kid, packing everything and moving across the country, stretch by stretch, seemed fun and enticing. Pa's enthusiasm and exuberance won me over time and again, as he described the great opportunities that always lay just out of reach, a few months into the future, a few miles down the road. Every day in the Ingalls home must have been an adventure, I'd think. People sang and played and never got hung up on material things the way they do now. It seemed romantic and dreamy, moving and building new homes and furniture and getting new work animals and finding out about new environs. Never a dull moment.
Now, I read the stories and I am Ma. I am the woman who is trying to care for three little girls, the youngest a toddler, without a washing machine or a microwave. I am the poor wife who must sew the family's clothes, the maidservant who is expected to cook meals and wash dishes with only an open fire and some water in a washtub, I am the unrecognized head of the household who must hold it together when Indians walk into my home uninvited, the adult who must stay calm when Pa's been gone five days instead of the expected four and the war whoops are thick and fierce in the wind outside. I am the one who must drive the horses through a flooded creek, who must help to build a house because no one's found any neighbors yet, who must put out chimney fires because Pa's away.
And I, Ma, am getting rather pissed.
Because now, instead of Pa's musical charms and frontiersman spirit and boundless hope, I hear only the emptiness of his promises: next season the crops'll be huge, any day now the government will grant the settlers permission to be where they already are, those Indians are no threat at all. Yes, he provides for his family. Yes, he works his tail off. Yes, he loves Ma and his girls and appreciates them and delights in them and does all he can do for them. Sort of.
But I am Ma. And I just want to be in my home, in a familiar place, with a few friends nearby, and some family within reasonable calling distance. I want help around the house, not adventure. I don't even have a mailbox nearby, let alone a cell phone. I am alone, isolated, overworked, and I'm really getting angry at being dragged across the vast plains, leaving days and weeks of hard work and roots put down, all to satisfy some stupid man's wanderlust. I'm a frontier wife. I don't have a choice. And that, my dear reader, really is not right.
I hope my annoyance doesn't show when I read those parts out loud to my boy. But I'll bet it does. I never was much of a poker face.