This is the fifth in a series.
Nearly Every Recess
by HELEN SCHUMACHER
The playground at the elementary school was covered with a layer of woodchips, and during recess the game was to drag your foot through the chips creating a dirt pathway and modeling it into an elaborate series of lines and shapes until you had constructed a house. The labyrinthine structure then got embellished with rocks and weeds and we’d pick boyfriends to live there with us.
Our boyfriends were always The New Kids on the Block and, being low on the playground hierarchy, I always ended up with last pick — Donnie Wahlberg. Occasionally another girl would be feeling generous and share Joey with me.
The game soon lost its appeal. More and more I spent recesses with my new friend Anne, a slender girl with straw-colored hair, freckles, and a wide smile that her face had yet to grow into. Together we would build our own woodchip houses — ones that didn’t need boyfriends because we were Mary and Laura Ingalls and we were too busy darning Pa’s socks by lamplight, shaking locusts from our petticoats, and celebrating the end of the Long Winter by running around howling about the return of the Chinook winds to bother with NKOTB. Anne and I continued pretending to be the Ingalls sisters nearly every recess for the next four years.
The Little House on the Prairie books held a special appeal because we were growing up in Montana, an area steeped in frontier mythology. Imagining the hardships of settler life as we read our way through the Little House series added an element of adventure to living in the state’s rural grasslands — with its humble tourist attractions devoted to pioneers, mining towns turned ghost towns, landmarks dedicated to the Sioux Wars, and country landscape dotted with crumbling homesteads.
Out of school, Anne and I would dress in floral-print flannel nightgowns to perform farm chores like feeding her neighbor’s hens and collecting their eggs. We tried making recipes from the Little House Cookbook. Not even Anne’s dogs would eat our hardtack biscuits; the maple candies we made in the snow also didn’t turn out.
One Friday after school we built a claim shanty in her backyard with the intent of spending the weekend in it. However, the lopsided structure ended up just big enough for the two of us to sit in. We settled on merely eating dinner in the shanty, but that didn’t exactly work out either, as the scrap wood we used turned out to be infested with spiders. Pioneer life was hard.
Our attempts at homesteading may have failed but, playing the role, I felt like I was as resilient and independent as any member of the Ingalls family. The game was an exercise in grit that prepared us for the modern challenges of girlhood we would face together: detention, sadistic babysitters, Nellie Oleson-type bullies. Neither of us had a sister in real life, so we masqueraded as each other’s in play.
There was of course some bickering, but I admired Anne. She was funny and imaginative and, like Laura Ingalls, adventurous and eager to prove anyone who doubted her wrong. As I progressed through the Little House series, I began to appreciate more and more these characteristics they shared and strove to be more like Anne. Without her, I would have been content sitting inside and reading about life on the banks of Plum Creek. Having a physical ease I lacked, Anne coaxed me into swimming in creeks and hopping over barbed wire fences.
The summer between fourth and fifth grade, Anne moved with her parents 70 miles east to the town of Big Timber on the other side of the Gallatin Range. At first we still saw each other a couple times a year: for birthdays, when her parents came back to visit friends, or if my mom wanted to do some shopping in the state’s metropolis of Billings, she would drop me off on her way. But by junior high these visits had ended. After Anne left, it took me several years to settle in with a new group of friends. Even then, it wasn’t until I moved away for college that I made another friend who meant as much to me and inspired me as she had.
Helen Schumacher is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here and here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about the opal ring.
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