Wednesday, September 15, 2010

berry picking

Last Friday afternoon, Jon and I hiked for about 45 minutes to one of our favorite blueberry picking spots in the Chugach Mountains. Don't ask me where it is. Frequent hikers may figure it out from these photos, but my juice-stained lips are sealed.

Filling my first container with sweet blueberries,
ripened on the mountainside, warmed by the sun.

Aha! The prize. I found the "wow" patch for the day.

We had a few sprinkles, then the rainbow that led to...

...Jon, the berry stalker, with his pot o' berries.

Jon's pack filled with full berry containers, we watched the sunset as we begin to descend.

As we were hiking away from the berries, I kept turning back to look up the valley. We've picked here many times over the years. We've even camped here, and woke to frost on our tent. The evening light played on the mountains whose colors had already begun to change to spots of red and yellow. I was thankful for the sunny day. I was thankful that Jon was off work and that we could have some time to hike together. These mountains, these days. This is why I live here.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

tutka bay

Just days after returning from two weeks in Wisconsin, with my mind still ricocheting between my sadness and my relief at being home, sinking with the weight of Dad's death and Mom's subsequent move into an assisted-living apartment, I got into my car for the long drive to Homer. A part of me didn't want to go to the writers' retreat even though I'd signed up for it a few months in advance. A part of me wanted to stay at home and try to sort through my thoughts under a familiar comforter.

But a long drive, followed by a short trip in the water taxi brought me and the other writers to a small cove on Tutka Bay. Sunshine poured onto the expansive deck and four of us swung in a hammock, getting acquainted, momentarily oblivious to the group gathering for a brief orientation. Later that afternoon I took a stroll alone to Rocky Beach. I watched an otter curl its shiny body into the water, waited for it to break the surface and float on its back, cracking open a shell and eating the contents. Repeating the process.

My thoughts moved from wonder at the surroundings to sadness at my loss. And not just my loss, but Mom's loss: loss of her husband of 57 years; loss of her memories, carefully recounted in stories; the sudden but necessary move. Her confusion seemed to have scattered my own mind, leaving me with the wrong words on my tongue, words spoken out of order. I wondered if I should be at the retreat. I didn't know if I could string thoughts and words together to create coherent sentences over the weekend. Or ever.

Late in the evening, after the hot tub, its water spilling over the sides from all the bodies soaking; after running down the dock, lowering myself into the bay, tasting saltwater, thick in my mouth as I went under; after showering and after the lights were out in the cabin, I slipped out to return to the deck.

Just over a week earlier, the woman at the assisted living center had asked: is your mom prone to wander? No, my sister and I said she wasn't, though that first night I'd spent with Mom, she'd walked down the hall to my room and asked, Where's Dad? Me: He died. Remember? He's gone. Her soft shoulders beneath my arms; new grief. Me, later, wondering, will she rise each night and leave her room to come looking for him?
A few nights later, having turned the guest room over to my sister while I camped on the living room floor, light entered the duplex. It wasn't quite midnight but the room was silent. The aged clock on the mantle hadn't been wound in days. I peered through the closed blinds, then walked to the front door. I stepped out into the driveway, drawn into the strange glow of the full moon. A good night for a walk. A warm night. But I stopped, glanced toward Mom's window. Upsetting the balance. Do not Disturb. Go back inside. I climbed back into my nest and dozed off.

I sat in one of the rocking chairs near the deck rail, notebook in my lap. The air was still warm after the sunny day and the breeze gentle on my damp head. I could hear the waves lapping under the dock, rearranging pebbles and shells on the beach. I tried to recall moments of the previous two weeks. I hadn't written much while in Wisconsin. Most evenings, instead of turning to my notebook, I'd been opening the book I'd been reading, an Alaskan book that pulled me away from the sadness and the frantic list of things to do, back to the pipeline days of Alaska's recent history. I read and slept. Woke in the middle of the night and read some more. My pen gave up after just a few paragraphs. I hiked back to the cabin and slipped under the covers, hoping my headlamp wouldn't wake my roommates as I continued to scrawl a few facts. I couldn't write thoughts.

In Tutka Bay, surrounded by water and trees, warm people and comfortable rooms, I wanted to spend my free time walking the coastline and trails alone. I was rewarded with otters nobody else saw, an eagle perched in a spruce high above the trail, whales that exhaled then dove back into the cool saltwater. And like the protagonist in a novel - center of their own universe - I believed all the creatures were present because I had willed them to be.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


I heard once that no child is born into the same family. With each new sibling, at each stage of the parents' lives and learning, the dynamics are different. After my dad's funeral, I asked my oldest brother, Mike, if I could share with everyone the story he told at the beginning of the service. Mike is 7 years older than me, so his experiences were much different from mine. The older siblings often say us younger ones had it easier growing up. That may be true in some ways, but when a retired sergeant speaks, it doesn't matter if you're the oldest kid or the youngest. It makes you jump just a little. But, I guess I hadn't realized that one of his strengths was also his silence.

Thanks, Mike, for sharing this experience with us. Good job.
(The service began at 11 a.m.)

As you can imagine, this ain’t gonna be easy. But Dad would probably say, “Just read it, boy. I’m getting hungry.”

We hear the word “sacrifice” used often. We hear the word used in relation to the sacrifices one might make for a cause or a country. There are also the sacrifices that a parent makes for their family. Some parents might remind their children of the sacrifices they’ve made, just as people might brag of their sacrifices for a cause or a country. Dad made many sacrifices, together with Mom, and never spoke of them.

Dad served in a world war. He seldom spoke of it and never bragged about it. The only part of the military he ever bragged about was when he shaved half of a drunken lieutenant’s mustache off while he slept. As for the rest of it, he said once that, “It was a job. We did it and then came home." And he never told us of the sacrifices he made for his family, never reminded us of how many hours he worked every day, every week, every year, to keep us well fed and decently clothed.

There were ten of us children, and we never went hungry a day in our lives. Dad never asked for anything in return, except maybe a little peace and quiet when he got home. We probably failed miserably at that. I don’t recall a single quiet meal with ten children gathered around the table. The only quiet part of the meal was when grace was said.

We all have our own favorite memories of Dad. But for my own part, I’m pretty sure that Dad also sacrificed a few hairs on his head. I probably gave him a few gray ones. He had a drill sergeant’s voice up ‘til the day he died. I know he could make me jump when he wanted to. But his patience, though often worn thin, was beyond reproach.

The one example I will share is when, as it often was, my report card from school was filled with, well, bad grades. Dad picked up the baseball and, instead of lobbing it at my head as I deserved, said, “Let’s go play some catch.” And while we tossed the ball back and forth, all he did was say, “So your grades aren’t very good, are they?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, you’re just going to have to work a little harder.”

He gave some other words of advice beyond that, but I don’t remember any of that. What I remember is Dad sacrificing some time when he could have been sitting down after a long day and putting his feet up, and instead inviting me outside to play catch at the end of the day.