Greetings from Frostbite Farm, MN‏

Written January 2014.

Something about a -50 windchill on this Monday morning makes all other thoughts that don’t concern cold and survival just evaporate.

When we got up this morning, something wasn’t working properly with our heat. That means the upstairs is currently 48 degrees, and downstairs the thermostat reads a balmy 58 degrees. My husband figured out the problem, and the house is getting warmer again, but it’s a slow process.

In the mean time, I layered up the kids and wrapped them up in blankets, and at the moment, they are very content sitting and watching movies. We have a wall-mounted fan heater in the kitchen, and currently, the dog and the two young kids are vying for the cozy warm space right against that heater. Somehow, the dog is winning.

My two-year-old and our dog, hanging out in their favorite cozy place by the heater.

My two-year-old and our dog, hanging out in their favorite cozy place by the heater.

In the kitchen, the crock pot is cooking a chicken, venison steaks are thawing for lunch, a pot of beans simmer on the back stove, and I turned the oven on to make it warm enough for bread to rise. We are a long way from any danger of freezing, but something in that visceral cavewoman part of my head sees the cold outside and starts thinking I better start cooking, so we don’t just all freeze or starve to death. I know logically that we are indeed not freezing to death, but that doesn’t matter.

I just have to keep cooking anyway.

Last night before I went to bed, I thought, “It’s going to be cold, I better put some beans in a pot to soak overnight, so they can cook in the morning.”

And then I realized where all of this is coming from. In my head are the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter that I read to my kids earlier this fall. Most specifically, the October Blizzard chapter stands out, when they lived in a one-room tar paper claim shanty out on the open prairie.

While I didn’t realize it last night, that feeling like I better put some beans out to soak overnight with oncoming cold came straight from Caroline Ingalls in the blizzard chapter. ” ‘I’m glad I put beans to soak last night,’ said Ma. . . .Now and then she spooned up a few beans and blew on them. When their skins split and curled, she drained the soda water from the kettle and filled it again with hot water. She put in the bit of fat pork. ‘There’s nothing like good hot bean soup on a cold day,’ said Pa.”

I agree with Pa. If I could talk to him, I’d give him a good old Minnesotan “You betcha.” Our two-year-old didn’t really touch her pancake for breakfast, but she ate three warm, steamy servings of pinto beans doused in butter, salt, pepper, and cheese. Beans are cold weather food. You betcha.

On this blustery day, my mind drifts to the stories of extreme cold and hardship from the Ingalls family, “She put more wood in the stove and broke the ice in the water pail to fill the teakettle. The water pail was less than half-full. They must be sparing of water for nobody could get to the well in that storm. But the snow on the floor was clean. Laura scooped it into the washbasin and set it on the stove to melt, for washing in.”

There’s nothing like a little Laura Ingalls to add some perspective to hardship. Our pipes upstairs froze overnight, but all in all, it’s not so bad. We still have heat and running water downstairs.

This morning I’m frustrated that our dishwasher isn’t working because one of its water lines froze up, which means washing the mound of dirty dishes by hand. I really hate washing dishes. That is nothing, though, compared to waking up in a shanty with snow on the floor, let alone looking at that snow and thinking, “Oh good, now I can have water for washing.” No, life is pretty cushy by that comparison.

However, I actually did break ice in the water pail this morning. Granted, the water pail was in the unheated shed where the chickens live, and it’s the same thing we’ve been doing since the temperature went below freezing.

In another chapter of the same book, Pa tells his girls to stay in bed until he scoops the snow pile off of the top of their quilts. As for us, I dressed my kids in layers, but their day of “winter hardship” includes hanging out on a couch with cuddly blankets, holding my smart phone. On my phone they’re watching a movie on Netflix, essentially holding a little personal TV right in the palm of their hands. But wait, my husband also has a smart phone, so sometimes they have two different movies playing at once. And sometimes my older son then turns on our laptop and plays a game on that.

I think I’d be happier if it was the electronic devices that froze up on cold days.

On the positive side of this cold day, my kids sufficiently warmed up enough to decide they wanted snow ice cream. They went outside and collected a bowl of clean snow. Then while I worked in the other room, my seven-year-old and six-year-old worked in the kitchen mixing snow, cream, sugar, and vanilla together until it tasted like ice cream.

I was impressed. They made something that tasted like ice cream with no help from me, didn’t make a colossal mess in the kitchen, and did it all while keeping peace with a very opinionated two-year-old who desperately wanted to add in her own personal touch to the final product. That’s no small feat.

Maybe tonight we’ll make an apple pie for supper and top it with a little snow ice cream. A little extra heat in the house from the oven, smell of baking apples and cinnamon…that sounds like a perfectly good way to end a perfectly frigid day. While it’s not beans, I think Pa Ingalls would approve.

Advertisements

Grandmas Are My New Laura Ingalls

The obvious hit me…why am I not reading rural pioneer life bedtime stories to my kids about their own great grandmas?

This week as I perched on a step ladder and worked on painting the posts on our porch before the bus pulled up and my little kids woke up from their naps, it hit me. It’s that very same time of year.

Something about the cool temperature, the smell of the air, and the afternoon sunshine all felt very familiar. It felt just like two years ago, when on a September afternoon, we first pulled into this yard that we now live in to check out a house for sale.

This house and that fall weather are always connected in my mind to my grandma, Olivia Siebenaler. When she passed away at age 98, we came to Minnesota from Montana to attend her services. During that same trip, we found what became our new home. I like to think she had a hand in it.

Thinking of my grandma reminded me of how she wrote a book for her family, filled with stories of her childhood and her life raising their 13 children. It’s been ages since I read her stories, and I’d love to sit down and read them again. And more importantly, I want to now read the stories to my own kids.

Olivia and Alex Siebenaler, my maternal grandparents.

Olivia and Alex Siebenaler, my maternal grandparents.

My husband’s grandma Grace also wrote a book of her stories growing up. The two women never met, but I have a feeling they would have enjoyed one another. Both had a simple rural upbringing: My grandma, Olivia Siebenaler, grew up in rural Southeast Minnesota, and my husband’s grandma, Grace Mosdal, grew up in Eastern Montana.

As I think of both women, they share many of the same pioneer character traits as Laura Ingalls Wilder, who is our current bedtime story favorite. I admire both grandmothers immensely.

And then the obvious hit me…why am I not reading rural pioneer life bedtime stories to my kids about their own great grandmas?

So, I have a new plan. Once we finish By the Shores of Silver Lake, we’re going to take a break from the Ingalls family and start reading Grandma Stories.

We’re going to start with Grandma Grace’s stories, since I have that book in my home already. I’m going to head up to the attic and unearth her binder of stories from the moving boxes. Then we’re going to settle in for the winter reading Grandma Grace’s stories at bedtime.

I think it will be an easy fit for my kids that are hooked on stories of pioneer life. Grace McCaskie Mosdal grew up on the prairie of Montana. Her adventuresome spirit, love of life, learning, and story-telling in many ways make her much like a Laura Ingalls in our own family. She had a story or joke to share with nearly any situation that arose.

My husband's grandparents, Grace and Thelmer Mosdal, in their hometown parade in Montana a few years ago.

My husband’s grandparents, Grace and Thelmer Mosdal, in their hometown parade in Montana a few years ago.

As a young lady, Grace spent her very first school teacher paycheck on a .22 rifle. Many years later, when my husband was a kid, she used that same rifle to shoot a bobcat off of a telephone pole near their yard. She dropped it dead with one shot. Did I mention Grace is a tiny woman who barely tops five feet and 100 pounds? Oh yes, and her cinnamon rolls are legendary.

Our kids need to know things like that.

I appreciate those stories more as I understand that time isn’t unlimited and things won’t always be as they currently are. These days Grace has dementia. She no longer has the same spark and ability to engage in lively conversation.

Letter writing also used to be one of her trademarks. She wrote letters and notes for everything. “Thank you for the thank you note”. Everything. Her letters were so commonplace that I didn’t save many of them. My two oldest kids each have a letter or two in their sock drawers from Grandma Grace.

By the time my two younger kids came along, her letter writing ended. My oldest is only seven, so the time span from letters being commonplace to no letters at all happened very quickly.

It makes me all the more thankful that she took the time to write down her stories when she did. She isn’t able to tell her stories any more, but this winter, I’ll read her stories out loud to our kids.

And someday, when the situation arises, my kids will be reminded of a story from one of their grandmas, and they will say, “That’s just like when Grandma…” and the stories of these pioneering ladies will go on, as our own personal Little House on the Prairie stories of our family.

A Popsicle Week

Written July 22, 2013.

With colored tongues to prove it, our kids slurped down most of a brand new box of 100 freeze-and-eat popsicles in the past week.  Four kids, a few popsicles a day, times a week…yes, the math checks out.  That box that looked like it would last “all summer” barely made it through the heat wave.  We have no central air in our big old farm house, so popsicles on the porch are really just a requirement for survival.

Cooling off with a popsicle on the porch makes a hot day a little bit better.

Cooling off with a popsicle on the porch makes a hot day a little bit better.

With P.O.P.S.I.C.L.E on the mind, it’s been that kind of week…sticky, messy, and a little sweet.

P is for Panting Chickens.  I do not know the sound of one hand clapping, but I do now know the sound of 110 chickens panting.  On the hottest days, they drank gallons of water, rested in the shade of their breezy shed, and panted.  And panted.  And then panted a little more.  I’m happy to report that they all made it through the heat.

Our chickens don't eat popsicles, so they cooled off by panting.  Being ladylike, the chickens did not pant in this photo.

Our chickens don’t eat popsicles, so they cooled off by panting. Being ladylike, the chickens did not pant in this photo.

O is for On the Banks of Plum Creek.  If our kids get ready for bed on time, I read to them a chapter from Laura Ingalls.  We are now on our fourth book.  This week, we read the chapter about the grasshopper infestation.  I read aloud about how just before harvest, droves of grasshoppers devoured everything green, including the Ingallses’ entire wheat crop.  The family planned to pay off their newly constructed home with wheat money, but instead had absolutely nothing, not even grass for grazing their cows.  Without fail, reading about the struggles of pioneer life puts our own relatively cushy life in perspective.  Feeling hot and sweaty suddenly seemed quite manageable by comparison.

P is for Pools.  At our house we have a kiddy wading pool and plenty of pools of sweat.  Neither one of those really satisfies on a hot day.  A visit to the pool in St. Charles to play with cousins made life all better again.  This week we even swam in a Harvestore silo on two occasions.  Our neighbors ingeniously converted the base of a silo into a great pool with the help of a pool liner, and we got to be the lucky guests swimming at their house on those hot nights.   For the record, we did shower off before jumping in the pools.  While I generally encourage sharing, some things (sweat, for instance) just don’t need to be shared with others.

S is for Slumber Party.  When walking upstairs felt like entering a giant oven, our kids took refuge from the heat with a slumber party downstairs.  We installed our window air conditioner in the toy room, shut the doors, and made it feel like a little slice of cool heaven.  With a few makeshift beds on the floor, four kids slept in cool comfort during the night.  The added bonus?  The loud noise of the air conditioner drowns out any chatting, so they all went to sleep quickly.  Note to self: if the kids are too loud,  just make a louder noise.  Maybe we’ll start turning on the blender or vacuum at night in their rooms.  Well, maybe not.

I is for Ice Cream.  Once in the middle of a hot afternoon when the kids were napping, I just had to take a few spoonfuls of ice cream straight from the container.  The cool, sweet goodness of chocolate and marshmallow had magical restorative properties.  With just a few bites, I could face the rest of the day.  For any of you that recently had ice cream at our house, this was after you left.  I promise.

C is for Caps, Black Caps.  The season is short and sweet for black cap berries, so we are braving nettles, thorns, and those annoying gnats to collect the little jems from our windbreak.  One evening as I came in the house shiny with sweat from heat to toe and carrying a bowl of berries, I told my daughter that we’d eat those berries in pancakes in the middle of the winter and think of summer.  She said she’d like to have a little winter snow to play in right now.  I agreed.

L is for Loving Lightning Bugs.   Instead of sleeping with a stuffed animal at bedtime, one night I noticed my seven-year-old daughter sleeping with a jar of lightning bugs in her bed.   She also excitedly told me a few days later, “A lightning bug just peed on me!” She said it with amusement and almost a little bit of pride.  I told her she was very lucky, because I’m much older than her, and I’ve never had a lightning bug pee on my hand before.  In fact, I didn’t know anyone that ever had a lightning bug pee on them.  What a lucky girl, indeed.  With a few loose lightning bugs now roaming about in our house, I’m sure I’m greatly improving my odds of being just as lucky.

E is for Energy (or Lack Thereof).  In the middle of the heat wave, I began wondering if maybe I had some sort of vitamin deficiency or something.  I just felt like I didn’t possess the energy to make things happen like usual.  Everything just looked like too much work.  Then Sunday morning came around, and cool breezes rolled in along with a few drops of rain.  Suddenly, on the walk out to feed the chickens, I felt like I could actually work.  Perhaps all I need is fall, or maybe a swimming pool in the back yard.  In the meantime, I’ll just have some more iced coffee and maybe a popsicle or two.  I think I’ll skip panting like a chicken.