One of my family's favorite things to do is to gather 'round Mama's rocking chair while I read aloud to them in the evenings.
We have covered a lot of territory in the books we've read together, delighting in meeting the characters that sprang from the fertile imaginations of Frances Hodgson Burnett, C.S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum, Beverly Cleary and our all-time favorite, Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Our two daughters are enthralled by each word, but I admit that my husband sometimes barely clings to consciousness as he reclines in his La-Z-Boy. The girls and I have heard the sound of a faint snore every now and then, especially during the reading of A Little Princess. That book acted as a sedative to him, and when we finished it and I announced that Laura Ingalls Wilder's On the Banks of Plum Creek would be our next selection, he begged to be released from the duty of listening en famille.
"All these girl books," he said with disdain. "Why don't the three of you just read together and I'll go out and mow, or jog, or anything but listen to all that stuff about people's pink party frocks."
I took a moment to remind myself that my husband entertained himself as a child by reading Hardy Boys mysteries and Zane Grey westerns, neither being noted for their descriptions of feminine frills and fancies. And then I played my trump card, just in time for Father's Day.
Wheedlingly, I told him that I wished he'd listen to this Laura Ingalls Wilder book. They really aren't "girl books," I assured him, since Laura was a noted tomboy in a rugged pioneer family. On the Banks of Plum Creek is a great story for the kids, I told him, but the reason why I'd like you to hear it, honey, is because I want you to listen between the lines and observe Laura's relationship with her Pa.
As anybody who has ever read the Little House books (or even watched the television series re-runs) knows, Laura Ingalls was her Pa's "Half-pint of sweet cider half drunk up." His special term of endearment for her stuck in her memory, as did many of the things they did together, just a little girl and her daddy.
One of the chapters of On the Banks of Plum Creek illustrates this very thing. Titled "The Fish Trap," it details Pa's hammering together a few boards -- with Laura holding the bag of nails and "helping" him -- in order to make a trap to set beneath a little waterfall near their home. When Pa finished with the trap, he and Laura set it together and then rested back on their heels beside the stream to wait for the fish to come sailing over the falls, just in time for dinner.
It was a bonding experience, and it was one of many that Mrs. Wilder remembered vividly some sixty-odd years after it happened, forty years after her Pa, Charles Ingalls, died of heart failure.
How can this be, you wonder? How could something as simple as holding a bag of nails and then sitting beside a stream have so rooted itself in a daughter's memory that the daughter could recall the details of that day after so much water had flowed under the bridge, or out through the fish trap, as the case may be? That afternoon the 8-year-old Laura spent with her father didn't involve her father's investing in "quality time" at a museum or an amusement park. It didn't have anything to do with her father's buying her a motorized scooter or her own cell phone or front row seats to a Britney Spears concert.
All it involved was a daddy spending some time with his daughter.
That afternoon was more important than just the building of the fish-trap to Laura. While they were waiting for the trap to serve its purpose, Laura confided to her father that she was scared about attending the town's one-room school, the first school she'd ever gone to. Laura Ingalls was a painfully shy little girl who was more comfortable with animals than she was with people. Her father listened to her woes and comforted her and gently bolstered her confidence. By the time they went home with a catch of fish to be fried, Laura still didn't want to go to school, but her world was secure in knowing that her father was there watching over her, ready to listen, ready to let her hold the nails.
As far as material possessions went, Charles Ingalls was never much of a success. When he died in 1902, he left a furnished house complete with the Ingalls family's two most prized possessions: his fiddle and a second-hand pump organ he had purchased many years before from some weary settlers who were returning East. He never did manage to bring in the huge wheat crops that he hoped would bring his family prosperity, and gave up his farm soon after Laura married Almanzo Wilder. He moved with Laura's mother, Caroline Quiner Ingalls, and Laura's blind older sister, Mary, into the town of DeSmet, South Dakota and worked as a carpenter.
He never knew what a rich legacy he would leave behind in his second daughter's books. As Laura Ingalls Wilder chronicled the life of the American pioneer, she told us something even more about the life of the American family: fathers are necessary. A father in the home, whether he's a farmer, a carpenter, a factory worker or an investment banker, is something no child should have to do without. A father doesn't have to buy his children's love because they are already predisposed to love him. All he has to do is be there to listen and let them hold the nails.
There are other great fathers who have come along in the hundred years since Charles Ingalls was laid to rest in South Dakota. Maybe their children will write memoirs about their own childhoods, recounting in loving detail the time Dad spent camping in the back yard, shooting baskets, or just walking around the block, shortening his long strides to match the steps of the little feet that confidently skipped along beside him. Maybe those books won't be written, but wherever a good father lives, his love is inscribed on his child's heart. And that's more important than a published work any day.
A Happy Father's Day to my husband and my own "Poppy" and all the other the other fathers out there as well; men of honor, integrity and understanding, fathers who let their children hold the nails.
copyright pending 2001 Shelley McKinney
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