The words gratitude and thankfulness get thrown around a lot this time of year. My daughters are in first grade and once again they had to write down what they were thankful for and draw the requisite picture. They’ve been doing this since preschool and it doesn’t vary much – mommy, daddy, a toy, their sister, etc. But, this year my daughter S____’s number one thing on her list of things she was thankful for was FOOD. She was so proud to point it out to me. All I could think was, “Oh no, I’ve turned into that mom.” The mom who tells them to eat what they’re given for dinner because there are children in the world without food, children in the world who would love to eat broccoli, who’ve never seen a grocery store much less an ice cream truck that parks outside your school every day. I have pulled out the cliche guilt in order to make a point and because I am not a short order cook.
So, I told S__ that I thought it was great to be thankful for food but wondered what had made her think of it. “Well,” she said, “I’m happy that I don’t have to eat a potato every day for breakfast or maybe starve in the winter like Laura.” And then it made sense. Laura Ingalls, half-pint, the emblem of endless years of pioneer life on the prairie had sunk into my daughter’s brain in a meaningful way. For the last five months I have been reading the Little House on the Prairie books to my daughters at night before bed. We have just finished the sixth book, The Long Winter, in which the entire town practically starves and freezes to death during the first winter of settlement when the trains cannot get through to deliver goods or coal from The East. They barely survive on seed wheat which they have to grind by hand each day to make one small loaf of bread divided among the six Ingalls family members.
What amazes me about these books is how much my daughters have absorbed and learned from them. They are continually fascinated by the things Laura had and, more importantly, didn’t have. If rabbit stew was served at breakfast, then rabbit stew it was. If you needed a new dress Ma had to make one if she could afford the cloth. And if you wanted a doll to play with you had to wait until there were enough fabric scraps to create a rag doll. Now, there are certainly parts of the world and millions of people who still live in similar conditions, but little Laura Ingalls and her family have illuminated a life of need over want, a life of gratitude over greed in a way that my daughters can relate to.
I didn’t intend to teach anything when I began reading the Little House books to my daughters. I just remembered how much I loved them when I was little and figured they’d enjoy hearing about life at another time in American History since they had started asking so many questions about it. But I have to say that these books have illuminated many things for me as well. After we finished the chapters that described their first wagon trip over the Mississippi from Wisconsin to Indian Territory I swore I’d never complain about traveling with my kids on a plane again. And now, in this crumbling economy its hard not to look at the Ingalls and marvel at their thrift, their practicality, their incredibly solid set of priorities and their intense familial bond. All of these traits got them through the most frightening and dire of situations on the prairie.
In New York City where everything you could ever want, and so many things you don’t even know you want, are dangled in front of you as you walk down the street, its hard to remember that you don’t need any of it. Its harder still to teach this to your kids for whom the city is like one giant unavoidable mall of plenty. I hope I can incorporate some Ingalls-ness into our everyday life and resist the temptation to blindly spend on more things instead appreciating what we already have. When I look around my apartment that is over run with toys, feels way too small and is a constant source of dissatisfaction, I have to think how lucky I am to have this little co-op in this great big city. It is ours, and while it is filled with way too much stuff it is also filled with a lot of love. And, the grocery store around the corner delivers. Imagine what Laura Ingalls would think of that.
This is an original post to NYC Moms Blog.