I walked along the road with Natalie in my arms, a few dry leaves scuddering around my feet. The morning was chilly, but my shawl and apron added a little protection against the wind. My bonnet hung down my back. I was walking back in time, but I hadn't arrived yet, and strolling past the hospital in my full prairie attire, I felt a little self conscious.
I saw the girls in the distance standing outside Sutter's Fort; Ellie nervously guarding our belongings, head bowed and fingers by her lips, Tessa marching confidently around the grassy hill on the look out for me. Knowing we "women folk" wouldn't have been able to wrangle our bedrolls and belongings, a cot and the baby all the way to the fort from the parking garage 2 blocks away, I had left the girls with our things as I parked the van. As a approached, Ellie caught sight of me and immediately ran down the slight hill toward me. I heard the sound track to Little House on the Prairie in my head as I saw her Ingals-like braids bouncing against her cotton blouse (later, in retelling this moment to Guy, as I sang out the tune, he said, "That's The Waltons,". Buzz kill. It was Little House to me!).
This week as a part of our Charter School we participated in a Living History event at Sutter's Fort. Dressed as pioneers, we were to spend a day and a night living as though the year were 1846. Our day started after we got "settled", pun very intended (get it? Settlers...? Oh, never mind. Some things are funnier in my head), welcoming the wagons that rolled in carrying some of our fellow travelers. After some pictures with those newfangled "boxes", we were welcomed by none other than Captain John Sutter himself. Then the children gathered into groups and began their day's adventures.
The girls headed off to their day full of activities, and I started my patience-building exercises, consisting of 8 hours of trying to help little boys to make tiny knots in tiny pieces of yarn with tiny, uncoordinated fingers. It was amazing...
that I didn't go jump in the well. Actually, most of the kids did great, and I learned exactly when to step in and help with the knot tying before melt downs occurred.
I learned this after two melt downs occurred.
Yah, I'm a little slow.
Girls tended to enjoy the process more than the boys, but once I figured out to tell the boys that they could make their "action figures" into ninja pioneers, things generally went much more smoothly.
Too bad I didn't get to work in the trading post, though. There is nothing that builds the patience muscle like waiting for 70 small children to make a choice between one little wooden thingy and another little wooden thingy.
Ellie and Tessa brought handmade items and treasures from home to trade; bracelets, beads, shells, lemon drops and marbles, and bartered and dickered with the folks at the trading post. They felt really great about their purchases; a wooden snake for Jonah, a little wooden rattle for Natalie, and a few little toys for themselves. I loved that they combined their barter items and used them together, never thinking about who had made what.
The children had been encouraged to take on a real character from pioneer times, and the girls chose two of their great-great grandmothers, one from my family line and one from Guy's, who crossed the plains with handcarts. They learned all about them before we left and were to tell their stories when anyone asked.
The only picture I managed to turn up in.
All I can say is, I'm not a bonnet girl.
(Notice Tessa admiring her new cowgirl boots,
a timely gift from Sweet Auntie Joyce)
The night before we left I had been so busy that I asked Guy to get our snacks ready for us.
The next day, every time I reached into our little cloth-lined, metal pail and pulled out one of the tiny wax paper bundles Guy had wrapped with twine, I felt like I was really unwrapping a little present. I thought about him kindly folding the paper of each one. It was the best granola I ever ate.
During the afternoon we watched as a replica cannon was fired. It was shockingly loud. I think Sutter incapacitated the enemy simply by making them pee their pants.
I opted to some how plug four ears (mine and Natalie's) with two hands, one shoulder and by burying Natalie's little head into my chest, rather than catch a picture of the actual explosion. Just picture the image above with a lot of smoke.
Part of the children's experience was to make all of the food we ate during our stay. They chopped veggies and sorted beans for lunch (dinner), and made a very nice stew, and with the flour they ground at the mill, they baked bread for dinner (supper). We ate on the lawn with new friends, and washed dishes in community wash tubs.
Tessa helped grind wheat on the mill stone,
while Ellie watched.
I guess the mill stone was just a little to technologically advanced for Ellie, She's a purist; she opted for the older-old fashioned approach.
Natalie spent a lot of the day allowing me the opportunity to re-direct her. Her favorite place for us to practice was the rickety wooden staircase.
The children baked the bread in the adobe oven in the courtyard. It came out looking like stones, but was amazingly soft and delicious.
Great care was taken to make sure that all modern objects remained out of sight. Cameras were hidden behind aprons and bonnets, and everything we used was as accurate as could be. I kept my water bottle stashed between a post and a bench, and little Natty frequently took a sip.
Finally, my girls made it to my station, and I helped them make their dolls as pretty as rags could be made. Lucky rags.
Natalie stayed close by all morning, but by the afternoon she began to expand her circle of comfort wider and wider. It included a lot of communing with the earth.
The kids got to try blacksmithing, wool carding, helping with the goats, and learning all about the fort and life in a wagon train.
In the middle of it all, a mail bag was delivered. Letters had arrived from loved ones back east, wondering if their dear ones had arrived safely.
The girls' last class of the day was, of all things, school! They sat still and tired as they listened to their teacher and wrote their lessons on slate boards.
Finally, we all tidied up our stations and gathered with our children for dinner, supper... dinner, whatever it was. It was delicious. I tried not to think about the fact that 70 children had had their hands all over this food.
After our stew and apple crisp, mothers sat and visited, and children played. I met some of the most amazing women. Strong, intelligent, and brave... true pioneer stock plucked from a modern world. Many had large families like mine, many had huge age spreads in their children like mine, and I met at least a half dozen of them that shared my same faith. It was wonderful. Natalie slept peacefully in my arms. I didn't even notice when the sun set. Before long music began to play and toes began to tap.
A new friend held Natalie while I joined the girls in a wild dance. We had so much fun, it could not actually be captured by camera. Or maybe this is what happens when you randomly hand your camera to someone.
By the time we were done dancing, I was exhausted. We couldn't keep up with the caller of the dance. But that was just the beginning. We were pooped, but the musicians were just getting started. They played on in the distillery for an hour more at least! The lead caller was part musician, part comedian, and all energy. Caffiene, meet Roadrunner, now have take guitar.
By the time the music was done, the children had all been up on stage playing along on instruments from all over the world. But it was now after 10 pm and we were beat. The band cleared out, and the beds went up, or down - on the floor - as it were.
But was just as we were getting settled in, the Night Watch was called! The children were needed to scout out the fort for bandits and intruders. Some of the troops wielded rifles, and had to be careful not to accidentally capture rouge cows and chickens. The children ran around in the dark corners of the fort, some in animal costumes, giggling and feeling so daring and so safe at the same time.
The "little" kids took the first watch, and the "big" kids took the second. Ellie made the cut for the big kids group. When the Night Watch finished their rounds and the mamas and little kids went to bed, the big kids were allowed to stay up in the courtyard and visit for a little while. Tessa was sad she wasn't with Ellie, and I realized there was no reason she couldn't be out there. "Go on, Tessa." I said.
"Really?" she said, handing me Natalie as fast as she could. She had a ball, and the bigger kids welcomed her as is usually the case in a homeschool crowd.
I cuddled down with Natalie in my cot (yes, mama got a cot. Mama ain't 12. My old butt won't keep it's shape after 8 hours on a concrete floor). But she was oh-so-wide-awake after her luscious nap, that she stayed up for almost an hour talking and even singing to me. I'm sure the other families appreciated the serenade (she featured "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" in her repertoire. She sings the "na nas" in the song).
I finally got her off to sleep and the girls slipped into their sleeping bags, just in time to listen to the little boy nearby begin his own serenade of sleep apnea. The buzzing weed-whacker sounds would zip along faster and faster, and then came the grunting, and soon a little bit of choking would join the medley. Finally there would be silence, and I would wait for many long seconds for an eventual choking gasp. It would finally come. I would then notice I had also been holding my breath. I would revisit this place many times throughout the night. I shared the stiff cot with the now sleeping Natalie who assumed her favorite sleep position, the Spread Eagle. From time to time rain would pelt the window above me, and the wind would howl through the giant plank doors. It was a great night's sleep, let me tell you.
Morning came too soon. A stirring around me of sleeping-bag zippers and the hiss of deflating air mattresses said it was time. Time to get up. Time to go home.
We pulled on our shoes, and packed up our bedrolls. We wandered with square-dance-hangovers out into the chill of the morning wrapped in blankets and shawls, and ate the child-made cinnamon rolls and drank very welcome hot cocoa as the wind pressed our skirts hard into our legs.
An occasional juicy raindrop would fall, like a kindly but firm warning. It was over. It was time for us to go.
We cleaned up the fort, swept out the distillery, and gathered our things.
I had the girls wait with a sweet family there in the fort while I went to get the van. I was dirty. I had my sleepy, no-makeup-face on. My hair was wonky. I gathered Natalie up in my arms and wrapped my shawl around us, reluctantly stepping out of the gate of the fort. It was sad. I wasn't quite ready for the real world, my real world, yet.
Busy people walked past me without bothering to look into my face. They didn't seem to notice my dirty apron and dusty boots. As I stood on the corner, a sandwich wrapper came bumping down the sidewalk on the wind, making a b-line for me. It was like the world, the crazy, messy, busy, world was rushing right at me, like it couldn't wait to overtake me and rob me of the happy peaceful feeling of the fort. It blew right up to my boot and pressed into the side, and then I laughed, because it was like it was begging, "please! Take me back with you!". I couldn't blame it. Certainly it recognized that things wrapped in paper in the world I had just come from were also lovingly tied with twine bows, and would never be left to blow alone down a busy, impersonal street.
I bent over and picked it up. I did. I carried it with me to the parking garage and helped it into a trash can there (what? Did you think I was going to take it home with me? You're silly).
When I got back to the fort with the van, the sky was giving it's final warning. Big, fat, random drops of cold rain hit the ground and my head. We gathered our things, we said our goodbyes, and we climbed into the van. It felt very strange.
The girls almost cried. They said they wished they could stay a whole week.
"Why can't it be longer?" Tessa asked.
"Because it is always better to leave when you are having fun, and not stay so long that you start to get bored. That way you will want to come back." I said, talking myself into my reasoning as well.
And we will go back. The girls are already planing their barter items for next year, and I'm thinking about a brand new bonnet.
As we made our way down the freeway toward home, the clouds finally opened up, and the rain came pouring down. "I waited just for you," it said.
"I know," I smiled back.
Till next year!
(This picture was the girls' response to my question,
"So, did you love it?")