Our kids like to play a game they call “Birthday Party.”
It involves wrapping up some of their old toys, using reams of wrapping paper and plenty of Scotch tape. After they spend considerable time with their preparations, they find me and pile the precious gifts at my feet.
My role is always to distribute the presents—one by one—to the birthday boy or girl. Sometimes we pretend to celebrate Amelia’s birthday. Sometimes Daryl’s. Sometimes it is Curious George’s special day. Or Snoopy’s. Or some other stuffed animal of choice.
Once the birthday boy or girl opens all of the presents, the game simply begins again. Daryl and Amelia scurry away with the same toys that were just unwrapped. They wrap them up with the same scraps of paper. They use up more and more of my tape. And they bring the gifts back to me for another round.
My favorite part of the game is the sheer delight that Daryl and Amelia manage to express when each old gift is opened. When they see the same old Little People Cinderella figure or the same old dented Matchbox car for the fifth or sixth or seventh time, their eyes still open wide in amazement. Their jaws drop. They gasp and they exclaim things like “I can’t believe it!” Or “I always wanted this!” Or “it’s my favorite! How did you know? Thank you so much!”
As far as I can tell, excitement and gratitude are the only reactions allowed in “Birthday Party.” Any other response is inconceivable.
Last Tuesday our family drove from Salina, Kansas, to the tiny town of Independence to see the actual location of Laura Ingalls’ little house on the prairie.
Because the TV show that bears the title Little House on the Prairie is set in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, there is common confusion about where her little prairie house actually stood. The answer is: about twelve miles southwest of downtown Independence, Kansas—a two-day journey by covered wagon, fifteen minutes by car. The Ingalls family moved from Pepin, Wisconsin, to this Kansas prairie when Laura was only two years old. They built their little house and began to farm. However, less than two years later they were forced off the land by the government, and they moved back again to Pepin.
The book Little House on the Prairie was one of the volumes we read during our road trip, so we were excited to see the actual location. Driving toward the site, we could certainly picture the prairie fire and the “Indian Jamboree” and the vast treeless grasslands as Laura described.
During the month of August, the Little House on the Prairie Museum is only open on the weekends, so last Tuesday the buildings were unfortunately closed. We were still able to walk around the grounds and peek in the windows. We saw the replica “little house” and the well that historians believe is the actual one that Pa dug by hand. Also on site are the Sunny Side Schoolhouse and the Wayside Post Office and a family of mules.
From the Kansas prairie we continued east to Springfield, Missouri, where we stayed the night.
On Wednesday morning we drove one more hour east to Mansfield and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Rocky Ridge Farm. This is a lovely property and a treasure trove of Laura Ingalls Wilder artifacts. Here you can tour the beloved farmhouse that Laura and Almanzo slowly built over seventeen years—carefully adding one room after the other as their needs evolved and their finances allowed. The house has been beautifully preserved and is full of Laura and Almanzo’s belongings and books.
Laura and Almanzo moved to Missouri in 1894—after they survived diphtheria and lost their South Dakota home to fire. Daughter Rose was eight years old when they made the move, so she spent much of her childhood in this farmhouse. She left when she was seventeen to finish her schooling and begin a writing career of her own. After traveling and writing all over the country and the world, Rose returned to Rocky Ridge in 1928 to live again with her parents.
Because she was finally financially stable, Rose insisted on building a new “modern” house just down the road for Laura and Almanzo. You can tour this unique home, the Rock House, as well. It was in the Rock House that Laura (at age 65) began to write the Little House books.
Laura and Almanzo lived in the Rock House for eight years, while Rose lived in the farmhouse. But in 1937, when Rose moved back to New York, Laura and Almanzo returned to their beloved farmhouse to live for the rest of their lives.
On the Rocky Ridge property is also a beautiful new museum building with a theater and a store. If you are a Laura Ingalls fan, this destination is well worth the trip.
When we left Rocky Ridge, we drove through downtown Mansfield and over to the Mansfield Cemetery to visit the graves of Laura, Almanzo, and Rose. Their marker is covered with stones and pens and candy sticks, placed there by grateful readers.
I wasn’t prepared for the swell of emotion I felt, standing at her grave. I think it was mostly gratitude for the great gifts she gave us—for the knowledge gleaned, the memories shared, and the lessons learned. Yes, it was gratitude, mixed with a tiny bit of grief. Grief, because all good things must come to an end—like summers and road trips and stories well-told.
On our nine-hour drive from Mansfield, Missouri, back to McHenry, Illinois, Amelia figured out how to play “Birthday Party” in the car. In the absence of wrapping paper and tape, she used a dried wet wipe to wrap up the Yellowstone magnet we acquired on our trip. She carefully folded the white tissue around the little gift. Then she handed it up to me in the passenger seat.
“It’s my birthday, mom,” she said. “When I wake up, you need to give me this present and say, ‘Happy birthday, Mary!’ I’m Mary Ingalls today.”
“Ok, Mary,” I said.
Then, after a slight pause, I would hear, “Good morning! I’m awake, mom,” from the backseat.
“Good morning and happy birthday, Mary!” I said. “Here’s your present.” And I would pass the little white package back to Amelia.
“Oh, thank you!” she would say. “I love it! It’s perfect!” She gushed on and on.
Then she would fold the dry wet wipe around the same magnet and pass it up to me again.
We must have done this twenty times.
Rereading the Little House books this summer with my kids has been a bit like a game of “Birthday Party.” Cracking open each volume, the same old copies my mom read to me many years ago, I have been continually amazed at what we’ve found. I had forgotten just how rich Laura’s stories are. And clearly—as evidenced here on the blog—I am prone to gush about it.
But even more than that—our journey these past two weeks through Laura’s life and through the Wild West has reminded me of so many reasons to be grateful—for family, for home, for ridiculous creature comforts that pioneer people didn’t even dream of, and for all that God has done in our country, in our world, in our lives.
So I’m carrying that little lesson/souvenir with me into the new school year.
I want to live more like every day’s a game of “Birthday Party.” Every day I want to unwrap my same old life like a gift—with jaw dropped and eyes wide, gasping in disbelief. “Is this for me? How did You know? It’s perfect! Thank You so very much!”
When you really think about it, when you really understand what we deserve and what we have and what God has done, any other response is simply inconceivable.