Pioneer Day at my son Atticus’ school was a big deal, one we began to hear about at the beginning of the school year even though it wasn’t scheduled until the end of May. We’d never been to it, but we heard it was a family immersion in crafts, food, and dance. Outfits were prescribed: overalls and work shirts for boys and dads, accessorized with bandanas, suspenders, and straw hats. For girls and moms, long skirts and sunbonnets with aprons were suggested. The school helpfully sent a list of foods pioneers might have eaten for lunch, so our picnics, sans the occasional Starbucks cup, could feel authentic. Beef jerky. Cornbread. Chicken legs. Cheese.
As soon as parent sign-ups opened in April, I logged on to discover a single remaining slot: running the Herbal Medicine Station. Was this a mistake? Did all the other mothers and fathers have some inside track? The site had only been open for an hour. Even my husband had already signed up to assist with candle-dipping! Bleakly, I typed my name.
My mother had brought me up with the mantra, “Do your best; it will be enough.” But that’s a high bar for mothers. Our best? Yikes. Maybe a few days in a month, I feel like my best mother self. Much of the time, I feel barely good enough. But Pioneer Day, I thought, would be my moment to shine, to demonstrate that a working mom could be as craft-sy and competent as those moms I sometimes envied who stayed home with their kiddos.
A career school-teacher, I dutifully turned to the Internet to learn about pioneer medicine, a delightful paradox if you consider that all the information I gleaned came from technology that did not exist 150 years ago when fathers with wanderlust packed wives and children into prairie schooners and set off without a GPS for points west. Grimly, I made notes, trying to imagine how to talk about illness without lingering on the mortality rates of children, and how to avoid embarrassing my own son, who was none too pleased that his mom was in charge of anything at his school.
From the recesses of my memory, I retrieved the idea of citrus pomanders, pieces of fruit stuffed with cloves to mask the odor of decay. We could all manage to stick cloves into lemons. A tour of Michael’s Craft Store revealed tiny drawstring bags, intended for party favors. I repurposed them to make do-it-yourself-lavender sachets. Spoon lavender into the bag, pull, good to go. A helpful mom suggested making bath fizzies—not a staple, I suspect, of most Conestoga Wagons, but a way to combine baking soda with marigold petals. I embraced her suggestion.
In prior years, kids had sampled herbal teas, brushed their gums with sage leaves. There was a rumor leeches had been a big attraction, but the purveyors of leeches were no longer active on the Internet.
Atticus was crushed. “Leeches would have been cool, Mom.”
What could I do to top the leeches? In some misplaced frenzy, I had decided that Pioneer Day was the good enough mom show-down I’d been waiting for. But who in the world was I competing against? No Pioneer Super Mother was going to emerge from the shadows of history to correct me. Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary and the faithful bull-dog, Jack, were not keeping score. Who was I trying to impress?
Only a day or so before the big event, I realized, as only a frantic working mother can, that I’d planned the activities, but I hadn’t actually acquired all of the key ingredients. Dried lavender and cloves are available for overnight delivery, but I gulped when I learned how expensive cloves really are. And having no idea how much to order, I ordered far too much. (The scent of cloves and lavender will emanate from our laundry room for a few more decades.)
Our dining room disappeared under preparations—did I mention that a Conestoga Wagon also had to be constructed for Pioneer Day? Sheets of cardboard, a ruler, paintbrushes, paint and muslin and glue usurped plates and silverware. My husband painstakingly measured the spokes of a cardboard wheel, our son having left the premises after “assisting” his father briefly. Cloves were littered around a plastic unicorn, which had been pressed into service as a would-be mule to pull the wagon. My laptop was wedged between a collection of paints and laminated photographs of medicinal plants for my matching game. Surely, real pioneers had been better organized. I imagined the wagons tidy and secure, with a family’s worldly goods tucked snugly into trunks, docile children whittling and stitching samplers while the mother cheerfully cooked on a fire and the father cavorted with Native Americans. Ahh, revisionist history.
A hasty search of the closet failed to produce overalls for our son, Atticus, so on-line shopping was in order again. I sported an apron over a long skirt and petticoat and blouse. To complete my ensemble, I raided the costume closet at my school for a sunbonnet and unearthed a pair of pointy tie boots. My husband wore his own jeans and a flannel shirt, the only one to feel completely himself.
I felt proud of my ingenuity until I got to school and saw the other moms. Sheesh. They were visions of calico and petticoats, often matching their daughters.
Where in the suburbs of Cleveland had they discovered such outfits? My one mom friend, Nan, had made her own costume, but she is an amazing seamstress, so that didn’t bother me. I later discovered the others had ordered their costumes from the Internet or wore outfits passed down from mothers who had survived Pioneer Day and knew the drill. The drill—like a secret handshake—that I didn’t know.
I swallowed hard and channeled my inner Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman.
“Hey, Atticus’ mom? Is this right?” a girl whose name I didn’t know inquired.
“Yes, now that you’ve added the food coloring and the marigold petals, shape it into a ball and lay it on wax paper.”
“What else can we do?” two boys asked.
“Well, you can play a matching game where you try to match the herbs with their uses—see these pictures?” I smiled brightly, proffering the laminated cards.
“Do we have to?”
“Of course not,” I managed, stung. “Would you like to try some chamomile tea or make a pomander?” They attempted to grind mustard seeds to mix with Crisco, then smeared the paste on a square of cheesecloth and applied the mess to imaginary wounds. Endless rotations of children passed through my station. They were polite, if not enthralled.
I was flushed when I got home that afternoon. My cheeks were hot, my toes pinched. Had I bombed as a pioneer mom? I hadn’t embarrassed my boy—or myself. I’d worked hard—maybe I’d taken the whole thing too seriously. I took off the too-tight shoes, looked around our messy home, cleared off the dining room table and ordered take-out. I was glad I wasn’t a pioneer, glad we weren’t all trapped in a wagon for months and months, and glad I had antibiotics for ear infections.
Later that night, as I read Flora and Ulysses to Atticus, I reminded myself that we were a modern family that was good enough most days. I am good enough most days—working mother of three, wife, teacher, writer—finding time for reflection in the spaces in between. I bet that’s what pioneer moms had to do, too. As Atticus’ eyes fluttered, I forgave myself for making myself nuts. Mothering is every day, not just on Pioneer Day. The golden ring I sought was one I already had won. My son was lying asleep on sheets covered in baseball helmets, a boy of the 21st century with me as his mom. No gold stars necessary.
Ann Klotz is still a writer/mom/school teacher in Shaker Height, OH, whose home is filled with books and small rescue dogs.