Illustration: David Vogin;
Photo courtesy of Marie Howe
Photo courtesy of Marie Howe
Inspired by the trials and triumphs of a resilient pioneer family, Marie Howe and her daughter find the joyful rhythm in a pared-down life.Last summer my 8-year-old daughter and I returned to New York City after I didn't get the very lucrative job I'd hoped for in another city. Let's go home, honey, I said, and downsize into simplicity. And so we came back to our tiny fifth-floor walk-up apartment in the West Village, gave away or stored a lot of our stuff, and resettled into a space the size of a very small houseboat. Within two months the economy began to wobble and then falter.
It seemed a good time to read the series I'd known as the Little House on the Prairie books, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I'd never read them as a child, had only glimpsed the TV series, and autumn was upon us. We sat on the couch under the lamplight, the book in my lap, my daughter leaning against me, warm and fresh from a shower. Through our two front windows: the worn red bricks of the 19th-century buildings across the street, and beyond them, the gleaming Empire State Building shining over the darkened city.
From our white couch each night we accompanied Ma and Pa as they moved their children, Laura, Mary, and Carrie, from a log cabin at the edge of the Big Woods in Wisconsin on to Kansas, into Indian territory, and still farther on to Plum Creek, where they spent that winter in a dugout sod house in a hill. With every move Pa built another cabin, another set of beds, fashioned the stable, and set his traps or plowed his field. And Ma unpacked their few clothes, set up the stove and the kitchen, settled the girls, and finally unpacked her single luxury, a china shepherdess statue, and set her on a high shelf—and the family began again.
By December I'd lost half my retirement savings, as had many of my friends, but I still had the job I'd returned to and was growing ever more grateful for it. The Ingalls family had moved three times, lost their good dog Jack, and suffered through a long bout of scarlet fever that had left Mary blind. Heat, hunger, grasshoppers. Pa worked the field, hunted when he could; Ma made supper, and the girls did their daily chores: fetching water, making the beds, setting and clearing the table, washing dishes. Page after page, they worked, then settled down to stitch quilt squares and study. If the chores had the feel of a regular metronome, the rhythm of their daily life seemed like a quiet song.
It was several weeks of reading before I noticed how the uncomplaining dignity of those people was slowly entering us. My daughter and I, almost unconsciously, began to slow down when we were at home. She began to read her schoolbooks out loud to me as I cooked dinner. (I cooked dinner! We are New Yorkers, used to eating out or ordering in.) And we started to refer to our housework as chores. Okay, honey, I'd say in the morning, before you leave for school we need to do the chores. And without a word of the usual resistance, she'd wash out the breakfast dishes as I straightened our three small rooms. At night, I, who'd always hated housework, experienced a deep satisfaction putting every single dish away—as Ma did. Sometimes I'd stand in the hall looking in—as if the tiny kitchen were the world, ordered, clean, and, in the little table-lamp light, lovely.
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.