Category Archives: Minnesota Nice

What Was Lost

Six months ago we moved again. It was one of our most abrupt moves, executed in two and a half weeks from job offer to arrival. A combination of career choice and national economic factors have caused our family to move four times in five years. We were so fortunate that each new home brought with it new dear friends and church communities. Minnesota was one of those special places for our family, and as much as we love our new Iowa home, leaving was hard.  

I bought a beautiful wine glass at a thrift shop today. Then in the evening after the children went to bed, I opened a bottle of red that our new pastor brought over as a welcoming gift. I poured a drink for myself into the generous bowl and appreciated the elegance of the liquid in the glass.

I met April indirectly like we do these days. Michael was at a philosophy function she was attending with her husband and through them I managed to get her email address. I probably would have let the relationship develop more organically but I was seven weeks away from delivering my third baby and hundreds of miles away from even the most minor acquaintance. We had just moved to town and I didn’t know what I would do when the time came to go to the hospital. I was desperately seeking friendship.

A week or so later I waddled over to April’s house and we had tea while my boys were in school and three of her four children ran or rolled about. Her baby was only seven weeks old. I couldn’t get over how slim April already was and how together and serene she seemed.

The weeks leading up to my due date we would sometimes chat briefly on the phone. We talked rapidly and had numerous distractions in the background. We were both sorting laundry and preparing dinner while we tried to fit a 20-minute conversation into the five minutes we truly had. After my due date came and went, I told April of my despair and fear about my impending induction, and she was one of the most comforting voices I hear that week. It was then she offered to come over in the middle of the night if my uterus cooperated and decided to have a baby before my induction.

“It’s not a problem! I’ll just bring the baby and I can stay until your boys wake up and then they can just come over here,” she said reassuringly.

I felt deeply appreciative of her willingness to offer concrete help (and not “let me know if you need anything!” help) despite the fact that we would only be neighbors for the year of Michael’s fellowship. She gave generously and wholeheartedly and did so during a time when she had every reason not to.

After Henry was born, she sent over homemade vegetable soup and hallah bread and cookies within three days of my being home. I tore hunks of the bread off and wrapped them in sandwich bags to eat during the middle of night nursing sessions, sending sleep-deprived, inarticulate prayers of thanks in her direction while I stuffed my face.

We checked in with each other every other week or so via phone throughout the dark winter months. She had a health scare. I worked at overcoming my own self-centeredness by praying daily for her healing. We were all so sick – horrible viruses and pneumonia and lingering colds. For months she was a voice over the phone line that I would connect with occasionally from a non-communicable distance.

But then like the eye of the storm, we were all healthy on Epiphany so we gathered our seven children and ourselves for a celebratory tea party on a cold Friday afternoon.

Wisemen Worship

Spring came. About once a week the boys and I would walk up the street to knock on the door to see if April, her girls and baby James were available to play for an hour or so before it was time to head home to make dinner. We would talk about food since we both loved to cook. We would chat about our children; our struggles and frustrations with trying to find the best way to smooth out the rough edges of their most trying personality traits.

Inevitably we would talk about our faith. April was one of the few devout Catholics I’d ever known and I loved asking questions and learning about the church calendar and feast days and the saints and seeing what a Catholic home looked like. It was deeply refreshing to talk about something meaningful and interesting with another adult during a time when most of life revolved around little people.

Once school was out for the summer, we met at the pool with our brood and shared red and blue slushies from the gas station and occasionally our better working window air conditioning units during unseasonably hot days. One afternoon I tentatively offered April a “teeny-tiny gin and tonic” and hoped she wouldn’t think I was one of those women from the headlines who have drunken afternoon playdates. She said yes so enthusiastically like it was the best idea ever, which was one of the reasons I liked her so much.

She had tears in her eyes when I told her we were moving. We only had a week to pack our house before we left, but she and I carved out time to walk around the block to the Ole Store for a glass of wine after the kids were down for the night. We talked and talked and only left when they closed, then talked a bit more on the street in front of the Fellowship House while the ridiculous Minnesota mosquitoes bit us.

The night before we left, they had us all over for a family dinner. We shared delicious food and a pitcher of fresh margaritas and told stories of the people we were before we were the caretakers of small people while simultaneously wiping little faces and sopping up messes.

And when we left their house for the last time, April embraced our shared faith and joy in good refreshments for comfort in our parting. “We can look forward to drinking wine together in heaven!” she said.

It was one of those rare friendships where we brought out the best in each other. We were truthful and honest in a way that encouraged the other toward something better in ourselves; something nobler than what our rebellious hearts and tired bodies often felt. It was a friendship built on proximity as close neighbors who shared the same street, yet came to recognize a sisterhood grounded primarily in our faith.

It’s been a week since we left. I watched the wine falling into my glass and, for the first time since we arrived in our new home, in our new neighborhood, in our new town and state, allowed myself to think about what was lost. And wept.

For April. And Robyn. And Abby. I miss you guys.  

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Photo Friday

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

I think Garth Williams made that covered wagon look bigger than what it was…

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On the Banks of Plum Creek

After spending an hour or so going through the Walnut Grove Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, we got directions to the dugout site which is described in On the Banks of Plum Creek. It’s located less than 2 miles north of town on a piece of private property that the family has opened up to tourist for a nominal fee paid on the honor system. The story goes that the family purchased the land in the late 1940s and, when improving the property, took down an old dilapidated building that may have been the house that Pa built with lumber he got on credit. Not long after that Little House illustrator Garth Williams came through in search of the Ingall’s house and old dugout site. (See The Walnut Grove Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder for more detailed information.)

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

If you can read the sign you can see it’s reported to be location of the dugout ruins, spring, big rock, tablelands and plum thicket. I was most excited to see the dugout ruins though I was also really curious about the tablelands and the big rock.

After entering the property, you drive back on a gravel road a little ways to the creek. There is a circular area to park your vehicle and the site is well marked and has a number of informational plaques. The closest landmark is the big rock which is disappointing since they aren’t really sure if it is THE big rock described in On the Banks of Plum Creek in addition to it being mostly buried under thick layer of dirt and, when we visited, completely submerged in the creek.

To get to the dugout, you cross a small bridge and walk up a steep embankment.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

The dugout site is marked with a massive sign which only serves to dwarf the small depression in the top of the creek bank that is the dugout ruins.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

While the book makes the dugout seem idyllic, we learned when examining the dugout replica at the museum that it was tiny, dark, leaked water and I can only imagine was full of bugs. Dugouts were meant to be temporary housing and not built to last. No wonder Pa decided to build the house before the first wheat crop. No wonder Laura went on and on about china doorknobs and “boughten” doors on hinges and glass windows.

As a mother of three small children who has just experienced her first Minnesota winter (which was incredibly mild even) I can’t imagine being shut up inside such a tiny, dark space for a long Minnesota winter especially with little kids. Hats off to Ma for her masterful mothering coping skills. Of course I can’t imagine if I pulled out my button collection and said, “Hey boys! I have a very special activity for you today! We are going to PUT BUTTONS ON A STRING” that it would have quite the appeal that it did to Laura and Mary.

There are two short walking trails around the main sites. After you walk up to the dugout site, you’re on the higher land where presumably the Ingalls wagon rolled up in the opening paragraphs of On the Banks of Plum Creek. The land is vast and beautiful and nothing but fields. We walked around looking for the tableland. There wasn’t a “tableland” exactly like there was described in the book. From walking around the property you could imagine how the creek over time could flood and form different landmarks like the tableland. This is the best picture I could get of the difference between the high and lowlands near the creek.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

I can’t tell a plum tree from any other kind of tree so I’m assuming that the short trees clustered along the creek were the plum thicket. I do know what a willow tree looks like but didn’t see a single one on the property. They have a spring marked at the site though in The Walnut Grove Story they quote Laura Ingalls Wilder saying that she made up the spring because she was almost certain they drank water straight from the creek without boiling it and didn’t want it to sound like they were a “dirty” family since “we were not.”

Before we headed east on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway 14, we drove back through Walnut Grove looking for the church bell that Pa gave the three precious dollars that he had saved up to buy desperately needed new boots for.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

It’s now housed in the English Lutheran Church. I never really understood why Pa would make such a sacrifice for a bell. I did a quick Google search hoping I would hit on a pithy article that explained the significant social and practical needs that a church bell met in fronteer American towns in the 1870s. I got: to tell time and make community announcements like “PRAIRIE FIRE THREE O’CLOCK.” Which, ok, but really? Your toes freezing off vs knowing what time church starts? But then, there it is almost 140 years later.

If you missed the rest of the pilgrimage:

The Wilder Life

Little House in the Big Woods

Walnut Grove

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Walnut Grove

After our trip to Pepin the day before, I had a dream that Wendy McClure had lunch with us at Two Old Guys while wearing a blonde wig.

The next day we set off again, west this time across southern Minnesota. After two and a half hours of driving I can tell you that southern Minnesota is rural. R-U-R-A-L. It’s one big field of Pa’s wheat with farmhouses and grain elevators every once in a while. We past through one town that listed its population at 36. Walnut Grove is by comparison a major metropolis with a population of 534.

We had gotten the impression that the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum was about on-par with the one in Pepin, which gave us serious pause about making a 5-hour round trip to see the sites. But Walnut Grove has a much more developed museum and the exhibits are very child-friendly with a number of hand-on activities. Well worth the small admission fee the Walnut Grove Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum charges.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

The old depot building that houses the main museum collection is divided into two rooms; one devoted to the Little House books and one devoted to the Little House TV show. I have been known to turn a Nelly-like nose up at the 1970s TV show which took ridiculous liberties with the events of the book and concluded the series by blowing up the town of Walnut Grove. (Oh no. I gave away the ending?) But! I have to recognize that the Walnut Grove Museum probably wouldn’t have been nearly as great otherwise.

Highlights from the book side of the museum include:

A Copy of “Pa’s Big Green Book”

Surprisingly it is just sitting out on top of a display case and you can measure the weight of it in your hands. It’s like Laura’s version of National Geographic magazine, trips to the zoo and nature televisions shows rolled into one.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

Buffalo Coat

A buffalo coat like the one Pa wore to survive the blizzard he was caught in while walking home from town (with the Christmas candy!) in On the Banks of Plum Creek. I’d always sort of envisioned something that people wear to summit Mt. Everest except furrier and not fluorescent yellow. One look at it and you realize that Pa was one lucky… Pa.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

Those “Grasshoppers” Were Huge

They were actually Rocky Mountain Locust and were Biblically proportioned. All I could think about was the passage in On the Banks of Plum Creek when Laura talked about having to step on the grasshoppers as she went to get Wreath the cow and them being all slimy and squished under her bare feet. And… yack.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

1875 “Food Stamps”

This was the saddest thing I saw in the museum. While the Little House books aren’t strictly autobiographical they do follow many of the details of the Ingall family life. Between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake, there is a significant gap. During that time another wheat crop was eaten by the “grasshoppers,” Ma had a baby in November after a second major crop failure, and a month later Pa applied for food assistance because “your petitioner is wholly without means.” The following year, the family moves to Iowa to work in the hotel industry, the little baby boy Ingalls – who is never referenced in the books – dies along the way (almost as old as my baby Henry is now. Weep.) Baby Grace is born in Iowa and the family is in such pitiful state that a childless old lady offers to adopt Laura. I thought The Long Winter was bad – they actually had a conversation about the likelihood of them starving before spring – but apparently that was small potatoes to this kind of destitute heartbreak.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

The funny thing about most people’s response to the Little House books, mine included, is this wishful ache to return to pioneer times. Laura Ingalls Wilder excelled at bringing out the beauty of that phase of American history even while she revealed its hardscrabble horror. Which is probably most evident when one gets to see what a dugout actually looks like. Something I’ll talk about tomorrow when I describe going to the dugout site along Plum Creek. Until then, here’s a gem from the Walnut Grove gift shop:

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

I wonder if she wears high heels while she slaughters the pig.

If you missed the rest of the pilgrimage:

The Wilder Life

Little House in the Big Woods

On the Banks of Plum Creek

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The Wilder Life

Last November I read The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure which is a must-read for anyone who grew up reading the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s part travelogue, part literary history, part rollicking good read that after I finished I though, “I wish I had written this book.”

I’ve read and re-read the Little House series countless times throughout my childhood, adolescence and adulthood. To me they are the literary mac’n’cheese of comfort books.  Recently though I’ve been re-reading them for the first time since having children and it is a completely different experience. Before I always saw the world through Laura’s eyes and now I read between the lines from an adult perspective and see Ma crying into her apron after Pa returns home alive after making it through the blizzard in On the Banks of Plum Creek in a completely different light. McClure does the same thing except on a much larger scale, and somehow makes it completely relatable and hilarious.

One of the things McClure’s book forced me to recognize was the Little House books aren’t exactly full-on non-fiction. You can sort of forgive McClure for removing the prairie grass fed lambs wool from your eyes because it’s clear she really gets it. She is just as enthralled with the appeal of “Laura World” as I found myself to be as I squealed “THERE IT IS” when I caught sight of the Little House in the Big Woods replica log cabin near Pepin, Wisconsin last week. My friends Amy and Angela drove up from Kentucky and we went on a two-day “Laura Pilgrimage” to Pepin, Wisconsin – Laura’s birthplace – and Walnut Grove, Minnesota – where On the Banks of Plum Creek is set.

My next couple of posts will be about our adventure looking for Laura and the rest of the Ingalls family.

From Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

If you missed the rest of the pilgrimage:

Little House in the Big Woods

Walnut Grove

On the Banks of Plum Creek

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Mental Marathon: A Birth Story

Listening to my sisters and other friends talk about their marathons it’s always struck me how much they sounded like birth stories.  Even the pattern of their race sounded like childbirth: excitement when they got started, how the hard work would start somewhere between miles 6-13, transition at mile 20, and pushing around mile 25. They would cope with mantras, visualization, music, companionship and endure some of the worst pain of their lives. Their physical challenges affected their mental game. And in the end it was all worth it.

I labored with my first two sons without an epidural or pain medicine. John was a textbook, challenging labor and James a short, quick labor. My doula with my first birth described her labor with her third child as “unpredictable,” and that was true for me too.

I was past my due date. Day after day I would have mild contracts toward the end of the day, usually when I finally let myself lay down and rest after spending a number of hours in hardcore nesting. They never progressed into anything substantial and at my 40 week appointment my doctor told me she had scheduled an induction for me the following Friday when I would be 41 weeks. The part of me that had taken Bradley classes knew that I was supposed to fight this and ask that we wait until I went into labor spontaneously, but I really thought I would go into labor before then and, if I hadn’t, I just wanted to have my baby.

Day after day of the following week ticked by and true labor never started. Thursday it seemed apparent I was about to be induced for the first time. I had worked it out with my doctor that I would come in, receive the Group B Strep antibiotics, wait three hours, and then she would break my water. Normally, they give Pitocin along with the GBS drip to get labor going, but she knew that I really didn’t want to use Pitocin in labor if I could avoid it and said she didn’t have any problem waiting until after she broke my water to see if labor would establish itself.

Friday morning my sister-in-law Laura dropped Michael and I off at the hospital at 7:30 before taking John and James to school. The first three hours Michael and I walked the halls. We talked. I read a book. He watched Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I checked Twitter. I was having 4-5 contractions an hour with lots of downward pressure but they didn’t hurt at all.

This was nothing like my other labors.

At 10:30, Dr. E arrived and checked me. I was at 5cm, 80 percent effaced, which was surprising and encouraging. She broke my water painlessly and I waited for the Big Show to begin.

Two hours went by of more of the same nothing.

Around 12:30, Michael called my sister-in-law to check in on how James’ preschool pick-up went and if she was doing ok. Contractions were starting to pick up at this point though they were barely painful at all. Listening to Michael’s conversation, something shifted and labor started to pick up.

I was pretty quiet during hard contractions. I would visualize myself running up a hard hill toward the end of a really long race and whispered to myself “Up the hill up the hill up the hill.” I was coping well though after a particularly hard contraction I said to Michael rather desperately, “I don’t remember a single reason why I’m supposed to think getting an epidural is a bad idea. Why didn’t I take the time to make a list of all the reasons it’s a bad idea because I can’t think of a single one.” And then I’d get it back together and focus again.

This labor was different too because there were things that really comforted me during previous labor that didn’t work at all during this labor. I didn’t want Michael to talk to me at all. I wanted him to barely touch me; the most helpful things were for him to just hold my hands lightly so I would remember to relax my arms and shoulders during contractions.

I leaned over the birthing ball on the floor for a while, then moved to hands and knees on the bed as I felt transition starting. It was around this time they checked me again and I was a stretchy 7-8cm. Michael was so great about having water ready after every couple of contractions; especially as I got sweatier and more heated during labor. I would fold down into a yoga pose between contractions, then push myself onto my hands and knees during contractions.

I was feeling more clear headed and in control than I usually do during transition. I was voluntarily making my own position changes without having to be coaxed. I would work through a couple of contractions at the squatting bar, and then turn around for a few more on my hands and knees all the while thinking “I’M KICKING LABOR’S ASS.” Then I started feeling a little pushy and just let myself push with the contractions, which was great because, when I would push, I barely felt any pain.

My nurse Chris (whose daughter is in the same kindergarten class as John!) noticed this too and quickly called Dr. E thinking that I was moments away from delivering. She knew about James’ birth and I think was expecting Henry to just fly out when I got to that point. Behind me I could hear them rapidly pulling out the delivery tray, bringing in another nurse and Dr. E getting robed up. Then they checked me and I was still at 7-8cm with a swollen cervical lip from pushing too soon.

Psychologically this was pretty devastating for me and I went from KICKING LABOR’S ASS to it kicking MY ass as I had to breathe through the massive transitional contractions. I went from my whole “Up the hill” visualization and feeling in control, to screaming “WHY??? WHY??? WHY??? WHY???” and between contractions feeling completely lost and saying “I just don’t know what to do. Tell me what to do. How do I make this lip go away????

Labor nurse Chris really stepped up at this point and helped me change positions after each contraction. Finally, she told me she was going to push my cervix back manually during my next contraction with a warning, “You’re probably not going to like this very much.” It was pretty awful but not nearly as bad as feeling like I was going to be stuck in a huge cycle of pain forever.

The delivery group came in a second time and I turned over on my back. This position felt completely wrong. I felt like I should be sitting up more, but couldn’t seem to communicate this in a way that actually resulted in anyone raising the bed. Pushing felt completely unproductive at first. I was glad everyone was mostly quiet while I was pushing except for Dr. E who would tell me when pushing was especially effective.

Pushing was massively painful. For a labor that had largely been relatively manageable, I wasn’t prepared for how painful pushing was. Pushing is usually my favorite part of labor because it’s both something I can actively do while being mostly just about feeling a massive amount of pressure but not burning pain. I had trouble holding my legs back because they instinctually wanted to straighten out to avoid the pain. I was averaging about three pushes per contraction. I was pushing with all of my might, but I felt like I was stuck. They put an oxygen mask on me at one point. Mostly I just felt like I was suffocating. I thought about Into Thin Air when Jon Krakauer talks about using an oxygen mask when making the summit push to the top of Everest and feeling like you were suffocating until you took the mask off, when you really felt like you couldn’t catch your breath.

I found out later Henry’s 14-centimeter head was coming in sideways rather than straight on, and that was probably why it didn’t feel like I was doing anything. The other L&D nurse who was there to assist told me later that night that it’s actually a worse position than the baby being posterior (face up rather than face down). I could hear Dr. E and Chris say something about the head rotating and noticing something when they had checked me earlier. But the take away I got from it was that everything was normal, and labor was back to kicking my ass rather than the other way around.

After one series of pushes, I heard Dr. E say something about the head rotating and then my next series of pushes were more productive. I reached down to see if I could feel Henry’s head crowning because I could feel something like a ring of fire, except this time it felt more like my whole pelvis was a ring of fire. At the end of the next series of pushing, I screamed “IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS” and then in the middle of the next one screamed “I JUST CAN’T DO THIS” out of complete pain and frustration. I heard Chris, Michael and maybe another person start to say, “You can do it” but the voice I heard most clearly was Dr. E not unkindly say matter-of-factly “You don’t have a choice.”

I resigned myself to my pelvis cracking in two and pushed again.

Shortly after this Henry’s head and body were delivered. I looked at his huge body and wondering how he ever managed to squeeze through that end of me. He started crying shrilly and they laid him on my chest. I laid my head back and let the relief of it all wash over me, which is when Michael took this picture.

From October 2011

But the one take two seconds later pretty much sums up the majority of post-birth.

From October 2011

I’m grimacing and you can see my neck straining against the pain of delivering the placenta and having my second degree tear stitched up. I was also shaking uncontrollably. I kept asking for more warmed blankets and the nurses kept piling more and more on top of me. They were doing Henry’s vitals on my chest, but I asked Michael to take him since I was shaking so badly. Henry’s APGARS were 7 and 9, and he seemed much happier once he got into the warmer. I finally stopped shaking after getting a new, warmed hospital gown and my sixth or seventh blanket.

—-

We live only four minutes from our community hospital so Laura brought the John and James to the delivery room shortly after they finished Henry’s newborn procedures and my postpartum ones. Somehow it was like life never really skipped a beat except now there was one more little person in our new family picture.

From October 2011

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Photo Friday

James in snow – From December 2011

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