Guest Post: Ma(ma) Always Said

July 2, 2015 by Jennifer Carsen

Today’s post is courtesy of Elizabeth Spencer, wife to a long-suffering husband and mom to two adolescent daughters. She firmly believes she would be rich if she got paid for the psychotherapy she administers every day after school. She blogs about life as a craft-phobic, DIY-challenged, underachieving mom at Guilty Chocoholic Mama

My mom was not a fan of the “Little House on the Prairie” TV show. She complained that the only thing the Caroline Ingalls character (a toned-down, niced-up version of Ma from the Little House on the Prairie book series) ever said was, “Oh, Charles.”

I loved the TV series. (Well, except the sad or warped episodes. Which wipes out a lot.) But I treasured the books more. I read and reread them as a child and still listen to the entire lot of them on CD every fall. They have a calming influence on me without pharmaceutical side effects. I’ve pretty much memorized the books, and I can tell you that the “real” Ma Ingalls—or at least Ma as Laura Ingalls Wilder portrayed her in the classic “Little House” collection—did say, “Oh, Charles” quite a bit.

If you’ve read the books, you probably know what I mean when I say this: there is no escaping the fact that from a lot of angles, Caroline Ingalls was a very edgy mother.

– We cannot overlook the Indian bead incident. (Little House on the Prairie)

– Or her warning to her daughters that “a lady never did anything that could attract attention.” (On the Shores of Silver Lake)

– Or the fact she wouldn’t even allow poor Pa his puns. (Little Town on the Prairie)

But when Ma unbunched her petticoats long enough for the less-addled parts of her brain to kick in, she doled out some advice that still rings true today. It rings in our house quite often, actually.

Really, I’m not sure what maternal counsel I’d give my girls half the time if it weren’t for Ma’s inspiration. (Insert eye roll from my daughters.) Here are some Ma-isms I regularly employ in our not-so-little-house-in-the-country:

1. “The darkest hour is just before dawn.” I quote this Ma standby at least once a week. I have one tween and one teen, so we dwell semi-permanently in The Land of Dark Hours.

Once, my older daughter humored me long enough to ask what the phrase means. I told her that in literal terms, the time of night that’s the blackest is right before the sky starts to lighten with sunrise. (I’m sure there’s some meteorological or astronomical explanation for this, but I am not the kind of mom who knows that type of information. Or wants to. This, and my infamous “teach Lydia to count from 25 to 35 without saying ‘twenty-nine, twenty-ten’ incident” are two of the main reasons I know I’m not cut out for homeschooling.)

In a spiritual/emotional/life-experience sense, I told my teenager this truism is a reminder that when life is at its bleakest, better days are usually not far off. The trick is to hang on during those dark hours and not give up or do anything else you’ll regret when the sun shines.

2. “There’s no great loss without some small gain.” Ma regularly said this following some agonizing development in the family’s hand-to-mouth existence. “We built our house two feet on the wrong side of the ‘where you can build and where you can’t’ line and now we have to pick up and move? Well, at least we can eat the seed potatoes we were saving for the garden.” Or, “blackbirds just destroyed the best crop Pa’s managed to eke out in years? Hmmm, how many of those suckers can you bake in a pie?”

I haul out this Ma-ism when my daughters lose and gain various items and opportunities that make up tweenage/teenage life. It makes me feel better.

3. “If wisdom’s ways you wisely seek, five things observe with care: to whom you speak, of whom you speak, and how, and when, and where.” Or, as I tell my daughters here in the 21st century, “When in doubt, shut your mouth.” Ma wrote her 1800s version of a tweet in Laura’s autograph album, and I think our kids could use a dose of this in today’s Facebook/Instagram/Twitter-saturated culture.

It’s the classic tube-of-toothpaste object lesson: once your words are out there, you can’t shove them back in. You can always say them later, but you can’t unsay them.

4. “It takes all kinds of people to make a world.” Laura summoned up this bit of Ma brilliance after she’d just endured an appetite-killing lunch with her employer’s contentious family. In one of the rare understated funny moments in the “Little House” series, Laura observed that her boss “came from the kitchen whistling a tune, as if he had just had a nice, quiet dinner with his family” (Little Town on the Prairie).

My girls get this nugget of mom gold from me when they’re talking about kids at school, teachers, and other people in their circle of contacts who don’t click for them. They both have acquaintances and classmates they “get” and some they don’t. I understand this, of course. But I want my daughters to give grace to all kinds of people, understanding that the world would be beyond boring if everyone fit into the same mold. As my niece says, “Weird is a side effect of awesome.”

5. “Hunger is the best sauce.” Okay, this is not a piece of advice: it’s just something Ma said that I borrow sometimes. It is true, though: give me hungry diners, and the food I serve automatically tastes at least 50 percent better. Add to this the “everything is more delicious if you didn’t have to make it yourself” effect, and I’m suddenly one of the world’s best cooks.

I’m not under any delusion that quoting these pioneer proverbs to my daughters is changing their lives. But maybe someday my girls will put them to use on their own children, as in, “Your grandmother always said…”

If so, at least I will have given credit where credit is due. Thanks, Ma.

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