What "The Little House on the Prairie" Taught My Family About Living Simply
It was a cold winter in New York, bitter cold, stinging cold. The economic downturn had become a recession. Every week brought more news of layoffs and cutbacks. Day after day that February we pulled on layers to go to school and work, then scarves and hats and mittens, and we bent into the wind as we walked toward the river. The Ingallses by that time were living in a shack—blizzards blew across the prairie so hard and thick they couldn't see out their small windows for days. The girls woke up to their quilts coated with ice. They were starving and weak and broke. Pa checked and fed the animals, Ma made dinner, be it only potatoes, and the girls cleaned up, tended the baby. My own salary was frozen and threatened. I lay awake at night, a single mother, wondering what I would do if..., tossing and waking with worry.
One night I heard my daughter quietly crying in the loft where she sleeps. What is it, honey? I called out. Mom, she called back, I can give away some of my things to other kids who need them. And for my birthday, you don't have to get me any presents. What in the world? I went in, climbed the ladder, and asked what she was so worried about. The economy, she said, the word sounding odd and overlarge in her voice. (Of course she must have heard the phone calls and conversation.) What could I say? Look at Laura, and Ma and Pa and Mary, I said; they live simply, and they are happy. We are okay, and we will be okay. You don't have to worry. And she put her head down on her pillow.
We began to cook rice and beans twice a week and invite neighbors in our building over for tacos. We joined the church across the street and met more neighbors. We'd never given expensive gifts at the holidays, but this year we made them all—embroidering pillowcases and knitting long bumpy scarves. And when things felt hard—trudging up the five flights carrying heavy bags, or stomping through a cold night, blocks from home, my daughter would say, It's not so bad, it's not what Laura had to do.
The Ingalls family did survive that long winter (although I was so worried they wouldn't I read ahead one night while my daughter slept). Throughout the unrelenting hardship, the politeness and care that family showed each other never wavered; their daily tasks seemed to keep them steady and sane. And one day Laura heard a new sound—the wind they call the Chinook, the warm wind, blowing across the prairie. Ma opened the cabin door to the coming spring.
As the American winter melted into May, we had only one and a half more books to read in the series. We went slowly. We didn't want them to end. Laura was older now, a teacher, and a man we both liked was courting her. We sat on the couch and read a chapter on a Saturday morning. And through our two front windows came that light that always astonishes in its brightness. Spring in New York.
And then, with a rush of warm wind, summer came. I write this now with the two windows wide open; through them, as in every summer, the various, vibrant sounds of the city: honking, sirens, the constant and real emergencies—and, as in every summer, the sound of jackhammers, someone banging a hammer, a shout, someone sawing, someone building something.