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When History Came Alive

When it came to school, my mom believed that if you can get your children to love learning then the rest of their education will work itself out. That’s when I came along. Ten hours of labor, followed by a nasty reputation in the church nursery, and I let my mom know quickly that if she made me do anything unpleasant, I would fight her on it. This put a tiny crimp in her homeschooling plans. Maybe it was impossible to make math and science entertaining to a little girl who hated numbers and bugs, but surely there were plenty of ways to make history fun and exciting, right? Mom tried every trick in the book. The sugar cube pyramids bored me—I got glue on my fingers, and I knew that real pyramids weren’t sugar-crystal white. I hated story time. In Mom’s history books boys fought battles and girls didn’t get to have stories unless they dressed up like a boy and fought too.

When I was seven, Mom developed a new strategy. She introduced me to the world of historical fiction under the guise of buying me my first chapter book: Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She had hooked me, and she knew it. She told me the book was going to be a read-aloud and that we were only going to read one chapter a day. I fell in love after page one, and I refused to wait an entire day for chapter two. I demanded a more rigorous read-aloud schedule, but Mom turned me down. Apparently she had four other children who equally deserved her attention. Frustrated, I reminded myself, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” I took the thick book into my uncoordinated hands, cracked open its green gingham cover, and set off to find adventures even more thrilling than the venison-smoking episode from chapter one.

Reading Little House in the Big Woods made me feel like I had gained a secret knowledge. History books droned on endlessly about wars and dates, statues and paintings. But Laura Ingalls lived a real life. Until I read Little House I had assumed that all of history was wooden, like George Washington’s teeth.

The more I read, the more my troubles paled compared to Laura’s exciting problems. I couldn’t put away groceries without thinking of the Ingalls family, who stored their food in a hollowed-out tree. I never minded loading the dinner dishes into the dishwasher until I found out that Laura washed all of her dishes by hand. When I told my mom I wanted to hand wash all of our family’s dishes she replied offhandedly, “You would get tired of it really fast, Katie.” Mom also refused to cook dinner over an open fire like Mrs. Ingalls, even when I conceded that she would still be allowed to wear pants.

Until I read Little House I had assumed that all of history was wooden, like George Washington’s teeth. ​

To me, Laura Ingalls was the cool kid I could never be friends with. I wanted to be just like her. I only wore dress-up clothes that looked like the clothes a pioneer girl might have worn, and I wanted my mom to buy us an old fashioned string mop, instead of the fancy contraption we owned full of levers and sponges. Mom refused, but she did agree to let me get a pair of “prairie boots.” Hooks, laces, and all, they looked like they had come straight out of the nineteenth century. But even as marvelous as those shoes were, they couldn’t take me back in time, and so I could never quite meet Little House standards.

Reading the Little House series later morphed into a fascination with museums. Once my mom took my brother and me to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I remember setting foot inside its massive, utilitarian walls for the first time. The stuffed animals in the ecosystem exhibit weren’t exciting like the real ones in the zoo, and I didn’t care about the rocks in the hall of gems and minerals, but the dinosaur exhibit was definitely worth the trip. In my mind the older something was the cooler it was, and I had it on solid, picture-Bible authority that dinosaurs were at least thousands of years old. I stared at the T-rex, which The Land Before Time had already established as the scariest dinosaur, and I imagined a poor Bible kid running away from the him right in front of me. Right in front of me. So close I could just reach out and touch it.

“Katie! What are you doing? You can’t touch things in a museum!” My mom destroyed my reverie. I mumbled an embarrassed apology. Disappointed, I wondered, “What good is a museum if you can’t touch anything inside of it?” Later that day a security guard yelled at me for trying to touch a really old palace vase. By the time we left the museum that day I had grown very disillusioned.

Reading Little House in the Big Woods and going to the museum made me feel like somebody was dangling a toy in front of me that they didn’t want to share. I wanted to hold things. Looking was nothing compared to feeling the weight of something in your hand, and knowing if it was rough or smooth, heavy or light. I wanted to touch the really old vase that used to belong in someone’s palace. I imagined a rich, beautiful queen touched that vase every day. I hated that I couldn’t travel back in time and experience it for myself.

One glorious year I went on a field trip to a Living History Museum. This museum was a one-room schoolhouse. Thanks to the cynicism I developed after the science museum fiasco, I wasn’t sure such a place existed outside of my dreams. But I was ever hopeful, so I still managed to wake up extra early on the morning of the trip, and I remembered to wear my prairie boots for the occasion.

Arriving at the schoolhouse was like seeing Disney World for the first time. Two ladies greeted the group in authentic pioneer dresses, and I coveted those dresses more than anything else I had ever wanted during my short lifetime. The first thing the ladies did was line us up, sit us down, and teach us about the wonderful world of the one-room schoolhouse. I ignored them for the most part, until they whipped out genuine nineteenth century artifacts. They let me (and everyone else) hold a one-hundred-year old penny and lunch pail. There were no Care Bears or Batman lunch boxes for the pioneer children, just a cold, metal bucket. What was worse, the pioneer ladies informed us, a normal lunch for pioneer children was two pancakes stuck together with lard. As I held the ancient pail, I thought about how sad lunch must have been without peanut butter, Cheetos, or Fruit Roll-Ups. Not every aspect of pioneer life needed to be relived.

I didn’t think it could get any better than an Indian head penny and a real pioneer lunch pail, but what came next made those two look pitiful and old. The pioneer ladies took us out to the schoolyard and gave us fifteen minutes (the length of a one-hundred year old recess) to play with real, nineteenth century toys. One game involved a metal hoop and a stick to hit it with. The goal was to keep the hoop rolling as long as possible. The game didn’t need batteries, played no song, and you didn’t push buttons (or even roll a die). The entire affair was ingeniously simple and difficult. My sad attempt at chasing the hoop cemented in my mind the superiority of the pioneer children to my own disappointing generation.

That day’s third activity was my favorite. The pioneer ladies took everyone inside the one-room schoolhouse, and we had school just like Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was a real one-room schoolhouse building too—not a new building made to look old. I sat down in one of the desks, trying to picture the child who had used my desk so many years ago. Hopefully it was a girl. Did she prefer math or reading? Of course she would have used a slate exactly like the one sitting in front of me. I assumed the slate wasn’t old. After all, you couldn’t trust a bunch of kids to be careful with a tiny one-hundred-year old chalkboard. Those things were breakable. I loved using the slate, but the fountain pen was heavenly. I couldn’t purchase fountain pens at Wal-Mart or Toys-R-Us. I had looked for them many times and ultimately decided that modern chain stores had no appreciation for history.

Our pretend school day didn’t last all morning; it only lasted about an hour. I assumed we lacked the stamina of nineteenth-century kids. When everyone went to the park to play and eat lunch afterwards, I wanted to stay and have more school. That same day, fueled by the experience, I resolved to grow my hair long like a pioneer girl’s. After a couple weeks I lost out on that scheme because Mom insisted, scissors in hand, that I keep my hair neat and trimmed. It wouldn’t have worked out anyways. I had bangs. Pioneer girls never had bangs.

When my hair plan failed, I became the only eight-year-old who loved going antiquing. When I got into an antique store I reverently began to look at the tags on all the merchandise. I always searched for the oldest piece I could find. The best stores had pieces that were two-hundred years old. I respected those items more because no person could live to be two-hundred. I knew that for a fact because the oldest lady in the world was 122. She said her secret was drinking olive oil. Because no one was older than olive-oil lady, two-hundred year-old furniture had outlived everyone who could have used it new. Those pieces had a special layer of mystery. The best part of antiquing? Since everything was for sale, I could touch it all as much as I wanted. The Mom-imposed rule was “Don’t touch anything breakable, and be careful with expensive things,” but I found that reasonable enough, considering the “you break it, you buy it” rule.

My mother soon realized that her daughter, odd as I might have been, ecstatically traveled places no husband would set foot near. That’s how we ended up in Washington, Louisiana: a frilly town brimming with antique stores and historic houses that looked to be straight out of my gingerbread Christmas village. During a trip to visit my mom’s family in Louisiana, my grandma, known to her grandchildren as “Maw-Maw,” decided to take my mom and me on a little daytrip to the girly getaway. I jumped at the chance like a dog offered a walk. Our outing in Washington began with a visit to an antique store that proudly displayed a Victorian gown. They forbade me from purchasing it, trying it on, or even touching it. I contented myself with staring at it from an awestruck distance, soaking up as much of its magnificence as I could. While I worshipped the gown, Mom and Maw-Maw asked the shop owner about the best local sights. When my mom finally pulled me away from the dress, she did so with a promised visit to a real Civil War era home. It was a bargaining chip that resonated well with me, because I had recently watched Gone with the Wind, a movie that left me unimpressed with Scarlett O’Hara but amazed by the Civil War.

I swallowed up that day’s house tour with rapt excitement. Upon entering the dwelling, my mom, Maw-Maw, and I were greeted by a little old lady who regaled us with stories of that glorious year in the 1920s when she was a Miss America contestant. My mother and grandmother listened politely from the back while I moved in closer, anxious to seize my one opportunity to stand near a real beauty queen. She pointed out the pictures from her swimsuit contest that hung on the wall. Several years of watching the Miss America Pageant taught me that all beauty contestants wore skimpy bikinis, but in the picture on the little old lady’s wall everyone was wearing an extremely modest one-piece bathing suit. If I had not seen it personally I would never have believed it.

I miss my childhood enthusiasm, even if it did make me strange and the slightest bit morbid. Everything was new, exciting, and real. ​

The drawing room boasted a silver, spangled saddle from her days as a show rider. Before me stood a woman of great talent, highly deserving of her esteemed position as the owner of an antebellum house. I lapped up her every word, and she led everyone upstairs to the attic.

That’s when things got juicy. She had a pallet up there which had been sitting in the same spot ever since the Civil War. A confederate soldier had hidden in that attic, lying sick on that very pallet. She pointed his uniform out to us.

“And on the floor there is his bloodstain.” She pointed to a spot near my shoe where the mysterious rebel soldier had left his permanent mark. I rubbed the spot with the toe of my shoe and thought about the man who left the stain behind. At least one-foot long and six inches wide, It was a sight to behold. The uniform jacket was splattered to match the floor. I protested loudly when they dragged me away from the attic and all of its grotesqueness, but the old lady insisted on leading us downstairs, outside, and underneath her house. The ghosts of more wounded confederates waited for us by the cinderblocks. Our tour leader showed us the checkerboard the men had played with and the barrels that served as seats.

“Look, Katie,” Mom picked up a small object so she could show me the iron contraption it had been resting on. “When a soldier had his leg amputated, they made him an iron peg leg to use instead. Somebody used this thing,” she pointed to the peg leg again, “to help himself walk.”

“Mmm-hmm” the little old lady agreed matter-of-factly, “and that thing you’re holding there is his knee bone.” My mom couldn’t have set it down faster if it had been a rattlesnake, and I couldn’t have snatched it up quicker if it had been a million dollars. It was yellowed with age and about as heavy as a small paperweight. Bewitched, I turned it over in my hand. That knee bone hadn’t just belonged to a soldier; it was part of a soldier. It had held up surprisingly well considering its age. I considered it my time machine. The old lady went on to show us the Indian burial mound, and the mists hovering above it, which were the ghosts. I couldn’t see her ghosts, but I didn’t care. I had just held a knee bone.

I eventually outgrew my insatiable desire to touch the past. I got used to the idea that history had real people in it; people that I could have talked to and been friends with, not just people in statues and paintings. After a while my Little House books, which I had once been so proud of, ended up collecting dust on my top bookshelf. I even outgrew my need to experience history firsthand, and I was satisfied reading about it in history textbooks. But I miss my childhood enthusiasm, even if it did make me strange and the slightest bit morbid. Everything was new, exciting, and real.

I went through a phase in college when I knew everything, and for a while history disillusioned me. I would stand in a cluster of other know-it-alls, and we’d all agree, “It’s full of lies. It’s just the same people making the same mistakes for all eternity.” But now as a homeschool mother with children of my own, I get to dust off my old Little House books and revisit those dinosaurs in the science museum. My heart quickens as I watch history come alive for my daughter. She reminds me that deep inside me lives a blissfully odd little girl who wears prairie boots, dreams about knee bones, and carries around a dog-eared copy of Little House in the Big Woods.

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