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Adventurer in life's bewilderness

Monday, February 23, 2015

River Talk - Coming Home

The motley crew on Bank Street 1974

This is a tale of turtles
Soft shell turtles
coming home

Back in the day - I recall being assured and expected to concur with Thomas Wolfe’s proclamation, You Can't Go Home Again.
Wait a minute. I’m perplexed. All I know is coming home…Being at home where ever I am. I’m from a family of soft shell, thick skinned turtles, carrying our homes on or backs and in our minds…or our hearts. 

Turtles on the move—calling home a trailer park along Blue Bonnet Texas freeways, a tent site in Mountain Air Colorado or Wyoming, some auntie’s back yard in corn fields Iowa, dirty inner city Detroit, Rochester….Chardon, Ohio…

A band of nomadic turtles, never sure if the Wisconsin pond could hold us all or we’d be washed down the Muddy Mo.
It’s a big world out there—one family turtle is off to Paris to be an au pair, smoking reefer in a West Bank Cafe along the Seine; one’s off to Boy Scout Camp setting off fire crackers in the cabin; one’s off to music camp; one’s plain off its rocker.

My favorite small turtle memory is curling up on the back ledge of the powder blue Lincoln sedan—in the days when cars had a back window large enough for a 9 year old to snuggle up with a stuffed turtle and a pillow—and watching the moon and stars pour across the sky or torrents of rain pound against the glass… fantasizing a glamorous, fast-paced life as papa turtle sped down unknown rural highways at his turtle-like speed, somewhere just above or below 100 mph.

Dad was one of six sons and two daughters raised by the strop. I knew the discipline part, but I didn’t know the killer subplot until after all the brothers were gone and the only remaining sister was muted by a stroke. Not much gets explained or shared under the rule of threats and fear. so when two thirty-something brothers had a bit too much to drink, a scuff over a girl, and the older brother delivered a fatal punch to the younger brother, there was no coming to terms. The surviving brothers thought they could hide the evidence by tying a cement boot to Milos body and pushing him and his car into the Cedar River. In the way that turtles are often seen half submerged, it worked. It was a mystery to everyone except the five remaining brothers, who retreated into their shells. Four to lives of domestic tranquility; the  most culpable to a life in exile.

Growing up, all the rest of us turtles only knew was that brother Wesley took off for California, never to be seen again, and only heard from occasionally through one of the older brothers.

This reminds me  of the turtle we had when my family lived in a small garden brownstone on Bank Street in Greenwich Village. My husband had made a rock garden  with a trickling fountain in a pond Turtle could enjoy in the small enclosed back yard. One especially lovely spring day when the yellow and red tulips were in full bloom,  our son took Turtle into the yard for some fresh air. When it was dinner time, Turtle was no where to be found. For days we went out looking for him, nothing… Finally we gave up. Months later when Turtle was but a faint memory, I opened the back door and was face to face with Turtle, head arched ominously, hissing at me for abandoning him to city rats, cats and other ferrel elements. We joyfully took turtle in, reunited with family.

The turtle story doesn’t end here. This is where it begins…

Saturday, February 21, 2015

River Talk Love

A few days ago I volunteered to tell a story for River Talk on the theme “Is it really love?”  This makes me think of what the Haines audience likes to hear-- local stories. That’s what I’ve been told. 

I wish I knew more of the stories about my dad. They are funny. He was such a tight wad! I remember being bribed to do something…the offer…half a stick of Wriggley’s Spearmint gum. There were four of us kids, so if he wanted us all to do something, two sticks would go a long way. I can still see where he ripped the stick in half, the gummy exposed halves torn by his knobby thumb and forefinger, a thin line of silver foil and the outside green and beige wrapper exposed. It was even funnier because he didn’t allow us to chew gum…not lady-like. I guess we all share some of these lovely moments growing up in All-American families.

Like coming up to Alaska in the first place. What brought you here? The Nelson family story goes something like this: Our dad was into staying abreast of the news and important developments. Walking on the moon, except I don’t think that had happened yet. Electric cars. Like my brother Paul, Dad worked in the automotive industry. Building super highways…criss-crossing America. All that was exciting for him, and he and his cronies talked shop whenever they got together. A kind of male drone in the background of my exciting don’t-let-my-parents-know-what-I’m-doing-life in the Rochester New York suburb we were living in so Dad could educate us to be proper ladies at Eastman School of Music. He was a man with a plan.

There must have been a conversation about Alaska becoming a state. Going to Iowa public schools I knew all the states, what they were known for…Iowa, is where the tall corn grows…but territories and those manifest destiny outcroppings were off limits to elementary students. We might get the wrong idea.

My most vivid getting ready memory is painstakingly coloring a piece of typing paper with “Alaska or Bust” in the style where every letter is 10 different colors, so no one except the person who made the sign can read it. “Alaska or Bust” was taped to  the inside rear window of our turquoise Ford station wagon. Did you know that turquoise was one of the more popular car colors in the midi-1950s? Elvis and Hawaii. That didn’t last long.

We made it to Alaska driving cross-country on the detour-ridden, under-construction super highway dad was so proud of and up the flat-as-a-pancake most of the thousand -plus twisty, s-shaped gravel, permafrost heaved AlCan into the interior, stopping to be tourists to the last of Alaska’s sourdoughs sitting outside one-room cabins whittling a stick, maverick gold miners who were using hydraulic pressure of glacial streams to literally move mountains, and vestige military training grounds scattered around the state. None of us knew that dad was on a quest to be an Alaska homesteader, but we played beautifully into his plan, oohing and ahhhhing all the way.

Except for the night we camped in a barren area that made me think what the surface of the moon must look like. Dad slipped away with a revolver strapped to his side and instructions to get the fire going. He returned with a skinned animal and announced that we were going to have chicken for dinner. Really? He puckishly admitted that we were dining on porcupine. That was when we still thought of the prickly critter as a storybook character. No thank you, Dad.

The first family “stead’ was the Fort Seward Quonset hut where I think Byrne Power now lives. This is when what I call the Nelson Ma & Pa Kettle era began in earnest. The place looked like it hadn’t been lived in for decades. They spiffied up some of the rooms  with bright yellow and robin’s egg blue paint and settled in for the winter….several winters…the high point of their cozy life being icicles forming on the ceiling when the fire died down and when the fire was roaring, dripping water from the ice stalactites around the stove pipe sizzling on the surface of the barrel stove.

After a few years Dad looked around and found what in his estimation was a more suitable home up the highway and on a trip back to Haines from Anchorage he pulled up to the gas pump at the 33 Mile Road house to get to know his new neighbors before moving in. In his  astute research mode he starts the conversation, “I hear the house across the road is for sale.” Roadhouse owner Binks replied, “Yeah.”  Dad went on, “What do you think of the house?”  

“Well, it would make a good barn, if you took the floor out.” And the neighborly love affair began.

But all kidding aside. Dad did finally get the chance to prove up on a Mud Bay homestead, and interestingly enough he played a small role in job creation and economic development in Haines. Reminiscing about the days when Dad grew barley in the upper field, Scott Carey told me Dad would hire him to work alongside him in the field. One time after they were done for the day, Dad was already in the garden pulling up carrots when Scottie went to get paid. Dad only had cash to pay him the $7.00 an hour for a little over half of the time. Rather than offer to make good on the balance, Dad separated one of the carrots from the bunch he’d just pulled and extended it to Scottie, “Here, have a carrot.”

Saturday, February 16, 2013

In loving memory of Irene Nancy Nelson
Reflections on The Garden of Evening Mists
      by Tan Twan Eng

I have entered the garden of evening mists
The quiet between memory and forgetfulness.
Outside the grayscale world
       announces a frigid, socked-in sunrise
What of the Yup'ik words for snow
       describes every surface laden -
The deck overlooking our grey
       and white ribboned Chilkat at low tide
The railing and Adirondack chairs freshly cushioned,
        abandoned for the season
Sentries of Sitka spruce
        bowing ever so slightly to the south

We hunker down inside, trying to keep warm
Planning for spring, growing our own food
Harvesting sea weed, subsistence fishing
Smoking wild salmon,
        putting up the fruits of our labor,
The bounty of this great land

I wonder how anyone can fail to see
The magnificence of Nature's gifts
Squander her resources
For a temporary wealth
Power lives beyond recognition

Is this the fading that drives us to sunset?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Monday, March 26, 2012

Alaskan Winter Remembrance

A slight movement catches my eye and draws a startled response, “Bear, what are you doing here?” The Bruin's auburn coat shimmers as he arches over the porcelain rim of the claw foot bathtub as if to catch his reflection in the discarded fixture. Ambling to the edge of the clearing, he stands on hind legs, grasps an alder branch, rippping off a mouthful of leaves and bark before plunging into the brush. A towering hemlock grove and the hundred feet between us dwarf the scene, yet my heart pounds and images from last winter heighten my sense that wilderness spirits own this land.

First snow at Mud Bay casts an orange mystic glow over the seaweed strewn garden. Moderated by the warming effect of tidal waters, our snowfalls are lighter than in town. My car’s in the shop, almost a month waiting for a part, so I walk the long driveway to the road and hitch a ride to town. Returning late I don my headlamp at the top of the drive and ease my way along the steep incline, retracing my morning steps. After a few feet I stop to cast the light further down the drive and scan the shadowed tangle of naked alder branches on either side before resuming my descent. An unfathomable blackness encloses me in a tunnel of light. A deep breath brings in the slightest scent of salt and pine; exhaling, a tingle of repose flows through me.

My thoughts wander to my good fortune. Tomorrow morning I return to a well-lit home with Internet and an indoor toilet, less than a mile from the homestead. For two years I’ll have a view of Rainbow Glacier from a tiny office adjoining a welcoming kitchen where I can cook up plans for the homestead with friends and neighbors. 

Tonight I will light candles and build a roaring fire in a badly rusted barrel stove, too far from the bedroom to bring the temperature above freezing. Now I understand. The trailer house Mom and Dad lived in during the early homesteading years would be reason enough for Mom to move into town. As I take another step my eye catches the imprint of a large moose hoof in my morning tracks. Likely the handsome bull that most autumn days before hunting season silently strides the old logging road from the uplands to the flats, pausing now and then to grasp tender alder branches in his massive bite and skim the leaves with a twist of his nozzle. Confident of his authority he allows me to watch him from a distance. If I stir, he turns full face toward me and continues munching.

Soon after settling in my Rainbow Glacier hideaway I discover that a cow moose and her calf frequently cut across the clearing by the abandoned claw foot tub.  No more sightings of the bear.  

The morning of the first heavy snow I post hole my way to the road. That night trudging back to the house in the hemlock grove, the cow’s hooves follow my deep impressions; the calf’s trail breaking virgin snow alongside, until the pair veer into the woods.

Monday, November 7, 2011

I am now a hunter-gatherer of insights and information to bring back to the homestead. My first destination,   Lower Manhattan, to catch up with friends and immerse myself in metropolis energy. I sojourn with family at the apex of City Hall Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, a few blocks from Zuccotti Park.

For almost a week I open myself to NYC, join the walking throngs, crisscrossing town by foot, registering neighborhood changes from Tribeca and Greenwich Village to Chinatown, Little Italy, Upper Broadway and the East side. I mingle with OWS and nearby union protesters, listen to stories and take in the glint of Mad Men and Women. The Zuccotti zone sings with purpose and inquiry, the rest of the Big Apple throbs with the revolving door power of ignoring anything outside of arm's reach and the next text message. The diversity of impressions heightened by restauranting on Japanese, Indian, Korean, Greek, and nibble of sticky buns sprinkled with sesame seeds and a dab of bean paste in the middle.

A side trip upstate on Metro North from Grand Central, traveling along the Lordly Hudson to Beacon brings broader vistas, a walk across the Hudson at Poughkeepsie on the Rail To Trails bridge, and a challenging art adventure at the cavernous DIA-Beacon gallery in the renovated Nabisco box factory overlooking the Hudson.

From NYC I fly to Savannah International and head to Hunting Island State Park to tent on the beach fringe under wind-rustled Palmetto palms. Hunting Island is one of my favorite retreats going back to the early '70s when our kids were toddlers and our little gang of friends would fly kites, picnic, swim and nap away long summer days. We ran into one of that gang at the supermarket on our way to the beach. His comment on our camping trip, "I camp at the Ritz Carlton."

This past weekend my friend Jay and I were docents for the Beaufort County Open Land Trust fundraiser tour at Auldbrass, a modern plantation designed and built over 20 years (1938-1959) by Frank Lloyd Wright for industrialist Leigh Stevens. Joel Silver bought the plantation in 1986 and has spent millions working closely on the restoration with Wright's grandson, Eric Lloyd Wright, and a team of artisans and landscapers who continue to restore the architectural masterpiece. I was stationed at the front door--a sort of homeland security agent for the arts--and enjoyed meeting and talking with people from around the country, most sharing a genuine interest in Wright and his work, some curious to see Silver's blockbuster restoration. On one occasion, talking about the restoration, the producer of Diehard and Lethal Weapon glibly announced, "I paint with a checkbook." The night before the tour Eric Lloyd Wright, now in his late 80s, gave a touching, firsthand account of the painstaking effort to restore the long-abandoned and incomplete complex of structures.

All inspires ideas for the homestead...especially Wright's genius for discerning fundamental characteristics of nature such as walls that echo the angle of mature live oak trees, rain spouts that parody the flow of Spanish Moss from expansive live oak branches, copper roofing that captures the light and shadow play on palmetto fronds, and interpreting and transforming the essential qualities that draw the eye to the built environment's place in nature.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

For The Birds - An immodest proposal

ActBlue. The color of Rainbow Glacier peeking through last night’s snow. I could send $5 to side with the plight of Wisconsin workers and support the campaign to unseat Governor Scott Walker or I can ponder the future of resident and migratory birds that visit Southeast Alaska. I’m not registered in Wisconsin. I’ll vote for the birds.

After a silent winter I awaken in early dawn to a melodic cacophony streaming through my open window. Droves of birds newly arrived elude my eye, but call me to action.

A thousand washable bird bags, 25 mist nets and poles, a bird-banding table, banding tools and rubber bands. Easily acquired items and a shelter for inclement weather and tool storage comprise the physical necessities to host a bird observatory at Seven Echoes Homestead.

The idea of creating a bird observatory at the homestead hatched when Pam Randles shared her desire to achieve Master Bander status.  I learned that the Takshanuk Watershed Council is looking for a suitable location to establish an educational bird observatory in Haines. Pam, the watershed education program coordinator, believes in a citizen science approach to learning about our environment and is heading up the observatory site search. The purpose of the proposed observatory: to collect information on migratory birds and band birds for further study, and to establish a nature center for students and community members.

I invited Pam to walk the flats on a brisk autumn day. Binoculars in hand, we headed down an overgrown logging road and within minutes she enthused, “I’ve already identified 25 different species by sight or song!” Before we reached the open flats the underbrush was disturbed by an immature robin thrashing at the edge of the path, beating its way into the brush as we approached. On our return several hours later we found the robin lifeless in the path. On closer observation in Pam’s cupped hand we saw a deep puncture wound, probably from a weasel or a hawk.

Seven Echoes Homestead forms a ragged green crescent at the head of Mud Bay. On most maps look for Flat Bay on the east shores of the Chilkat Peninsula. The tidal flats and uplands provide sanctuary for scores of migratory and resident bird species. Approximately 250 bird species frequent the Chilkat Valley. Equally as many residents are casual birdwatchers, 30 are serious birders. My closest neighbor keeps a notebook of unusual sightings while crossing the mud flats at low tide or exploring the flats and uplands with his daughter. His journal pinpoints unusual valley visitors, a Sandhill Crane resting in the upper bay, and a Redtailed Hawk and fledgling. “Kee-eeeeeeee-arrr,” rings down through the woods some summers.

The Chilkat Valley is strategically located to gather needed information about migratory birds from all parts of North and South America, from Asia, Australia, the Caribbean and Mexico. Millions of birds catch the North American and Pacific flyways to summer over and breed in Alaska. There are three Bird Observatories in the Yukon and one in Fairbanks, none in Southeast Alaska. An observatory at the homestead would honor our family legacy by helping ornithologists understand changes in bird populations in this time of climate change.  4.11.11

Monday, August 22, 2011

Geology--History Emergent

I wasn’t prepared for the first words Cindy Buxton spoke as we stood on the mud flats looking up toward the homestead. “There are world class rocks on the Chilkat Peninsula that would excite every geologist in the world.”

Cindy’s authority stunned me in much the same way I find myself humbled by the raw grandeur of Alaska’s landscapes. I wanted to learn something of what formed the ground we stand on. A history mysterious to me shaped the Chilkat Peninsula, the craggy peaks on the far sides of Lynn Canal and the Chilkat River. A Haines geologist was willing to share her knowledge. In less than an hour I gained a deeper understanding of our past which I share with you in Cindy’s words:

Encompassing the intertidal flats at the head of Mud Bay, the Nelson Homestead was shaped by the rich geological and geomorphic history of the Upper Lynn Canal and the Chilkat Peninsula. All three major rock categories—igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary—are found on or near the homestead.

About 220 million years ago lava flows covered the landscape, coalescing into a thick pile of basalt. Near the end of the volcanic episode some of the lava flowed into the ocean, forming spectacular pillow basalts and other rocks similar to what one might find on the coast of Hawaii today. These lavas were then buried by about a 5-mile thick sequence of ocean sediments over tens of millions of years. The heat and pressure at such great depths caused metamorphic changes in the basalts and sediments. Over time immense forces lifted the buried conglomeration of metamorphosed materials. Huge portions were eroded away, once again exposing the lower sediments and the now metamorphosed lavas. 

Approximately 18,000 years ago at the peak of the last ice age, the entire homestead was under about 3500 feet of ice. The moving ice eroded the area into its current dramatic landforms leaving glacial striations on mountain tops and numerous large glacial erratic boulders to dot the landscape. The ice advanced again during the Little Ice Age, likely filling only the deeper valleys and then retreated 300 years ago. No longer depressed under the huge weight of the ice, the crust began to “rebound” upwards, a total of about 15 feet since 1770. Currently the rebound rate is about 0.9” per year, a rate second in the world only to the uplift in Glacier Bay which is rising at a little over 1” a year.

Two faults cut through the homestead, connecting the major parallel faults running up Lynn Canal and the Chilkat River, both of which in the past were equivalent to the San Andreas Fault. Movement on the “Mud Bay” faults is sideways rather than up and down, shifting the peninsula south of the homestead to the northwest in relation to the peninsula north of the homestead. Erosion on these faults by streams, and especially the large glaciers, formed Mud Bay and Letnikof Cove.

No earthquakes have been recorded on the small faults on the homestead, although many small to medium earthquakes are known to occur on the faults in Chilkat River and Lynn Canal. The two “Mud Bay” faults partly control the local distribution of fresh water and salt water in nearby wells. One of these faults likely funnels fresh ground water up to the artesian well on the homestead.  Many wells on nearby properties hit salty water.

Cindy’s description prompted me to renew my vows of gratitude. Whether filling water jugs at the spring, gathering wood for the wood stove or joining friends at the garden to harvest vegetables and share a potluck meal around the fire, I find myself remembering the essence of these thoughts penned by John Muir over a century ago:

“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”

Cindy Buxton is a geologist with 25 years of extensive experience in resource estimation and geologic mapping for a variety of mining companies. She has worked as an independent consultant since 1996. Her experience in Alaska includes the Brooks Range, Seward Peninsula and Southeast Alaska. She has a Master of Science in Geology from the University of Washington, Seattle, 1990, with a thesis, “Geology and Pre-Metamorphic Evolution of the Nome Group Blueschist Terrain, Horton Creek Area, Seward Peninsula, Alaska.” Her Bachelor of Arts in Geology, 1987, is from Rice University, Houston, Texas, with a thesis, “Field Guide to the Precambrian Rocks of Central Texas.” As a hobby she documents the local geology and leads school and community field trips under the auspices of the Takshanuk Watershed Council program, Living in the Forest Presents, to teach Haines residents and visitors of all ages about our geologic history. Her most recent geology field trip was “Volcanic Rocks of the Haines Peninsula.” She also gives occasional geology talks at the Haines Public Library.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Loving Well is the Best Revenge

You Can’t Go Home Again loomed large in my psyche during my teen and young adult years. “Home? What’s that?” was my mantra. My life embodied the alienation and existential angst fed by a world in rapid transformation. Now I understand there is a difference between nurturing comforts and transforming love. They aren’t always packaged together, found under one roof, or in one place.

I did come home to the land of my father’s dreams, and my mother’s nightmares, wilderness at the end of a seven mile gravel road thousands of miles from her mother and sisters. Dad’s dream came to fruition with the homestead, the Juneau Symphony, and French horn and piano duets with Nancy Nash. Mom hid her dreams inside, and with Louise Homested joined the Haines social network and potluck society.

Walking Mom and Dad’s path for ten years allowed us to see each other in different contexts. I’d shed the drive to save the world. They softened. I gained strength. Working the soil with my hands and tending the vegetable garden, day after day preparing meals from the harvest and sharing the bounty at table engendered empathic listening. Innumerable care-giving gestures: bathing, grooming, taking mom and dad on separate outings to visit friends when they could no longer walk prepared me for the dying part of life. Dad’s top destination was Budge McCray. Mom visited friends and family in her sleeping dreams.

From the Alaskan life my parents shaped for themselves emerged an image of what they accomplished, and a realization that human frailties pale in the face of even modest accomplishments. By etching out the homestead they took the steps I can follow to realize my dreams.

Challenges lie ahead. Challenges I peel away layer by layer, like the pungent onion skin that in turn burns my eyes and brings promise of subtle delight to innumerable dishes.

My dreams begin with protecting the wildlife corridor and wetlands for resident and migratory birds, moose, bear and other ranging creatures. A conservation easement and bird observatory top the list for this dream.

 Expanding Dad’s organic garden and introducing sustainable agriculture in the upper field is a dream in progress.

Rather than build a castle, I dream of the homestead as an eco-learning center where sustainable lifestyle practices are modeled, tested and shared community-wide; where a K-12 arts-and sustainability-integrated curriculum for life-long learning is brainstormed.

A retreat for artists, writers, musicians and healers is a core dream. Perhaps Haines High School shop students can build one-room retreat cabins nestled in the woods.

The homestead eco-lodge for community meetings, concerts, conferences and a locavor eatery could also serve as a mini-culinary arts school linked to Haines schools.

As the year-round resident steward I will live in a small and sustainable green home that preserves viewscapes from the water and across Mud Bay.

Walks in undisturbed forest will inspire visitors to dream.

Friday, June 10, 2011


“So you’re goin’ to the Bewilderness.” Her brow furrowed, drawing my gaze to her dusky eyelids. Mom’s cleaning lady looked up from the dress as she set the iron on end. “Who’d’uv guessed you’d leave Rochester an’ drive all that way. An’ fo’ what?”

Duct-taped to the aqua 1954 Ford station wagon window, a hand-crayoned sign proclaimed, “Alaska or Bust.” The day America’s Last Frontier joined the Union, Dad’s dream took flight. An Alaska homestead and hunting grounds that dwarfed his haunts in Pennsylvania and Wyoming awaited him up north.

It took three boomerang trips to land in Haines. On the first two cross-country camping trips, the odd-ball dictates of our Ma and Pa Kettle parents caused me to think they were among the authors of Murphy’s Law. From New York to the Dakotas we heard “Your Aunt and Uncle So-And-So will be glad to see us. No need to call ahead.” Only to be greeted by “Nothing much going on here.” In Yellowstone, a sporting night with other teen campers and human-conditioned black bears got my older sister and me whopped with the belt that “hurts me more than it does you.” 

We managed to survive the thousand miles of serpentine, permafrost-heaved, gravel road of the AlCan Highway, despite flat tires and rocks spat at our windshield by caravans of oncoming semi-trucks. In the Yukon Dad’s puckish disappearance with a concealed weapon and return announcement “let’s have chicken tonight” turned out to be a campfire roasted porcupine. All four Nelson children went without supper.

For nearly forty years after “proving up” on the Mud Bay homestead, Dad stuck to the routine etched in his being as deeply as the ruts in his clay driveway. His gnarled hands worked the soil and harvested lettuces, kale, chard and root vegetables. When subsistence fishing opened on the Chilkat River, he hauled his skiff to Letnikof Cove and gill netted Sockeye that he smoked and canned to hold him until the following season. He collected eggs and set a lantern in the chicken house to keep the water dish from freezing on the coldest nights.

Except for those three road trips—the last one in 1966 to move my family to their temporary home in the Fort Seward Quonset hut—I only visited my Alaska family one time—the summer of 1973 after my third child was born. At some point in the mid-1990s, now dim in my memory, Mom’s once perfect script looked like hen scratchings and Dad’s scrawling block print letters foretold of barged food orders so enormous my children could inherit 50# bags of black beans, green lentils and brown rice.

The decision to spend winters in coastal South Carolina and summers in Haines was easy, thanks to the Internet. Who wouldn’t want to look up from their work to see the panoramic emerald waters of Lynn Canal with a backdrop of jagged peaks? I teleworked between the East Coast and Alaska, and commuted the seven miles between the homestead and Mom’s cabin on FAA Road. The same fingers that raced across my laptop keyboard tended my declining parents’ every need. I took on new tasks each day until their life became mine. And their dreams became mine.   

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


No one ever told me why Grandma Benson took her glass eye out every night or why it was in her head in the first place. I have both eyes, but only see with half of each eye. Fortunately, it’s the right half. So even though our partial blindness, well, was different, I always identified with her, because we were both frugal. We knew how to use what vision we did have to advantage.

When my parents fought over nothing and the house became frigid, I packed up my little red wagon and followed the cracked sidewalk over to grandma's for an extended stay. She never turned me away. Or said, “Where’s that stiff upper lip, kiddo. You belong at your own house.” No, grandma let me play shadow. I learned how to sleep in a cuddling S, so close our bodies breathed in unison. In a duet we jumped out of bed seconds before the alarm blare. With flowing Isadora Duncan movements we flounced the feather pillows, folded over the starched cotton sheet and straightened the limp chenille bed spread around the pillows.

I felt as though I looked into my future sitting across from grandma at the grey and white Formica kitchen table as we breakfasted on the everyday half of grapefruit, the bowl of Irish stone cut oatmeal, and sipped black coffee I shouldn’t be drinking at such a young age. Grandma let me. She accepted me exactly as I was.

Weekdays she sat at her cubby desk and dialed routine morning telephone calls to fellow Rebeccas, Royal Neighbors, Busy Bees, Eastern Stars, 4-H and Girl Scout leaders, and the shut-ins.—after listening to the farm report on the radio and making strategic calls to the corn futures broker and sometimes her banker. If she had been a man, she would have been a CEO. Instead she managed an Iowa corn farm and wore cotton print dresses.

Business over, she spent a few minutes on the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle published each week in the De Moines Register. She finished the puzzle and sent it in religiously for decades. I listened carefully to glean her networking skills. I read the hints Down and Across and decided I wasn’t cut out for trivia.

Grandma made a life from scratch: soap from lye and lard, deep-fried donuts in rendered bacon fat, her own patterns for her and her daughters’ dresses. She recycled and composted everything. Water from her eaves went into a cistern for bath and laundry. No water went down the kitchen drain.

At night after supper she carried the dish pan out the back screen door to the garden compost pile and flung the water over the fence in one graceful arc.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

This is my opinion and it's very true.

When Tony Schwartz made this amazing statement to a grad class at the Center for Understanding Media sometime in the mid-1970s, I fell out of my seat laughing inside, and a moment later I was hit with the realization that we all have slightly different truths. His uncanny ability to proclaim advertising truths relevant to millions of people—oxymoron intended—and my love-hate relationship with the all-encompassing world of public relations, caused me to lend credence to each person's truths. And now, after all these years, to speak my own truth. As you might imagine, some truths are fiction and some are not.