When Nicholas was little, he loved the Little House Picture Books. Every night, for close to three years, we read at least three of those books at bedtime. They traveled with us when we went on trips. A couple of them became so worn that I replaced them, and, at one point, I had all of them memorized. I loved the books nearly as much as he did.
There was one book, though, that I preferred not to read. And there were three pages in that book that tugged at my heart all those many years ago, as if they foreshadowed a day to come in March 2016. On the first of those three pages, Laura and Mary hug and kiss the Grandma and the aunts goodbye. What are those aunts thinking? Are they remembering the day Mary was born? How exciting it was to welcome a new baby? How it made them all more family to welcome one into the next generation? As the girls clung to their dolls, were the aunts thinking of all the times they'd played with them and all the funny little names they knew between them for the playthings--all the many fibers that wove together to make a family culture? Were they thinking of Ma, and how she was one of them, and how much they'd miss her we've-always-known-her presence in their day-to-day?
Then, we see Laura and Mary saying goodbye to their cousins as they get ready to climb into the wagon and leave the woods of Wisconsin for their new home on the prairie. The little family had always lived within the context of a bigger one and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins make their appearances in some of the other picture books, threaded into the storyline of Laura's younger years. In Going West, Laura says goodbye to big parties at her grandmother's house with lots of familiar babies all lined up on the big bed and breakfasts in her kitchen, where she's treated to pancakes and syrup from her grandfather's maple trees. There is a sense of somber bewilderment on the faces in the picture. What will this all mean?
Were they thinking that it was entirely possible they'd never see these dear people again? Did Laura understand that the easy familiarity she had with her cousins and her grandparents would fade into infrequent written correspondences? Did the grownups think Pa a fool to pull his family from the security of the known community? Did they understand that he only wanted what was best for his family and opportunity lay to the west?
And Ma. Sweet Ma, reluctant, but brave.
It's the next picture that does me in every time. Grandma is holding Baby Carrie as the family gets settled into the wagon. She's looking the little girl straight into her eyes while still holding her as close as she can without blurring her vision. I imagine her vision was blurred all the same. How did she do that without crying? She will hand that baby to Ma, knowing full well that, if she ever sees her again, Carrie will no longer fit in her arms. Grandma won't feel that toddler curve around her hips ever again. She won't sit her on her lap at dinner time. She won't wipe the day's dirt from her face in a warm bath by her woodstove. No matter how reliable the post, letters will never let her feel the baby softness of Carrie's cheek or the tickle of toddler hair after a nap. She knows that she won't be the dear, familiar face to any of the girls that she is when she lifts them onto the wagon. They will grow as quickly as children do and if their paths cross again, the little girls will not be so little and she will be but a friendly stranger to them. They are leaving and nothing will ever be the same.
It's 2016. We have Skype. And Instagram. And FaceTime. And Snapchat. We can see each other every day. We have airplanes.
And I am very grateful for all of that.
I'm also spending countless hours trying to understand the new paradigm where some of my favorite people live 3,000 miles away. I'm trying to imagine how an introverted, homebody kind of a mother who has always understood that "acts of service" is her love language (how she gives and how she receives) and everything is about showing up even begins to wrap her brain around the cosmic shift in her household.
I'm the mama who always hid Going West so we wouldn't have to read that one.
Even then, I think I knew.
Tonight, I read Going West to Sarah at bedtime. We both cried.
Monday night, we'll take turns reading aloud from Little House on the Prairie--right after we FaceTime with Lucy.