As I make plans for my son’s 11th birthday, I think about how simple the celebration will be this year. In years past, family and friends gathered at our home to bust open a piñata, engage in pool-noodle battles on the grassy hill of our yard, or soak each other with water balloons. Then a gaggle of little-kid voices would crash through our living room and pile around the kitchen table. Singing enthusiastically off-key, our nearest and dearest ushered in a new year for my little boy.
He is not a little boy anymore. His preteen emotions burst through our household like tidal waves at times. His relationship with his younger brother is a see-saw, but we never know which end is up. Add in the current need for “social-distancing,” the cancelling of school and athletic events, and the inability to gather with friends, and this young man’s world is looking more like an empty Six Flags amusement park: crazy loopty-loops turning his world upside down but nary a friend to share the rides. Maybe, with the complexity of these few weeks, a simple home-grown birthday celebration is just what he needs.
In the past two weeks, I’ve been joining a couple of the cast members of the Little House on the Prairie television series in watch parties, devotional studies, and read-alouds. Wendi Lou Lee (Baby Grace) has been posting devotionals for specific episodes on her blog while Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson) and Dean Butler (Almanzo Wilder) have been reading the book series aloud. These virtual gatherings are reminding me of my early love for both the books and the television series. With the Ingalls family hunkered down in their shanty on the prairie, there were no neighbors to drop in – and certainly not a Zoom chat with friends to fill the empty hours of a shelter-at-home order.
How did the pioneer family spend their waking hours then, on the days when winds blew fiercely across the icy prairie? They read – and re-read – the newspaper and the handful of books they owned. The children studied, sewed, and helped around the house. The family gathered around the fire to listen to Pa play the fiddle. Their holiday celebrations were simple, too. A handmade gift or two placed on the table at breakfast made a birthday special. A penny, a tin cup, and a heart-shaped cake sprinkled with sugar turned a humdrum winter day into a blessed Christmas morning.
What of school and education? During their early years, the Ingalls girls were taught by their own parents. When the family finally settled in South Dakota and a school was established, the girls marched their way across the grassy plain to the town. But when the weather grew too harsh for venturing out – just as this Coronavirus Pandemic has us relegated to our homes – they continued learning any way that they could. Laura herself was so well-studied that she became a teacher at the tender age of “almost-sixteen.” In fact, in her own words, Wilder stated that she “never graduated from anything” and only attended high school for two terms. Yet she went on to become a prolific journalist and the author of a classic series of books for children.
Now, with this “shelter-in-place” order upon us in California, my school-age boys are home. As a teacher, I am home, as well. Together, we plow our way through online learning, digital programs, and interactive lessons. By the end of the day, my head aches from the overuse of screens and the under-use of my mental muscles. We are all irritable and frustrated with the limitations placed over our lives. To take a break, I stream another episode of Little House on the Prairie or When Calls the Heart or Chesapeake Shores – and I fall in love again with the simple things of life: family, home, and being connected with those I love.
Beginning tomorrow, I will change what “shelter-in-place” looks like for our family. Of course, I must teach my students and my boys must do their schoolwork, but it will be different. We will turn off our screens, pull out our books, curl up in a cozy spot on the couch where the sun filters through the glass door and cascades over our skin and find time to simply be together.
And what will my oldest’s birthday celebration look like in this year of social distancing? Perhaps it will look a little more like Laura’s growing up: a few gifts at the table, a homemade cake, and worship music humming through the house as we join together – just the four of us – and teach our boys that little Half Pint was right after all:
“Today our way of living and our schools are much different; so many things have made living and learning easier. But the real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with the simple pleasures and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder