The Long Winter (Chaprer 33)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Christmas in May
Pa bought groceries that afternoon. It was wonderful to see him coming in with armfuls of packages, wonderful to see a whole sack of white flour, sugar, dried apples, soda crackers, and cheese. The kerosene can was full. How happy Laura was to fill the lamp, polish the chimney, and trim the wick. At suppertime the light shone through the clear glass onto the red-checked tablecloth and the white biscuits, the warmed up potatoes, and the platter of fried salt pork.
With yeast cakes, Ma set the sponge for light bread that night, and she put the dried apples to soak for pies.
Laura did not need to be called next morning. She was up at dawn, and all day she helped Ma bake and stew and boil the good things for next day’s Christmas dinner.
Early that morning Ma added water and flour to the bread sponge and set it to rise again. Laura and Carrie picked over the cranberries and washed them. Ma stewed them with sugar until they were a mass of crimson jelly.
Laura and Carrie carefully picked dried raisins from their long stems and carefully took the seeds out of each one. Ma stewed the dried apples, mixed the raisins with them, and made pies.
“It seems strange to have everything one could want to work with,” said Ma. “Now I have cream of tartar and plenty of saleratus, I shall make a cake.”
All day long the kitchen smelled of good things, and when night came the cupboard held large brown-crusted loaves of white bread, a sugar-frosted loaf of cake, three crisp-crusted pies, and the jellied cranberries.
“I wish we could eat them now,” Mary said. “Seems like I can’t wait till tomorrow.”
“I’m waiting for the turkey first,” said Laura, “and you may have sage in the stuffing, Mary.”
She sounded generous but Mary laughed at her. “That’s only because there aren’t any onions for you to use!”
“Now, girls, don’t get impatient,” Ma begged them. “We will have a loaf of light bread and some of the cranberry sauce for supper.”
So the Christmas feasting was begun the night before.
It seemed too bad to lose any of that happy time in sleep. Still, sleeping was the quickest way to tomorrow morning. It was no time at all, after Laura’s eyes closed, till Ma was calling her and tomorrow was today.
What a hurrying there was! Breakfast was soon over, then while Laura and Carrie cleared the table and washed the dishes, Ma prepared the big turkey for roasting and mixed the bread-stuffing for it.
The May morning was warm and the wind from the prairie smelled of springtime. Doors were open and both rooms could be used once more. Going in and out of the large front room whenever she wanted to, gave Laura a spacious and rested feeling, as if she could never be cross again.
Ma had already put the rocking chairs by the front windows to get them out of her way in the kitchen. Now the turkey was in the oven, and Mary helped Laura draw the table into the middle of the front room. Mary raised its drop-leaves and spread smoothly over it the white tablecloth that Laura brought her. Then Laura brought the dishes from the cupboard and Mary placed them around the table.
Carrie was peeling potatoes and Grace was running races with herself the length of both rooms.
Ma brought the glass bowl filled with glowing cranberry jelly. She set it in the middle of the white tablecloth and they all admired the effect.
“We do need some butter to go with the light bread, though,” Ma said.
“Never mind, Caroline,” said Pa. “There’s tarpaper at the lumberyard now. I’ll soon fix up the shanty and we’ll move out to the homestead in a few days.”
The roasting turkey was filling the house with scents that made their mouths water. The potatoes were boiling and Ma was putting the coffee on when Mr. and Mrs. Boast came walking in.
“For the last mile, I’ve been following my nose to that turkey!” Mr. Boast declared.
“I was thinking more of seeing the folks, Robert, than of anything to eat,” Mrs. Boast chided him. She was thin and the lovely rosy color was gone from her cheeks, but she was the same darling Mrs. Boast, with the same laughing black-fringed blue eyes and the same dark hair curling under the same brown hood. She shook hands warmly with Ma and Mary and Laura and stooped down to draw Carrie and Grace close in her arms while she spoke to them.
“Come into the front room and take off your things, Mrs. Boast,” Ma urged her. “It is good to see you again after so long. Now you rest in the rocking chair and visit with Mary while I finish up dinner.”
“Let me help you,” Mrs. Boast asked, but Ma said she must be tired after her long walk and everything was nearly ready.
“Laura and I will soon have dinner on the table,” said Ma, turning quickly back to the kitchen. She ran against Pa in her haste.
“We better make ourselves scarce, Boast,” said Pa. “Come along, and I’ll show you the Pioneer Press I got this morning.”
“It will be good to see a newspaper again,” Mr. Boast agreed eagerly. So the kitchen was left to the cooks.
“Get the big platter to put the turkey on,” Ma said, as she lifted the heavy dripping-pan out of the oven.
Laura turned to the cupboard and saw on the shelf a package that had not been there before.
“What’s that, Ma?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Look and see,” Ma told her, and Laura undid the paper. There on a small plate was a ball of butter.
“Butter! It’s butter!” she almost shouted.
They heard Mrs. Boast laugh. “Just a little Christmas present!” she called.
Pa and Mary and Carrie exclaimed aloud in delight and Grace squealed long and shrill while Laura carried the butter to the table. Then she hurried back to slide the big platter carefully beneath the turkey as Ma raised it from the dripping-pan.
While Ma made the gravy Laura mashed the potatoes. There was no milk, but Ma said, “Leave a very little of the boiling water in, and after you mash them beat them extra hard with the big spoon.”
The potatoes turned out white and fluffy, though not with the flavor that plenty of hot milk and butter would have given them.
When all the chairs were drawn up to the well-filled table, Ma looked at Pa and every head bowed.
“Lord, we thank Thee for all Thy bounty.” That was all Pa said, but it seemed to say everything.
“The table looks some different from what it did a few days ago,” Pa said as he heaped Mrs. Boast’s plate with turkey and stuffing and potatoes and a large spoonful of cranberries. And as he went on filling the plates he added, “It has been a long winter.”
“And a hard one,” said Mr. Boast.
“It is a wonder how we all kept well and came through it,” Mrs. Boast said.
While Mr. and Mrs. Boast told how they had worked and contrived through that long winter, all alone in the blizzard-bound shanty on their claim, Ma poured the coffee and Pa’s tea. She passed the bread and the butter and the gravy and reminded Pa to refill the plates.
When every plate had been emptied a second time Ma refilled the cups and Laura brought on the pies and the cake.
They sat a long time at the table, talking of the winter that was past and the summer to come. Ma said she could hardly wait to get back to the homestead. The wet, muddy roads were the difficulty now, but Pa and Mr. Boast agreed that they would dry out before long. The Boasts were glad that they had wintered on their claim and didn’t have to move back to it now.
At last they all left the table. Laura brought the red-bordered table cover and Carrie helped her to spread it to cover neatly out of sight the food and the empty dishes. Then they joined the others by the sunny window.
Pa stretched his arms above his head. He opened and closed his hands and stretched his fingers wide, then ran them through his hair till it all stood on end.
“I believe this warm weather has taken the stiffness out of my fingers,” he said. “If you will bring me the fiddle, Laura, I’ll see what I can do.”
Laura brought the fiddle-box and stood close by while Pa lifted the fiddle out of its nest. He thumbed the strings and tightened the keys as he listened. Then he rosined the bow and drew it across the strings.
A few clear, true notes softly sounded. The lump in Laura’s throat almost choked her.
Pa played a few bars and said, “This is a new song I learned last fall, the time we went to Volga to clear the tracks. You hum the tenor along with the fiddle, Boast, while I sing it through the first time. A few times over, and you’ll all pick up the words.”
They all gathered around him to listen while he played again the opening bars. Then Mr. Boast’s tenor joined the fiddle’s voice and Pa’s voice singing:
“This life is a difficult riddle,
For how many people we see
With faces as long as a fiddle
That ought to be shining with glee.
I am sure in this world there are plenty
Of good things enough for us all
And yet there’s not one out of twenty
But thinks that his share is too small.
“Then what is the use of repining,
For where there’s a will there’s a way,
And tomorrow the sun may be shining,
Although it is cloudy today.
“Do you think that by sitting and sighing
You’ll ever obtain all you want?
It’s cowards alone that are crying
And foolishly saying, ‘I can’t!’
It is only by plodding and striving
And laboring up the steep hill
Of life, that you’ll ever be thriving
Which you’ll do if you’ve only the will.”
They were all humming the melody now and when the chorus came again, Mrs. Boast’s alto, Ma’s contralto, and Mary’s sweet soprano joined Mr. Boast’s tenor and Pa’s rich bass, singing the words, and Laura sang, too, soprano:
Then what is the use of repining,
For where there’s a will, there’s a way,
And tomorrow the sun may be shining,
Although it is cloudy today.”
And as they sang, the fear and the suffering of the long winter seemed to rise like a dark cloud and float away on the music. Spring had come. The sun was shining warm, the winds were soft, and the green grass growing.