(Adapted from the Naomi Gaede Penner’s new book manuscript,

“The Bush Doctor’s Wife.”)

The year was winding down, as were the many holiday festivities for which Ruby had planned and prepared. She had energetically entertained people, dealt with long dark nights with mere glimpses of sun during the day, and so far kept her children warm in the frozen Interior of Alaska. Last on the list was Mark’s second birthday, December 27.

The little kid was grumpy and for good enough reasons. He walked around crying and rubbing his ears, all the while coughing with a hacking croup. Ruby could not keep up with his runny nose. She herself was not feeling at her top mothering capability and was suffering from a head cold. Both mother and son felt miserable.

Ruby would have preferred to be in bed rather than preparing supper, and more so with Mark underfoot and whining. She could not take a step forward or backward without bumping into him. All the same, the macaroni and cheese casserole with toasted, buttered breadcrumbs on top needed to go into the oven. She shooed him back as she pulled down the oven door to lite the pilot light, which required turning on the gas and touching a lit match to the igniter. What happened next terrified them both. She wrote home:

“…as I was making supper I lite the oven and Mark was right there and shut it (gas) off so I reached down to light it right away again and we had an explosion. I think of the song, ‘some through the water some through the fire some through the blood.’ Well the Lord did help me through the fire. I was in the middle of the explosion it all happens so fast, Mark was beside me blown down on the floor and he was frightened and I felt as though I was on fire, I felt my hair and it was singed badly my face burned so badly, I’m glad the girls were at the table playing and I screamed for Naomi to run to the hospital for Elmer. He came and brought salve, Furacin (a topical cream for second and third degree burns), and we put it on all the burned places, my nose hurt so and my right hand. Elmer did such a good job of treating me, and the pain was gone the next day. I wore a glove over the Band-Aids on my right hand. This is the second of Jan. and my hand has nearly pealed, and my nose has a new layer of skin, my chin and neck are in the process and I have no scars, the burns weren’t deep. So we have much to be thankful for.

 Who knows if the casserole got baked or if she put it into the refrigerator for the following night’s supper; or if the scare shocked the croup out of Mark; or if Ruby figured the oven explosion was enough use of matches and didn’t want to light even two candles for Mark’s birthday, which would not actually be noticed since his “cake” was a cookie Christmas Tree she had made earlier. With Mark improvising his own, there was no need for fireworks or firecrackers to start the New Year.


No doubt, Mark kept her on her toes and she could never let down her guard.  A few days into the New Year, Ruby was stacking freshly washed towels in the bathroom linen closet when she heard the scratchy sound of a match being lit. She opened the bathroom door to find Mark sitting on the rug in the hallway with a tiny blaze in his hand. Seeing his mother and hearing her yell his name, he dropped the match on the rug. Ruby stomped out the small flame and shook her son by the shoulders until his teeth chattered. Over to his room she marched him and up went the gate. She thanked the good Lord she had been nearby and not down in the basement, and that she had managed to keep him alive for the first two years of his life.


Mark — when he was not setting fires inside the house. Mark with moose antlers