Tag Archives: little house

“This lovely world, these precious days”

It sometimes seems that N saves her most serious questions for the moment I’m pulling the door closed at bed time. A little while back she asked, “Mom?”


“Why do we close our eyes when we die?”

“Well — we don’t, necessarily. Sometimes people die with their eyes open, and someone closes them, just with their hand, brushing it over the eyelids.”

“But why close them? Can the eyes still see?”

“No.” I hesitated. I wasn’t really sure what to say. The obvious answer seemed to be that it was a gesture of respect for the person who’d died. But it didn’t really seem true to me, so instead I said, “I guess it’s more for the living person, who needs to feel that the person who’s died is at peace.”

These kinds of questions pop up periodically, and often leave my mind whirling long after N has fallen asleep. Funnily, she sometimes sleeps with her eyes open just the tiniest sliver, and has done so since she was a baby. I used to love to watch her as she slept, and see how the irises took on a sort of glazed appearance, as if they were still working, but seeing something inside rather than out.

I’m sure the questions come, in part, because of our ongoing adventures with the Harry Potter series. Harry’s beloved godfather Sirius Black died in the fifth book, falling through the Veil with a “look of mingled fear and surprise,” as Bellatrix LeStrange’s triumphant screams rang in Harry’s ears. And now, part way through the sixth, The Half-Blood Prince, we are all waiting for the moment Albus Dumbledore dies, a spoiler that caused us all to gasp aloud when N’s friend uttered it several books back. Death is such a constant part of this series that it’s no surprise it comes up when the light goes out. J.K. Rowling herself has said, “My books are largely about death. … I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We’re all frightened of it.”

And yet — I remember a time a few years back, when N was three or four, and her grandma’s good friend died. For a year or so after, N would ask about what happened to him. One day as I retold the story for the umpteenth time, I finished with, “It was very sad, but….”

And she said, “No, Mom. It isn’t sad. It’s okay, because people always want to die right when they’re going to.”

It was one of those moments when you aren’t sure if a child has said something incredibly profound or if you, as an adult, have read more into it. In any case, it’s always stayed with me. It felt a bit like a gift.

When discussing these weighty subjects, it can be tricky to know what kids are ready for and what feels like too much. For all her apparent wisdom, N was too tender for Charlotte’s Web when we read it together some years ago. She seemed to be loving the story, but when it became obvious that Charlotte the spider was winding down, getting ready to leave “this lovely world, these precious days,” the story was too heartbreaking. We finished it, but she didn’t want to read it again — a sure sign, in those days of reading the same things over and over, that something was amiss. But Charlotte’s Web is a beautiful story. Eudora Welty wrote that it was about “friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time.” That must be one of the most eloquent bits of praise I’ve ever come across.

E.B. White had a solid career at The New Yorker long before he began writing children’s literature. He was over 50 when Charlotte’s Web appeared in 1952. Like the Little House books I wrote about last time, Charlotte’s Web was illustrated by Garth Williams, who apparently used his own daughter as a model for Fern Arable, the determined eight-year-old who’s shocked that Wilbur the pig will be killed just because he’s the runt of the litter. “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of,” she says.

I think I was in Grade 3 when I read Charlotte’s Web, and I remember being puzzled by the title, and also trying to figure out, in my child’s way, whose story this was. Was it Fern’s? Was it Wilbur’s? Was it Charlotte’s? In the end, of course, it’s about all of them, and the web of friendship.

As Charlotte tells Wilbur just before she dies, “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”


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Sum bilive, sum dont

Today N starts Grade 3. The butterflies were moving fast and furious last night in her belly, and again this morning. I remember that feeling still. I remember Grade 3, too, and how it was one of my favourite years. I had a teacher named Miss Way, who looked a bit like Snow White in modern dress. She taught us about pioneers and how to make candles, and only the formidable Harold Martindale and I still stood at the end of spellings bees, facing off, my heart racing as letters scrambled themselves into order in my brain.

I think this was the year I discovered the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I can still see them lined up on the library shelf, looking fat and important in their crinkly see-through wraps. It was so exciting to read one book and to know there were all those others still waiting to be devoured.

Little House in the Big Woods came first, and tells the story of Laura’s 1870s childhood in Wisconsin, where she lived “in a little gray house made of logs. The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees, and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees, and the wild animals who had their homes among them.”

These famous books have endured since the 1930s, when Ingalls Wilder finally set pen to paper to tell the story of her life. She was in her sixties by then, and had already been a teacher, a dressmaker, a farmer, and a columnist for The Ruralist. Her column, “As a Farm Woman Thinks,” had a small but loyal audience, and though her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, by then a successful freelance writer herself, encouraged Ingalls Wilder to expand her repertoire, she seemed content dabbling this way for many years. It was only when the stock market crashed and the family’s savings were lost that Ingalls Wilder embarked on a more ambitious writing career.

Which is amazing and impressive to me. I can’t imagine turning yet more toward writing, of all things, if I suddenly found myself destitute. But I love the idea that people’s lives have chapters; that we don’t know what lies ahead for us, even though we are the very ones who take ourselves there. And of course I love the idea of “success” at a late age. I put the word in quotes because I’m still not quite sure how to define it, at least for myself. But certainly publication in forty languages over a period of eighty years would be one way….

This is N's motto of late. For her, it pertains to the fairies she leaves notes for on her window sill. But whether fairies are your thing or not, they seem like pretty fine words to live by.

I’ve picked up both Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie, the second book, for N’s shelf, but we have not yet delved in. I’m curious to know what she’ll think of the stories, and also how I’ll find them after all these years — if indeed I’m reading them with her. As I’ve mentioned often on this blog, I can see the day is coming that she’ll want to read alone. But the summer months whizzed by with read-aloud Harry, all three of us engrossed first in The Goblet of Fire, which came with us on our cottage holiday, and then in The Order of the Phoenix, picked up a mere twenty minutes after Goblet was done. Our goal was to finish Phoenix by the time school started, but we haven’t quite made it. There’s only one chapter to go, though, so tonight’s the night. The story is as compelling as ever, so much so that N’s dad cheated, and read ahead without us after N went to bed, zooming to the end because he had to know what happened or sleep might elude him. He loves these stories as much as she does, and in fact the language of Harry Potter has worked its way into our regular vocabulary. The other day at breakfast, when he was feeling a little lackluster, distinctly unmagical, and middle-aged, he commented, “I don’t know what’s happening to me. It’s bad. I’m turning into a muggle.”

We love sharing these books with our daughter, but we also appreciate them from our own adult perspective: the shifting layers of right and wrong, of so-called good and so-called evil, have steadily become the very core of the series. What to make of how the wizarding world treats centaurs and giants and little house elves, essentially slaves who most wizards believe like working for free? As Dumbledore tells Harry towards the end of the book, when the Dark Lord’s power is on the rise, “We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for far too long, and we are now reaping the reward.”


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