by Hellen Riebold
Around this time of year, almost every year, I get reacquainted with one of my closest friends. The Christmas rush is over and I finally have time to sit with a coffee and hear all about her exploits, to share in her joy, weep at tragedies that have befallen her and pick up craft and cooking hints from her to try out while we are apart. Nothing strange in that, I know except that this particular friend’s name is Laura Ingalls Wilder and she died in 1957, exactly ten years before I was born. This minor detail has never come between us, however, and, as I look back, I can see that hers has been one of the most influential relationships of my life.
I first read about Laura when I was about seven, at that time I only read Little House on the Prairie because I found it in the free-readers section of the school library, it looked interesting and I was in a hurry to go out to play. I had no idea that there was a whole series of books to enjoy or that I was about to begin a lifelong friendship, but then, isn’t that often the case?
Laura told me all about the journey across the prairie she had made with her Father, Mother and two sisters in a covered wagon. She was a great story teller and gave me tiny details about the land she passed through and the beautiful night skies she passed under. Then she told me exactly how her Father decided where they would settle and how he set about building their little house, she told me how her Mother managed to keep them all fed, schooled and respectable whilst also keeping them safe from the snakes, wolves and native Americans that surrounded them (to be fair they were actually stealing native American land but Laura was only 8 and didn’t know that). She told me all about the challenges of raising that first crop and all the work she had to do to help her folks succeed. I lived on a farm too so I immediately understood what she meant when she complained about the unfairness of an ill-timed storm that could destroy a crop. Around about that time we got our first television too so imagine my delight on discovering there was a TV series devoted to Laura, I was hooked and, for a while, that was enough.
In my teen years I met with Laura again but this time she told me all about her early life in the Big Woods, she made my mouth water as she described the taste of bear and I licked my fingers as we roasted the hog’s tail together. This time I found she had lots of new stories to tell me and, as a redhead who loves the cold, I particularly enjoyed the tales about the longest, hardest winter I have ever heard of.
She and I went our separate ways for a few years, while I got married and raised my daughter but then, when life got quieter and sadder, she came back round. She told me all about the child she had lost and helped me through my own grief and she also told me about the new crafts she was having to learn as a wife and mother and challenged me to have a go too; so I learnt to knit and sew, making clothes, hats and quilts, cardigans and blankets; she told me about the preserving she had to perfect to ensure her family survived the harsh winters and got me into jam and chutney making. Pass-times I love to this day. She brought me so much comfort I wanted to spend as much time as I could with her and I read every book she had ever written then gave them pride of place on my shelves.
Now, as the busy-ness of Christmas fades and the cold nips my face as I walk the dogs I’m drawn back to Laura. I sit down with a coffee and let her words flow over me with joy, each meeting brings new experiences to try, new challenges as we grow older together. As I look back I’m so grateful I got to know her.