Coming Home

Alaska has a particular smell. The air itself has a certain crispness to it but the smell is a mixture of fresh camomile, pushki  (cow parsnip) with just a hint of fish skin. This is the smell that tells me I am home.

I recently took my kids to my hometown for a visit.

Growing up I didn’t really believe that there was anything special about being from Alaska. In fact, I dreamed of getting out. And I did, as soon and as far as I could.

Essentially, this was me:Glee+BP

A cheesy small town kid in the big city with big dreams and terrible fashion sense.

Anyway, the farthest place I could think of was New York City. Mind you, I had never ridden on public transportation, there were no homeless people, there was one black person in our entire town, I didn’t “know” any gay people and I sure as heck had never seen a transvestite. “Going out” entailed doing town laps in a beat up Subaru and meeting in the grocery store parking lot or hiking into the woods to have a bonfire and to drink Lucky Lager beer from a can. “Break up” meant when the weather was warm enough that the ground started to thaw into mud and you had to switch from Sorrels to Xtra-Tuffs. And “tolerance” meant you could drink an old Salt under the table. I had never even eaten a bagel, for god’s sake! So NYC was the natural choice.

When I first got there I wouldn’t go out after dark. I gave money to every homeless person that asked, because how on earth could I say no? The subway was terrifying, people pushed and it smelled like urine. It was strange that people didn’t seem to see me on the street and nobody said ‘hello’. People used the word ‘soda’ instead of ‘pop’ and ‘on line’ instead of ‘in line’. And there were people, so many people, so many different people.

To me NYC was a vast wilderness of untamed beasts but eventually, I learned to survive in the wild. I quickly learned that the streets of NYC are just as safe at 2:00 AM as they are in the middle of the day. I learned that the same homeless man sits on the same corner every day and I learned never to give money to the one that took a taxi home at the end of the day. I figured out how to get anywhere I wanted to go on the subway. ANYWHERE! And I kinda got used to the smell and started using my elbows more. I ate every kind of food imaginable AND I could order it AFTER midnight. To top it off my lovely friends chipped in for a lap dance at a tranny dinner club for my 23rd birthday (and no, you may not see the pictures). My survival skills were honed.

The biggest thing that I learned was that where I grew up was actually interesting to people. Growing up I had learned about the ‘lower 48’ but soon found out that the lower 48 doesn’t grow up learning about Alaska, other than a lot of really poor stereotypes. You know the saying “there are no stupid questions”? Well, there are stupid questions. A lot of stupid questions. And I got asked the majority of them. But I was proud of the exotic, unknown place I was from in that superficial “there is actually something unique about me” kinda way.

But every summer I would get on that plane and make the 26 hr. journey home (at least 2-3 layovers and a 5 hour car ride). The smell of camomile, pushki and fish would hit me and quickly the rush and the noise of the city would fade.

Alaska2

This was when I finally began to truly appreciate where I had come from, when I began to carry Alaska with me like a locket around my neck. I could look at the mountains and recognize how beautiful they really were. I could appreciate the space and the quiet and the friendliness and that smell that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. Before, I don’t know that I had ever really paid attention. This is when I understood coming home.

Every time we go to Alaska my husband and I have the “how could we make it work” talk. I am lucky to have married someone who spent his summers fishing in Alaska and has deeper appreciation for it. As a side note: he also lives in Carhartts, knows how to chop wood, understands the magic of duct tape, can fix anything and can almost keep up with me at the bar (wink), all very under appreciated attributes out here on the outside.

Alaska3I know my kids would adjust to being Alaskans in about 15 minutes flat. They would love the space and the wildness and the water and even the smell. I can imagine them growing up there. I can see them swimming in 45 degree water and fishing with their friends in the summer. I can picture them making snow forts and sledding down the gully out behind my mom’s house.

But secretly, I am afraid that I wouldn’t be able to hack it. I fear that I would have more of an adjustment than they would. I have gotten used to stop lights, cheap grocery stores, $25 pedicures and lord knows, I haven’t shoveled snow in years and to be honest, my tolerance is really down. I have even gotten used to traffic and noise.

In fact, I don’t mourn the fact that I have moved on and that I have made a life for myself in another state. I will always be an Alaskan. I guess the hardest part for me to accept is that my kids will never experience Alaska in the same way I did and to a certain extent, they will always just be tourists in my hometown.

Gigi Etta

When you marry someone, that person comes attached to a whole group of people. Siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. They become your family. When you have children they are your children’s family. My children are blessed. They have known four great-grandparents. Four vibrant, active and interactive great-grandparents. It is so rare and so precious.

My husband’s grandmother, Etta, passed away last week at the age of 97. In many respects Etta had a long and enviable life. She was the youngest of 7 children and unfortunately, had a sad and unhappy childhood. But she was smart and bright and was the epitome of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. Despite her circumstances she put herself through teacher’s college and at the age of 23 took a ship by herself half way around the world to teach in a remote area of India.

There she met the love of her life, Leonard McCulloch, who she married in 1941. I never met Mac (as he was called by friends) but Etta’s love for him permeated her being. It was palpable. They travelled the world together, not always under the most comfortable of circumstances and raised four globally aware and community minded children. She had grandchildren and great-grandchildren who loved her and family that doted on her until her last breath.

Etta was 86 when I met her. To me she was a sweet old woman who looked lovely in lavender and insisted on afternoon tea. She had a sense of humor about life and her experiences and was quite a storyteller. When Etta was 90 she insisted on signing her 20+ year subscription of Better Homes and Gardens over to me. It was a two-year subscription and she was sure it would outlast her and she wanted to have everything squared away.

Nonetheless, Etta never stopped having adventures well into her 90’s. She came to our wedding in Alaska, she flew to Hawaii for my brother-in-law’s wedding, she took a cruise to China and Hong Kong, and she wrote a book about her life called A Pleasure to Remember. She showed us and our children that life can be full until the last-minute.

In the last decade of her life one of her greatest adventures was her 7 great-grandchildren. Some kids aren’t lucky enough to even have grandparents let alone four great-grandparents that are able-bodied and of sound mind. Etta had amazing energy when it came to her great-grandchildren. She held them and hugged them, she rocked them and read to them, sang to them and even Skyped with them. In return, they quite simply loved her. The last time my son spoke with her he said “I love you Gigi. To the moon and back.”

When we would come to visit she would sing to the kids at the dinner table:

“Thank you for the world so sweet

Thank you for the food we eat

Thank you for the birds that sing

Thank you God for everything”

The song had a beautiful message. It was a beautiful way to live life. It was the way that Etta lived her life. Thank you for the big things in this world. Thank you for the small things in this world.

Me and My Badass Mini Van

When I was in highschool my mom purchased a minivan, a Mazda MPV. That was the car my sister and I drove to school, basketball practice and swim practice. We called it the “Moving Party Vehicle” just to make it seem a little cooler. So while other kids were driving envy provoking pick-ups (it was Alaska) my sister and I were cruising around in a minivan. The upside was that we could haul a lot of friends around in that thing. During the summers when I was in college we used to drive around our small town with the windows rolled down blasting the Beastie Boys and smoking cigarettes, a nasty habit I picked up in a foreign country. Yeah, we were awesome.

Sadly the minivan has come full circle.

I bought my first brand new, never been used car when I was 32. I bought it mainly because my mom finally tired of me driving around $800 jalopies that would eventually die and be donated to charity and she offered to make the down payment. It was a sporty little black hatchback and I loved it. Loved it! It was so low to the ground that when I was pregnant with the twins I would almost pass out from the pressure on my diaphragm while driving to work. Nonetheless, it was new and mine all mine.

A month before I was due I excitedly asked my husband to install the two car seats in my car, just in case. He happily carted them out to the driveway. After awhile he called me on my cell phone. “You need to come out here.” I waddled out the door and down the walk. I peered in through the passenger side window. In order to fit the car seat my husband had his knees wrapped around the steering wheel and his head touching the sun visor. He couldn’t reach the gas pedal because he couldn’t straighten his knees under the dashboard. We couldn’t just move it to the other side because we had TWO!!!

It was time to “upgrade”. I REALLY didn’t want to trade in my little black car. We had had only a short time together. It wasn’t enough. Regardless of the fact that every time I drove her I was in danger of losing oxygen to my brain and to my unborn children, I felt like we had so much more to give each other.

So we went to the dealership with the intention of finding a larger but small SUV that would fit the four of us. We came home with a minivan. A practical, functional blue minivan. I thought I would cry.

I have to admit that over time my minivan and I have come to a mutual respect. It allows me to haul my three children and a myriad of crap i.e. snacks, bikes, clothes, sippy cups, dogs, sunglasses, luggage and groceries. In return, albeit difficult sometimes, I defend it from the nay sayers.

It doesn’t matter who you are, you are not cool or hip in a minivan. In fact, it is not unlike a clown car when all five of us, our dog and all our crap pile out of it. There is not one badass thing about it.