“Mother” was indeed a magic word to Laura Ingalls Wilder for, though Pa Ingalls occupies front-and-center attention in the Little House books, Ma is right there too, as the one who trained her daughters in domestic matters and educated them. It is a wonder that she lived to a ripe old age of 84, outliving Pa by twenty years. As his partner, she knew heavy labor as his first helper in building their little house on the prairie, defended the home when a prairie fire threatened it and dealt with the Osage Indians, when rather unaccountably Pa was not there to intervene.
Most of all, though, Ma was the real moral center of the family. In the following article written for the Missouri Ruralist in 1921, Laura honors her mother’s loving guidance and caring spirit: “Lessons learned at mother’s knee last thru life.” In what is probably an original poem, Laura hears her mother’s voice in a song like an angel blessing her as she goes to bed.
“Mother, A Magic Word”
The older we grow, the more precious become the recollections of childhood’s days, especially our memories of mother. Her love and care halo her memory with a brighter radiance, for we have discovered that nowhere else in the world is such loving self-sacrifice to be found; her counsels and instructions appeal to us with greater force than when we received them, because our knowledge of the world and our experience of life have proved their worth.
The pity of it is that it is by our own experience we have had to gain this knowledge of their value, then when we have learned it in the hard school of life, we know that mother’s words were true. So, from generation to generation, we each must be burned by fire before we will admit the truth that it will burn.
We would be saved some sorry blunders and many a heart-ache if we might begin our knowledge where our parents leave off instead of experiencing for ourselves, but life is not that way.
Still, mother’s advice does help, and often a word of warning spoken years before will recur to us at just the right moment to save us a misstep. And lessons learned at mother’s knee last thru life.
But dearer even than mother’s teachings are little, personal memories of her, different in each case but essentially the same—mother’s face, mother’s touch, mother’s voice:
Childhood’s far days were full of joy,
So merry and bright and gay,
On sunny wings of happiness,
Swiftly they flew away.
But oh! By far the sweetest hour,
Of all the whole day long,
Was the slumber hour at twilight
And my mother’s voice in song—
“Hush my babe, lie still and slumber,
Holy angels guard thy bed,
Heavenly blessings without number
Gently resting on thy head.”
Tho our days are filled with gladness,
Joys of life like sunshine fall,
Still life’s slumber hour at twilight
May be sweetest of them all.
And when to realms of boundless peace,
I am waiting to depart
Then my Mother’s song at twilight
Will make music in my heart.
“Hush, my babe, lie still and slumber,
Holy angels guard thy bed.”—
And I’ll fall asleep so sweetly,
Mother’s blessings on my head.
Caroline Lake Quiner Ingalls was very much alive in 1921, and one wonders what she must have thought of this piece. She had been a widow for nearly two decades, and she and Mary occupied the house Pa had built in town when it finally became evident to him that the farm was never going to be self-supporting. The home in the city was his attempt to leave his family as secure as he possibly could after a life of startling adventure.
I believe Laura honored her mother with such glowing recollections because she wanted her mother to feel her life had been worthwhile too. In reality, as Mrs. Wilder makes clear in her books, Ma never had wanted to be a pioneer. She was the “settling type” that was finally glad to stop moving west. It is hard to believe that there were not family tensions along these lines. I think that Laura is here saying that real security for the Ingalls family came through Ma. Ma represented the eternal, the things that cannot be taken away, and the life lessons that are more important than any amount of money. Laura loved her Pa’s adventuresome spirit, but she understood her mother also.
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