No matter how small the task, farming is physically demanding and families rely heavily on producing sons to help with the work. In the absence of older boys, Ruby’s father recruited her to help with the fieldwork. She was short, strong, and had a mechanical bent. He called her his “Handy Andy” and “Grease Monkey.” The smells of grease, oil, gas, and diesel were familiar to her.
In the blacksmith shop, she turned the forge wheels so the coals would heat and the plowshares would glow red-hot. Her father hammered the huge share until it was sharp, and could more easily cut through the prairie sod. If interviewed at that time in her life, she would have burst out bitterly, “I know more about pouring Babbitt, grinding valves, and working on radiators than making an apple pie.”
Harvest time kept Ruby extra busy. Given her size, she could slip easily into spots where a grown man would have to squeeze. She could wiggle inside a threshing machine and hold rivets, while her father made repairs on the outside.
July temperatures easily hit 100ºF and the labor-intensive workdays extended twelve hours or more. Before the day was half through, Ruby was streaked with salty sweat, itching from bits of straw sticking to any damp skin, and uncomfortable with matted hair beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat.
Her arms, tanned from daily outdoor exposure, grew smooth and taut from pulling, climbing, and lifting. One spring, she plowed for six days straight on the orange Allis-Chalmers tractor. Her boyfriend didn’t understand the lack of attention he received, and informed her, “My mother never does that kind of work.” The comment smacked on her already sunburnt face. She wiped her perspiring palms on her overalls and turned the tractor around.
Although Ruby resented toiling in the fields, she preferred to be outdoors than inside. She took pleasure in feeling the dirt between her fingers – and toes, driving a tractor with the rhythmic putt-putt-putt, and hearing and identifying the bird songs in the quiet of a golden wheat field. She read the sky for weather reports: stormy skies with lightening ripping across it, winds snorting, clouds swirling – or the sudden stillness where nary a tassel of corn swayed.
Even if Ruby was an outdoor girl, she longed to feel pretty and womanly. When she would go inside, covered with oil smears on her legs, she would see her sisters embroidering, crimping pastry edges, baking, and canning peaches. They were prepared to go out into the world. Ruby was not.
In that day, when girls turned age sixteen they were expected to find paying jobs outside the home, such as cleaning or cooking for wealthy people in the city, helping women who had just had a baby, and so on. When Ruby took on such jobs, she faced anxious and embarrassing moments. Her first pie was a disaster. The crust wouldn’t roll out. The meringue pooled instead of whipping into peaks.
As an adult, people would both tease and admire her ability to make or mend anything with baling wire or fishing line. Guests and family would describe her as an excellent cook, who adeptly, and without a hint of anxiety, served ten to fourteen people every Sunday noon after church. She would even cook outdoors under plastic tenting for children’s Bible camps in Alaska.
The man she married loved the suntanned farm girl.
(Adapted from my most recent book, “The Bush Doctor’s Wife”)
Tanana, Alaska 1957
For Ruby Leppke Gaede, “mother” and “wife” meant cooking meals; cleaning house; keeping the ironing basket empty; making cupcakes for school events; creating birthday cakes that resembled mountains, hens, or houses; and sewing or purchasing clothes for her family. Her tasks were made more difficult by the lack of services in the wilderness.
Her husband, Elmer, had brought the family to Alaska in 1955 when he had accepted a physician’s position with Public Health Services (PHS) at the Alaska Native Hospital in Anchorage. Anchorage was a city compared to the village of 300 people along the Yukon River, which was not accessible by road or rail, and with one general store. PHS transferred their employees every two years, and before the Gaede’s departure from Anchorage, Ruby had calculated how many canned and boxed goods would feed her family of five for the coming year.
From an ordering list, she’d selected items and amounts for Cheerios, Shredded Wheat, and Kix cereal; Cream of Wheat and oatmeal; flour, sugar, Jell-O, Spam, cake mixes, canned peas, corn, pears, and peaches, instant potatoes, powdered milk, orange Tang, pork-and-beans, yellow mustard, rice, laundry detergent, bar soap, and so on. Her order amounted to over 100 cases of staples, cost $1,000, and was shipped by railroad from Anchorage to Nenana, and then placed on the Yutana river barge to Tanana. When the supplies arrived on the barge, the food filled the basement pantry.
Ruby had grown up on a farm outside Peabody, Kansas, and was not equipped to prepare meals without homegrown produce. In her growing up years, she had walked through the screened porch, under which kittens scrambled in mock fear of the collie dog, out to the homegrown store of groceries. Contingent on her destination, she carried a tin bucket or a bushel basket, and depending on the need, she walked to the garden, field, washhouse, chicken coop, or barn.
In the damp and cold “Dairy Section,” otherwise known as the washhouse, milk, cream, and butter stayed cool for a short time. The chicken house provided eggs. Corn arrived in the farmyard on flatbeds pulled by a farm truck. Ruby stripped the scratchy husks off the fresh roasting ears, which were later boiled, smothered with golden butter, and speckled with salt and pepper. At other times, she and other apron-covered women sliced corn kernels off the cobs to can or freeze.
In another section of “Produce,” succulent tomatoes, green beans, and peas in crisp pods waited at her fingertips. Peas were boiled, thickened with a mixture of cream and flour, sweetened with sugar, and blackened with pepper. Small, translucent-skin potatoes, ranging from the size of a thumb to that of a golf ball, were sliced and fried in butter, mashed with cream and butter, or boiled, then fried in butter.
In the “Meat Department,” farm stock provided a selection of beef, pork, and chicken. Ground pork sausage was stuffed into the thin tubes of cleaned pig intestines. Nothing was wasted.
This bountiful and assorted harvest was not available to Ruby in Tanana. Cooking required more than following a recipe; it called for substituting ingredients. Canned milk was used instead of cream. Cranberries filled in for raisins. A tablespoon of vinegar was added to a cup of powdered milk for recipes calling for buttermilk or sour milk. Canned peas, corn, and green beans were rotated throughout the week. Potato flakes could be whipped into a substance similar to that of mashed potatoes.
Powdered eggs, which smelled like sulfur, could be used in baked goods, but scrambled or poached. Ruby learned from her missionary friend that the popular chiffon and sponge cakes, as well as merengue, were not possible with powdered eggs. If real eggs actually showed up in the store, the yokes would be deep orange, with barely a jiggle.
Fortunately, the farm girl could still make other desserts that were all the craze: tapioca pudding, vanilla pudding dabbed on top of vanilla wafers, cream puffs with a pudding filling, and Jello salads.
The Wilderness Wife had not grown up in the wilds of Alaska; however, within her was planted the grit, perseverance, and ingenuity of her foremothers before her. Life in the Alaska wilderness would be one more adventure in the history of strong women.
When I was age 15, my parents sent me from our Alaska homestead to a Mennonite boarding school in Corn, Oklahoma. Needless to say, this was a cultue shock – red dirt, thick humidity, bobby socks, girls playing softball in dresses, discussions about class rings and if they were sinful, curfew, boys in tight wheat-colored jeans and buttoned shirts, and girls with short hair with a curl on the side of their cheeks taped down at night. I cut my hair and at night rolled it on huge plastic curlers. For the first time in my life, I ordered off a menu, at Tina’s café. I experienced chocolate Dr. Pepper and cherry Cokes.
I was not allowed to make phone calls home because my father said they were too expensive. Likewise, I was not allowed to go home at Christmas. My mother wrote me two to three times a week, and sent me care packages of cinnamon rolls and canned moose.
I made friends who invited me to their homes for weekends and holidays, and I was given my last name was Gaede (GAY-dee), I was nick-named “Gator.” thrived in the Mennonite environment and savored puffy zwieback with melting butter, listened to the people speak Plautdietsch, including the older classmates, and I rode on motorcycles and in ’57 Chevys down dirt roads between wheat fields.
After the first year, I returned. Two years, I graduated in a class of 16. Unlike any other class, our class has had a reunion every five years, and we are always eager for the next.
One of my friends was Judi Harms, who married another classmate, Dave Harms. Our families skied together and our children became friends.
Thus, when I had the opportunity to bid on a quilt made by Judi and her daughter, Jenni, I knew I had to take it to the top! Here is the story:
In 2009, Judi Harms and her daughter, Jenni, used the “Kansas Troubles” pattern of “Pinwheels in my Garden” for their Hutchinson, Kansas, Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale quilt. They picked that pattern because Jenni likes pinwheels, and they wanted to try appliqué for the first time. The quilt sold for $7,100.
Ten years later, they chose that pattern again for their 2020 quilt. They shopped for the fabric on Mother’s Day weekend of 2019. Judi started piecing and sewing the appliqué flowers for the quilt in July, and finished the end of August. In January 2020, she started hand quilting and was finished February 24, 2020. Whenever Jenni drove home from Wichita, to visit her parents she helped with the appliqué and quilting.
In March 2020, they took the quilt to the MCC office in Newton, Kansas, for the MCC sale. Unfortunately, the MCC sale was canceled because of COVID.
That was not the end of the story. The Hutchinson committee decided to have an online quilt auction. Naomi Gaede Penner learned that her classmate, Judi, and Judi’s daughter, had a quilt in the sale. She knew she had to bid on the quilt, which she did. In the end, Naomi acquired the quilt for $1,900; much less than the first, similar quilt went for in 2009; yet, it took the highest dollar of all quilts sold in the 2020 auction.
The president of the KS MCC Quilt Auction, Charlene Jost Driggers, made arrangements for the quilt to be shipped to Naomi. Charlene had been a classmate of Naomi’s at Tabor College.
Now the quilt is happily in Naomi’s guestroom and makes her smile every time she walks past the bedroom!
Naomi loves these kinds of stories, and she looks forward to seeing Dave and Judi’s family at Fun Valley in Colorado in June; and sitting with Judi and Jenni at the in-person Kansas MCC sale in July.
(Chapter excerpt from “’A’ is for Anaktuvuk: Teacher to the Nunamiut Eskimos. Anna Bortel, schoolteacher, is the speaker.)
Anaktuvuk Pass is above the Arctic Circle. There is no access by roads, railroad, river, or seacoast. Transportation by dogsled is only possible in winter when there is snow. In 1960, there was no formal airstrip. The population at that time included 104 Native men/women/children and 140 sled dogs. Anna was the only white woman in the transitory village. She was also the only schoolteacher with the rigor, determination, passion, and qualifications to be the first permanent teacher for the approximately 28 children, some of whom that did not speak English. Here is a glimpse into her mission.
I’d marveled at the mid-August palette of reds, rust, and wine, and savored their ever-deepening colors. Then one morning I’d awaken to find the rich radiance had been snow-scrubbed to gray half-tones. After six winters in Alaska villages I was no longer a Cheechako; even so, with each step northward I’d felt the increased confinement of a condensed summer and expanded winter. Alaska was an enormous state and daylight hours varied considerably. Here, above the Arctic Circle, there were weeks each summer, between mid-May and August, when the sun did not set at all. Playing by the same rules, there were weeks in winter when the sun did not show its face, much less the top of its head; only a rosy halo reflected above the horizon.
The Native people thought little of the winter box, and further north, in Barrow, there were actual celebrations when the sun shut the door and hibernated from November 18 through January 24. Not me. I found myself hungry for light. I’d look at my calendar and calculate when the shiny globe would pull itself out of its dark grave, rise again, and then in full glory fill the sky with life-giving brightness.
My running waterwas no longer relatively convenient, but a mile-walk to the lake. I staggered against the wind and walked on top of wind-crusted snow until I unexpectedly broke through and found myself with one foot floundering in soft fluff. At home, I measured out water for each task and made as few trips as possible to the lake. I didn’t dare forget an ax to chop the ice.
The ruggedness manifested itself in beauty, as well as unforgiving reminders that survival required everyday vigilance. Snow draped the fortresses of mountains on either side of the valley, and their pristine whiteness stood out against the glacier-blue sky. Lazy pink sunrises and blushing sunsets added the remaining third color to the winter hues. The pass didn’t get the snow accumulation that some other parts of Alaska acquired, but the wind packed down what did fall, making a firm foundation for dog-sled travel.
Already, in mid-October, I’d stuck my toes deep into the caribou socks Susie Paneak had made especially for me. The fur against my ankle socks kept my toes toasty and the additional padding inside my mukluks cushioned the walk on the frozen tundra. It seemed that if one’s feet were comfortable, the rest of the body warmed more easily.
Icy fingers of cold reached into my sod hut and chapel classroom. A huddle of multiple bodies helped. On any given night teenagers and children migrated into my cabin. Sometimes I felt like I was in possession of a very large family. Many times my home functioned as a study hall. The students gathered near the glow of my gasoline lantern to do their homework, rather than struggling at home with dim candlelight. When the Eskimos didn’t have a candle, they would dip a piece of cloth in caribou fat, and strike a match to it; that small, flickering flame would be the only light in their house. My lantern could not chase shadows out of the corners, but it was faithful in providing a liberal circle for reading and writing.
I worked on lesson plans or wrote letters at my table. Scholars sat on the floor or an extra kitchen chair. The older students read quietly or helped with dishwashing, but the younger ones hovered at my elbow or begged to play Cootie. After they’d leave, I’d find Cootie legs or eyes beneath my bed or under Already, in mid-October, I’d stuck my toes deep into the caribou socks Susie Paneak had made especially for me. The fur against my ankle socks kept my toes toasty and the additional padding inside my mukluks cushioned the walk on the frozen tundra. It seemed that if one’s feet were comfortable, the rest of the body warmed more easily.
Icy fingers of cold reached into my sod hut and chapel classroom. A huddle of multiple bodies helped. On any given night teenagers and children migrated into my cabin. Sometimes I felt like I was in possession of a very large family. Many times my home functioned as a study hall. The students gathered near the glow of my gasoline lantern to do their homework, rather than struggling at home with dim candlelight. When the Eskimos didn’t have a candle, they would dip a piece of cloth in caribou fat, and strike a match to it; that small, flickering flame would be the only light in their house. My lantern could not chase shadows out of the corners, but it was faithful in providing a liberal circle for reading and writing.
I worked on lesson plans or wrote letters at my table. Scholars sat on the floor or an extra kitchen chair. The older students read quietly or helped with dishwashing, but the younger ones hovered at my elbow or begged to play Cootie. After they’d leave, I’d find Cootie legs or eyes beneath my bed or under my feet when in the middle of the night when I used my honey pot behind the privacy curtain.
With the constant entourage, I wrote my sister Millie, “I am never lonely.” I was fortunate. The companionship and interactions were a remedy for winter depression.
I thought I’d made progress in adapting to the no-knock policy of my village visitors. I was wrong. One afternoon, I returned home from an intense day of teaching. My flashlight led me through the arctic entry and into the dark house. Usually, as soon as I entered, I’d pump up and light my lantern, but on this day that seemed like too much effort. I didn’t have the energy to even take off my parka and collapsed flat on my back, on my bed, and then drifted in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep.
Somewhere in my drowsy state, I sensed a presence in the unlit room. I strained my eyes. A bright light shone suddenly in my face. I bolted upright!
“There you are!” It was Jack, a schoolboy. I felt relieved, but my heart still thumped. He moved the light from my face and I stood up withmy flashlight, and shown it at him. He sprang back. “Miss Bortel, what is wrong?”
He explained that the kids hadn’t seen a light at the classroom orin my house, which they expected after school let out in the afternoons. He’d volunteered to investigate. “You okay now.” He was genuinely relieved that nothing was amiss, and ran out to spread the glad tidings that I’d been found.
At my wit’s end, on Friday I stretched a rope across the two entry posts as a sign of “no visiting” hours. I didn’t want anyone disturbing my lazy sleep-in on Saturday.
I’d expected new experiences in Anaktuvuk, but I never knew exactly what those experiences would be. Not all were met with laughter or satisfaction. One night, I awoke to a weird, high-pitched vibrating sound. It reverberated like the string section of an orchestra warming up before a concert. I’d become accustomed to the howl of the constant wind as it chased around my sod house, but this reverberation made sleeping impossible. I lay
awake trying to discern its exact whereabouts. I visualized the outdoor thermometer and groaned as I mentally saw the mercury sunk well below zero. I did not relish leaving my cocoon of comforters. The cacophony continued. I tossed and turned, trying to muffle the racket by pressing my pillow around my ears. Finally, in exasperation, I relinquished all hopes of sleep and crawled out of bed to find my caribou parka and boots.
The bitter wind smacked me in the face and pinched my lungs. Now I was fully awake. I stopped to orient myself in the darkness. Moonlight slipped through the ice fog and cast an eerie glow on the clump of sod houses and skeletal caches. The view intrigued me, but my warm bed enticed me more. I had a job to do. After digging around in the snow, I found my stepladder and leaned it against the sod. Up I crawled to the top of my house. In the fall, when Gladys Main and Ida Mae Merrill, my Fairbanks friends, had spent a week with me, they had attached wires to secure my stovepipe and steady it against the wind. Gladys, also a schoolteacher, was tall and could ably stretch to connect the wires. Ida Mae, a cook at the University of Alaska,
and fittingly round, could find something funny in any situation. For one second I contemplated what she’d be joking about now.
The original concept was worthy, but at this time of the year, with the frigid temperatures, hoarfrost encased the wires. The combination of frost and wind set up vibrations that caused the high-pitched screeching sound. I rubbed on the wires with my mittens. The nerve-jangling racket subsided. The quiet was momentary. Howling huskies, signaled to one another that something was amiss in the middle of the night, which perhaps they should all know about. That was music compared to the untuned orchestra on my roof. I edged back down and hoped for some rest. Eventually, the dogs’ sad wails were replaced by the familiar sound of wind.
ked at me without understanding what I was talking about.
After school one day, a student announced, “John Hugo and other men go down to Kivik (area – not village) and Ihyanituk (area – not village) to hunt. They get cabins fixed for winter.
When Anna Hugo dropped in, she stirred my desire further.
“My parents are going to Kivik at school break.”
The entire village was preparing for Timber Time.
“Would there be a possibility that I could go, too?” I inquired boldly. I realized sled space was limited and that everyone who went along must make some contribution. I’d accept a “no,” but hoped for a “yes.”
“I’ll ask,” replied Anna.
“I can take food and help with the cooking,” I offered.
In awhile, she returned with a message of acceptance from her parents.
“When do we leave?” I asked excitedly.
“Maybe Tuesday, maybe not,” she shrugged her shoulders.
This conversation repeated itself for another week. I’d managed to schedule flying connections to Ohio for the winter break, a series of five segments, but dogsled travel defied such precision. After several more days, I told myself, You must learn to go on Eskimo Standard Time.From what I’d learned about these people, weather and family health were the determining requisites. Who knew when these factors would come together? Regardless, I prepared to leave at a moment’s notice and in one corner of my home I stashed supplies I would need for the sled trip. Among the items were tomato paste and seasonings for a spaghetti supper, along with chocolate Quick for cocoa, and peanut butter for sandwiches. Then I waited.
At 8:45 AM on November 4, Anna Hugo came over and announced our imminent departure.
In the gray of morning, John Hugo placed a large canvas over the entire dogsled and steadily arranged our supplies. I watched in horror as the sled filled up.
“But, Anna, where will we sit?” I whispered nervously.
“We will sit on top of everything,” she said casually.
The heap grew. “But how will we hang on?” I asked. I couldn’t believe my eyes as John lashed down the huge mound. How would I stay on for the ride? My prospects looked grim.
John positioned his team in their harnesses. Ten dogs leaped forward, eager to pull, and yelping in anticipation.
Then it was my turn.
“Come Anna,” Anna Hugo motioned me to sit in front of her as she climbed toward the back of the sled. John took his position behind the sled on the runners, ready to release the brake and yell “Go!” I looked around for some anchor and finally dug my caribou-skin-mittened thumb under a rope. The dogs lunged forward before I could brace my legs around the supplies, and I lurched against the Anna behind me. The wild ride began.
In my dreams I’d imagined an idyllic sled-dog ride with a comfortable “seat” on caribou skins. I’d brought along two cameras and had planned to alternately take still slide photos and 8mm movie sequences. But now, I wondered if I’d miss all the scenery as we traveled down the John River. Hanging on – by my thumb and thighs – demanded all my attention, much less any chances of filming.
The omnipresent wind made our ruffs flap around our faces. I mentally thanked Susie Paneak for outfitting me for this arctic quest. We’d only just begun and already I was grateful for the caribou socks, mittens, and the mukluks. I’d overheard the village mothers tell their children, “White people don’t know how to dress for cold.” Probably true. Susie didn’t want the schoolteacher to freeze to death.
Mile after mile the super-charged dogs raced over the frozen Anaktuvuk River without any indication of tiring. Meanwhile, I clung to the raring bareback until I thought my tense legs would break. No wonder that when I returned home and undressed, I found my thighs and calves were black and purple. I just need to rest my legs for a few minutesplayed like a broken record in my mind. After awhile, a new message was add: I just need to wipe my nose.
Then, I took the chance. I let go of the rope to find a tissue in my parka pocket. At that same instant a strong gust overpowered the sled, pushing it sideways on the glare ice. It skidded out-of-control until we slammed into a pressure ridge. I sailed off the sled. John yelled at the dogs to stop. Anna clung to my parka and managed not to topple off after me – as she dragged me alongside the sled until her father was able to stop the raring dogs. We looked at each other and in comic relief burst out laughing at the unexpected derailment. At least I’d managed to stretch my legs and blow my nose.
“We’ll soon be there,” Anna encouraged me.
Even with that hope, I reluctantly crawled back on the sled, stuck my thumb under the lashing, and braced my numb legs for the remainder of the trip. Three hours after leaving Anaktuvuk Pass, and none too soon for me, we arrived at our first day’s destination: Ihyanituk, 25 miles south of Anaktuvuk, and where the Anaktuvuk River joined the John River.
David, one of students, stood beaming at the door of the sod hunting cabin. His hair was tugged in all directions and looked as though he’d just pulled off his parka hood. “I see you coming,” he said.
I was happy to see him, elated to get off a whale of a ride, and in Seventh Heaven to go inside a shelter.
I shivered and shook as we sipped his welcoming feast of hot tea and coffee, and chewed on caribou meat.
Mabel Paneak and her brother, Raymond, arrived after us, followed by the Rulland siblings – Tommy, Roseanna, Johnnie; Danny, who had been so sick with tuberculosis, and his father, Clyde Hugo, joined our indoor camp-out, too. We sat on the willow-bough floor and peals of laughter filled the air as we recounted the near catastrophes enroute. Just like me, Mabel had flown off her perch and landed in a rock pile. Johnnie’s dogs had careened about and dislodged him from his sled runners. Roseanna had given up trying to balance on top the sled over the bumpy terrain and attempted to run alongside. She’d tripped and fallen in a mound with the sled passing her by. The hilarity prodded the chill away. Tea steeped, tuttu (caribou) simmered, and tales grew.
“Maybe we take out stove,” Tommy remarked later when conversation lulled and the kerosene lamp dimmed.
I looked at him incredulously. How would we stay warm?
“Too many people,” he said.
He had assessed the sleeping situation. If 11 people crawled into sleeping bags and stretched out, there might not be room for the stove in these tight quarters. We scrambled about and like a puzzle, we arranged our sleeping accommodations. We succeeded to squeeze ourselves together. The stove remained.
The next morning, someone tossed more grounds into the coffee pot, and I prepared breakfast with my offerings of homemade bread, butter, and peanut butter. When I gingerly climbed atop the sled for our next segment of travel, I felt warm and satisfied; but the twinges in my stomach reminded me of yesterday’s sled-riding anxiety.
We had traveled southwesterly to Ihyanituk. Now the mushers turned the dogs northwesterly up the Ihyanituk Creek. The trek grew increasingly difficult. Mushers struggled to guide the sleds over the frozen waterfalls. Dog’s feet, cracked by running through the ice overflows, left red prints in the snow. Empty wolf traps left disappointment on faces. Swampland frozen with knobby hummocks increased the bumpy starts and stops of the sled as the dogs labored on the uneven surface.
At one point, the postcard view of spruce trees and snow-covered mountains drew my attention away from the hazards. Untouched snow and trees! I hadn’t realized how visually starved I was for trees. Snow on trees.The color of evergreen trees. Vegetation that was taller than willows. I hadn’t seen trees since I’d arrived in Anaktuvuk – five months ago. I’d missed them so much in the barren pass.
A moment later, a tree branch ran up my leg, shredding the heavy wool pants. I felt a numbing scratch, but couldn’t risk checking out the damage. After straining to go up a long steep hill, the dogs quickened their pace as they started down the other side. We descended the hill, hitting every bump with gigantic force.
Just when I thought I could notsurvive another jounce, Anna suggested, “Let’s walk.”
Finally, I could forget merely surviving and attend to the inspiring environment. I couldn’t take my eyes off the trees. We continued the arduous journey on foot. About 1:30 PM, a Christmas-card log cabin nestled in spruce trees appeared. The dogs veered toward it. I’d made it.
Except for a small wood stove and one wide board, the cabin was completely empty. John built a lively fire in the stove withrealwood, not puny twigs like we used in Anaktuvuk. Raymond chopped additional wood. Water heated up quickly and we took the edge off our hunger with Pilot Boy crackers and tea. Mabel cut up meat and I found the noodles I’d brought along. Our one-course meal, cooked in a clean five-gallon aviation gasoline can, consisted of one-third can of water and plenty of caribou with noodles. We placed cups and plates on the board on the floor.
Following our afternoon meal, John left to check on traps before the early winter darkness reined in outdoor activities. The girls attended to mending. Mabel patched Raymond’s torn mukluk and shared some sinew with me so I could mend my wool pants. I asked that they teach me to sing “Jesus Loves Me” in Eskimo. Mabel showed me how to use the sinew and we passed the time singing and sewing.
The day ended with only mukluks removed; otherwise, our nightclothes and day clothes remained the same. Conversation had slowed and the fire crackled less. A lone wolf howled in the distance. A wolf pack answered back.
“A good sign,” remarked Danny. “Maybe there is wolf in trap.”
Tomorrow we would know. Tonight the dying embers fizzled and went out. I snuggled deep into my sleeping bag – the night would be cold.
The next morning, Raymond and David left their comfy nests and made a roaring fire in the subzero-cabin. Ice covered the water pail. The rest of us emerged tentatively from our nighttime insulation. Mabel started coffee and I searched for pancake ingredients.
“Coffee-tugok’pick? (Do you want coffee?),” asked David.“
“I coffee-tugok’tunga (Yes, I want coffee),” I answered.
“Tomorrow you will go back to Anaktuvuk,” said Anna Hugo. “Roseanna, Mabel, and I will not go back, until later.”
My eyes teared up at the thought of riding atop the sled for that distance. That would be a long haul, longer than when we’d come out here since the 40 miles had been divided into two days. Anna read my mind.
“You will sit in the sled and even in a sleeping bag.”
Sure enough, John put the wolf and fox skins he’d trapped below my seating section.
In comparison to the trip to Kivik, the jostling sled ride back to Anaktuvuk felt like a cradle. A big disappointment was to find the sod house we had stayed our first night, had burned to the ground. We stood in disbelief. But, in Nunamiut tradition, no one complained or expressed any futility about the situation. They dug away snow, gathered wood, and started a fire for tea. I shivered and waited for the water to boil. After I pressed the cup to my lips and the hot liquid ran down my throat, I still shook. How could anyone really get warm in thirty or more degrees below zero? Someone on another sled hauled out a hindquarter of caribou and cut slices of the frozen raw meat. I pulled out peanut butter sandwiches I’d made before leaving that morning. I’d kept them near me for body warmth, but they were still stiff as a piece of crusted snow – although they did have more flavor.
As we continued up the John River, the hint of daylight diminished and the cold intensified. John was riding the sled runners and I turned to look up at his face in the last glimmers of light. The raw polar wind and cold had transformed his breath, moist from exertion, into an artist’s brush. His parka ruff was covered with frost, as were strands of his hair, which hung down on his forehead. Even his eyebrows, eyelashes, and whiskers were silvered. I wanted to remember it forever. I reached for my movie camera, but couldn’t get it to snap a picture. I turned back to John’s face and etched it in my memory.
We arrived in Anaktuvuk at 4 PM.Dora, John’s wife, had coffee and tuttu waiting for the weary travelers. After the six-day absence, my outlook had changed and I saw Anaktuvuk like a city in comparison to the wilderness where I’d traveled. The trip forever altered my perception of the nomadic pattern of the Eskimos.
It seemed the trip altered their perspective as well; they’d embraced me before, but now I felt they’d flung open their hearts to me. This journey had been a sort of initiation; now I truly belonged to them.
When I left for the winter break, several men carried my bags to the plane.
“We’ll miss your organ playing,” said one man.
“Thank you. You teach our children,” chimed in others.
“I’ll only be gone until school starts in March,” I assured them.
“You come back?” they kept asking, even when I assured them that except for what I needed for my trip back to Ohio, I’d left all my belongings right there in my cabin.
“You take care of yourselves,” I urged, blinkiing tears from my eyes.
(Chapter Excerpt from “‘A’ is for Alaska: Teacher to the Territory.” Voice of schoolteacher, Anna Bortel.)
Snow swirled over our tent city until it resembled an igloo encampment. In fact, by November, the snowfall equaled the previous year’s total and visions of Valdez leaped around in my head. Piles of snow provided excellent insulation around the huts, but plummeting temperatures meant an ongoing battle to keep our fickle oil stoves working.
One evening, Herman Romer, Harriet Amundson, and I welcomed the invitation to see nature films at the hospital. The other two teachers rowdily gathered their outdoor gear for the short walk in the minus 43º F dark night and begged me to hurry with my preparations. They’d completely forgotten our stove vigil.
Inadequately designed narrow ¾-inch copper tubing carried the oil from the outdoor tanks into the huts and to the stoves. With these polar temperatures, the oil thickened and would eventually freeze. We’d be doomed.
“We can’t leave or the stoves will freeze up,” I exclaimed in frustration.
My colleagues stared at me incredulously.
“We’ll have to tap the lines to keep the oil flowing,” I told them. “Let’s work on all five lines before we leave, and then one of us can run back in a few hours to go through the same procedure all over again.”
We ventured out into the powdery deep freeze to tackle the oil lines. The tapping rang out loudly in the crisp air. When we’d completed our task, we took our chilled bones to the embracing warmth of the dependable coal heated building. For a short spell, we escaped our ever-consuming battle against winter.
The contrast between this environment and ours was jarring: bright lights, no drafts, a floor that didn’t sag or bounce, water coming out of a faucet rather than a water bucket, and indoor toilets. In light of this fact, I couldn’t help but wonder why a steady stream of guests seemed attracted to our crude one-room habitat. Was it the popcorn or the Salmon Belly Chowder?
The hospital staff was always together. Where else could they go? Attending one of the churches presented new faces, as did mingling with CAA (later changed to FAA) families; nevertheless the steady stream of guests attested that the compass bearing for socializing and entertainment pointed to the straggly snowbound school compound.
“It just feels so good to come here,” Ethel had told me as she curled up on my bed with a wholesale magazine, which was our version of window-shopping. Ethel Jenkins, the Head Nurse, was from Arizona and of Indian descent; this made for interesting conversations about the comparisons to the Alaska Natives. She frequented my Quonset to distance herself from her work-staff, which she either supervised at the hospital, or lived within the nurses’ quarters. We hit it off right away and I enjoyed her sense of humor and friendship.
Oftentimes, the nurses stopped in after Sunday night chapel services and joined us in listening to Unshackled. In those days, and especially in Alaska, we clung to any radio program available. This program told dramatic true conversion stories of men on skid row. Other times, a group gathered for a catalog party where we pored over Sears & Roebuck and mail-order magazines, and placed orders. Questions of “What are you getting”? and “What color do think would look best”? were strewn into our shopping forays; which culminated in writing in item numbers and colors, then calculating postage.
My get-away was to eat steaks, coconut pie and other out-of-my-ordinary cooking at the hospital dining hall, or sip tea with Ruby Gaede, the Tanana Hospital physician’s wife.
I hated to admit it, but as much as I enjoyed people, I’d started to cringe whenever I heard a sound at the door and a cheery “Hello – anyone home?” I knew this greeting would signal to Herman that there would be socializing in our hut, and that on cue he’d be over in a jiffy.
On this particular night, it was a relief not playing hostess, but just sitting back in the large space of the meeting area. After we’d learned about crawly creatures in the Arizona desert, Ethel invited us for tea; simultaneously, Ruby asked us to stop in for cocoa. All three of us were night owls and we readily accepted both offers. Before going to Ethel’s I returned to our encampment, made the rounds, and beat on the oil lines. When we progressed to Ruby’s, I once again followed the same procedure.
“Kids,” I said to Harriet and Herman upon our return home, “I hate to suggest this, but it appears we’re going to have to babysit the stoves tonight.” This exercise had not been included in our Fundamentals of Teaching book, either.
Harriet feigned a yawn, but when I volunteered for the 2 AM shift, she volunteered for 4 AM, and Herman agreed to 6 AM. After completing my duty, I snuggled down beneath my covers, grateful that the next alarm I’d hear, and the ensuing banging, would be made by my loyal coworkers.
We weren’t alone in our midnight madness. Usually the Natives showed movies at the Community Hall only on weekends, but for some reason, they started showing them on weeknights as well. Naturally, the children accompanied the adults and as a result, the children would fall asleep at their desks or stare into space.
“Boys and girls, it is very important for you to get enough sleep so your minds will work when you come to school,” I exhorted, as did the other teachers.
The students looked at me with glazed expressions. I wasn’t sure I’d conveyed the seriousness of the situation until one day after school when a mother stopped in my hut. “I thought my boy was joking. He says he don’t want to go to show last night. He wants to spend show money at the store.”
“Rest” may have been our Fourth ‘R,’ but in addition, we emphasized the importance of cleanliness. As time progressed, little Freddy, who looked like a street urchin, would have won the prize for the most improved. He loved school and took my admonitions to heart. Soap and water, impetigo treatments, and a good night’s rest transformed him into a dapper young man.
A girl in the community related to me, “Freddy is such a changed person. He is clean and has more manners. Can you believe he makes his mother let him go to bed early? Then he wakes up at 4:30 and wants to go to school!”
Freddy’s grades improved, too, and his misbehavior diminished. I needed this encouragement, but it had its drawbacks. On Saturdays, the one morning I could sleep in, he’d come knocking on my hut door at 7 AM, in winter darkness.
“Who’s there?” I’d call out.
“It’s me, Freddy,” he’d answer in a cheerful little voice, “I came to see you.”
“Freddy, I’m not up yet.” I’d say in an annoyed and amused chuckle. “Please come back at 9 o’clock, okay?”
With a meek “yes,” he’d leave, only to return in 15 minutes when the conversation would be replayed. After several Saturdays of attempting to arouse his teacher, he quit coming.
Health education continued with a visit from the Public Health dentist, Dr. Tom McQueen, and his assistant, Ada Jakes, who flew into the village to examine and treat the Native children. Much to my surprise, the children were raring to go for their appointments. Whenever a student returned and I referred to my schedule, I looked up to see every eye glued to me and every pencil laid down. As soon as I announced a name, that boy or girl would dart out the door as if going to a fire. At recess, children circled around the ones who had been treated, and listened to their stories and stared at their gauze-packed mouths and holes from pulled teeth. When the Novocain wore off, the quiet classroom would be interrupted with a shout, “It’s waking up! It’s waking up!” I’d never before witnessed children who took so much pleasure in dental visits.
Meanwhile, the minus 40º F continued with occasional bouts of only minus 20º F. On these “warm” nights, we welcomed undisturbed sleep without night duty. Each time temperatures dipped to minus 35º F, Harriet or I would put our potatoes, onions, and eggs on the opened oven door and keep the oven on low heat. Even then, there were times when this precious commodity succumbed to frostbite. To obtain fresh produce was tough enough, but to preserve it was even tougher. We’d sent an order with one of the nurses flying to Fairbanks, but at some point, the celery and lettuce froze. Earlier in the fall, a care package from Harriet’s mom fared better. She’d filled a box marked “Fragile, Eggs, Special Handling,” with fresh produce from her farm. We were ecstatic to find potatoes, turnips, cabbage, and eggs all in good, not-frozen, condition. We’d been using potato flakes and now we savored every mouthful of real mashed potatoes.
Understandably, food played an important role in our lives. “Where did you get this, Anna?” someone would ask, and in the same breath want to know, “Can I get it, too”? Over the summer, in Ohio, I’d discovered boxed whipped topping. At a chapel party, I’d put dollops of the imitation whipped cream on pumpkin pie. “Mmmmmm” was the consensus. Women made requests for packages and I wrote Mother to send me two big boxes.
Culinary skills were not limited to women. “Grandpa’s cooking a pork chop dinner for us tonight,” announced Harriet, using her after-school nickname for Herman. Unlike us, Herman splurged at the Northern Commercial store. How could we chide him for this luxury when he presented us with delicacies such as non-wild meat cooked on the one-burner and a salad of canned shrimp added to a can of mixed vegetables. From time to time, he’d show up on our doorstep with spice cake batter and the request to bake it in our oven. Of course we helped him eat the finished product.
The interminable cold interrupted our sleep and our school schedule, but not our social life. “How would you teachers like to come to the hospital wiener roast and skating party on Friday night?” asked Ethel. In these temperatures our noses would drip, eyes water, and fingers tingle. I didn’t know about the others, but I was a clumsy skater. We accepted. The temperatures chilled neither our enthusiasm nor a romantic attraction. Harriet shared matter-of-factly that a hospital employee had asked her to the party. No other details. As one would expect, she assumed he would come to the hut and they’d walk together to the skating site on the river. This being the case, Herman and I bundled up and left her in her fluttering anticipation.
Much to my surprise, one of the first people I spotted was the would-be-Romeo. “Herman, isn’t that the guy Harriet told us about?” I pointed to a fellow in an olive-green army surplus parka who was zig-zagging through the expanding crowd. Every now and then his parka hood flew back exposing thick black hair. He greeted other skaters and appeared to be having a very good time.
The hospital maintenance man had rumbled out on the ice with his CAT to clear the snow and the frost heaves to make a smooth skating surface. Large bonfires lit up the night beneath the starry sky, and reflected off the glare ice. Metal skate blades flashed. Small flares leaped about in the blackness as people’s flashlights showed them the way to the party. Shouting, teasing, and laughter filled the evening.
“Why is he so nonchalantly skating about on his own?” I said. “Poor Harriet.”
After awhile, he skated toward me.
“Where’s Harriet?” he asked, puffing.
“Waiting for you!” I answered perturbed.
He gasped. Stumbling about he unlaced his skates, and in stocking feet, fled up the bank and down the road. Soon he returned with Harriet beside him. I wasn’t sure if her face was rosy from the exertion, the icy air, or the attention of suitor. Throughout the evening, Harriet never strayed far from her escort’s side, although she and Herman played “crack the whip” with the children. The two of them were excellent skaters and acted like kids themselves. Lines of exuberant children linked themselves together with hands on the parka waists of the person in front of them. The first in each line grabbed either Harriet’s or Herman’s waist and off they went in two swinging circles. At some point, the tail-ends would go so fast around a corner that the caboose would lose hold individually, or drag with them the coupling in front of them. Away they slid on their knees or behinds. Everyone hollered in boisterous terror and glee.
Eventually Harriet wore down and caught her breath beside a bonfire, where she ate browned hot dogs, cast furtive glances at her suitor, and overall appeared quite smug. The night held its magic; however, the would-be romance began and ended all within that succinct span.
Ongoing battles between the brutal cold and the stoves continued. On December 13, the school construction crew left Tanana. A Native man was hired to keep watch over the old and new school, and I attempted to help him. When the furnace in the old school gave up the ghost, I sought help from the CAA mechanic who serviced it. But then that night, it went out again, and before we knew it, the water pipes froze and burst! We turned off the water, but the damage was done. As if the mess wasn’t discouraging enough, it meant that we would have to carry water over from the hospital for our use in the huts – bathing, dishwashing, and cooking. Ironically, the damage left a display of glorious shimmering stalactites and stalagmites. Fortunately, Herman had moved into his own Quonset.
During this time the electricity switched off sporadically in our school compound. One midnight, the stack blower on our stove chimney stopped whirring, indicating a power outage. I knew this silence meant the furnaces had ceased functioning in the new school. Overcome with weariness, I sat in my bed with tears streaming down my face. I was tough, but these circumstances seemed tougher. How could I fight so many uphill battles? If it wasn’t the huts, it was the old school; if it wasn’t either of these, it was the new school. I sobbed until I could hardly catch my breath, and then wiped the moisture off my face before braving the icy blast between my hut and the school. I dragged myself through the drifting snow to reset the starter on the furnace.
Amidst the constant frustrations, the joyous season of Christmas pressed closer. After my children left in the afternoon, I assisted Herman in teaching his upper grades two-part harmony for “Christmas Night” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Each rendition sounded like the winter wind whistling around the corners of the dilapidated schoolhouse, but I reconciled myself that their lack of precision didn’t matter. Their enthusiasm would make this a joyful experience for their parents.
I’d ordered Christmas candy from the Sears catalog. To my disappointment, I received word that it would be back-ordered and unavailable for Christmas. As usual, we were called upon to adapt. Homemade fudge and popcorn balls were substituted for red and green ribbon candy and chocolate-covered peanut clusters. Creating holiday happiness didn’t rest solely on me, though. Someone else had caught the spirit of the season.
“Do any of you know why Donald isn’t here this morning?” I asked my students.
The looked quizzically at each other, but said nothing. After I dismissed the class for lunch, along came Donald, peering out from under his parka hood, pulling a bedraggled Christmas tree. He had spent the morning hunting for it, chopping it down, and pulling it to school. How could I reprimand this exhausted little boy, when with hopeful eyes, he looked up at me and said, “How do you like it, Miss Bortel?”
Our dark schoolroom brightened with this and other artistic touches. We put up Donald’s tree at one end of our hut. Besides decorating the tree, the children cut and pasted colorful bells and Santas which they strung from the hut framework. Holiday music on the record player added to the atmosphere and the children vibrated with pleasure.
Finally the day of the Christmas program arrived. The children filed into the classroom and as usual, detoured to the Christmas tree before taking their seats. All at once, they rushed over to me. With terrified eyes and trembling bodies they blurted out, “Come here, teacher! There is someone in our room.. . . . Are you scared?” They clutched my arms and leaned against me.
I couldn’t imagine what had frightened them. There beneath the Christmas tree was a young Native man, curled up, and sleeping off his night of alcohol. I’d wondered about a strange odor when I’d entered the room, and now I saw the pool of urine. Nudging him, I called his name. No response. The children turned their faces up to me with confidence that I could handle this situation. Again I called his name. Nothing. Now what? I wondered. By this time, word had spread through the other classes and Herman poked his head through the door. “Mr. Romer, could you please stay here while I go to the hospital for help?” The hospital served as an emergency source for any village crisis.
Jerking open the hospital door, I hurried to Alice in the reception area and explained the situation. Recovering from my shock, I joked, “He doesn’t have a tag or a ribbon, so I don’t want to keep the gift under the tree!”
Alice assured me someone would arrive to care for this unusual gift. I returned to my students with much relief, and checked on the young man, who was still inert; then I proceeded to restart the day with attendance-taking. Shortly, the all-purpose ambulance arrived and hauled away the Christmas boy.
That evening at the Christmas program, the children sang their best. I sighed with relief and with hope that the next year we would be in our wonderful, spacious school, rather than the crowded Community Hall.
The New Year did not start with a celebration, but with body-shaking tears. Following a New Years Eve party, I’d worked endlessly on our oil lines. Then, at 3 AM, I collapsed in bed, chilled to the bone, and utterly worn out. I had reached the end of my rope and had no reserve to cope with one more minute of this pioneer life. Harriet, the hardy Minnesota girl, numbly struggled with the lines at 4 AM. Temperatures were freezing outdoors and now sunk lower inside our Quonset. She desperately fought to restore some heat. Herman quietly carried our potatoes and onions to his place to keep them from freezing. Our fortitude was freezing to a standstill in the winter battle.
On January 6, 1959 I wrote to Mr. Isaac:
Mr. Krazinzki, from the Anchorage office, told me to have larger tubing put in from the tanks to the stove, but I have to have someone who is willing to do it, and even then there is no assurance that the freezing problem would be solved. There is a large tube and heating cable on the one at the old school and it still freezes.
Dr. Gaede suggested that I just not have school when it gets 40 degrees or more below, since it is wearing us teachers out to fight to keep the fires going, and even then we can’t get the temperatures up so the children can take off their coats.
One plunge of the thermometer to minus 50 caused us to send all the children home. Two days later, my chimney sooted up and would not produce heat. Again, I sent my class home. Doc and Ruby came over and together we cleaned it out. We were completely covered with soot, but the stove was back in working order.
In the January Northern Lights, the upper grades wrote, “It’s a little cold in the huts now.” I questioned their choice of words and accuracy of reporting!
January 1959. Fifty degrees below zero. Four hours of daylight. No running water. No heat. Construction on the school halted due to the unavailability of windows. I’d left the model school in Pekin, Illinois for this? The going was indeed very tough.
1 lb. Fresh salmon poached, (or 1 14 ½ oz can salmon)
2 T. butter or margarine
1 med. onion
½ C. celery, diced
1 T. flour plus 1-2 T. water
2 chicken bouillon cubes
2 C. water
2 C. diced potatoes
1 13 oz. can evaporated milk
1 tsp. dill weed
¼ tsp. basil leaves, crushed
1 15 ½ oz. can cream-style corn
Salt and pepper to taste
Drain salmon, reserve liquid. Sauté celery and onions in margarine. Add bouillon cubes, water, and potatoes. Cook slowly until potatoes are cooked. Mix flour with water to make thickening, add to potatoes, celery, onion mixture. Add salmon, reserved liquid, milk, dill weed, basil, corn, salt, and pepper. Heat thoroughly, but do not boil. Serve with cornbread or fresh rolls, and a salad. Invite your neighbors in—if you want to share.
Ruby hugged her parka around herself, pulled the squirrel-fur mittens out of the pockets, opened the back door, and stepped outside. The rush of cold air made her eyes tear. Quickly, she leaned down and reached for the ice cream freezer crank. The handle barely moved. There was no need to top the bucket with ice. At 30ºF below zero, the mixture of milk, eggs, and sugar could freeze without assistance. Satisfied with the progress, she returned indoors and, despite fogged up glasses, made her way to the closet to hang her coat. The house was unusually quiet.
It was mid-afternoon and Ruby was ready for a break from parenting. Mark, nearly age two, was destined to be a plumber and she’d extracted his busy hands out of the toilet – several times since breakfast. His two sisters, Naomi, age seven, and Ruth, age six, would soon be home from school, and a three-ring circus was possible. Just to know another adult would arrive later in the day would have been encouraging to Ruby. However, her husband, Elmer Gaede (GAY-dee), the only Public Health physician for twenty-two villages up and down the Yukon River, in Interior Alaska, would probably not be home for supper – or the entire evening.
The morning alarm had gone off at 7:15 a.m. Elmer had swung his legs over the edge of the bed and headed to the bathroom. Ruby silently got up and wrapped a robe around herself. By the time he had shaved and dressed, Ruby had hot oatmeal and homemade raisin bread toast waiting for him in the kitchen. As a physician, he had learned to eat quickly in case he was called out. Between bites of porridge, as Naomi called it, he and Ruby had exchanged a few words before he pulled on a heavy wool coat, and other sub-zero gear to walk the short distance to the Tanana (Ta-nuh-naw) Public Health hospital. Ruby crawled back into bed until it was time to wake children for school.
After the sun had shyly peeked above the horizon, around 10:30 a.m., Elmer had returned to heat his Piper J-3 airplane’s oil on the kitchen stove, which otherwise congealed within the engine, and layer on long johns and wool pants in preparation to fly to a medical emergency downriver.
“I don’t know if I’ll get back today,” he’d said on his way out the door. The “I don’t know” was dependent on being able to stabilize the medical crisis before the sun retreated. The Tanana airstrip didn’t have landing lights, and, of course, the frozen river strip, which was often cleared for planes with skis, rather than wheels, didn’t either. There was no means to land if he returned after dark. Ruby felt the familiar uneasy tightness in her stomach that transferred to quick annoyance with the children’s normal, but very busy activity. “Not knowing” seemed to be a standard state of being for the bush doctor’s wife.
One thing she did know was that after supper, when she brought in the ice cream freezer, pulled out the dasher in the middle, and placed it on a cookie sheet, her children would shove against each other to spoon up drops of ice cream, and ask, “When is Daddy coming home?” They knew he loved homemade ice cream for a bedtime snack. Once he finished with a bowl or two, they anticipated crowding onto the living room couch where he’d sit and read them bedtime stories. Of course, this would be after their mother reminded them to brush their teeth, and they’d have pulled on their flannel pajamas, warm slippers, and grabbed at least one, if not two, favorite stuffed animals. Each child would have a different book, and plead to have his or hers read first. “Not knowing” was all too familiar to the bush doctor’s children, too.
But at this moment, Ruby stared outside at the fading sunrays on the angular pressure ridges in the frozen mile-wide river. Within moments, the 2:30 p.m. sun slipped down beyond the Yukon River and all that was left were shadows on the river and the reflection of her face on the frost-edged living room window.
Back home, in the Kansas harvest-time humidity, Ruby’s dark brown hair, naturally highlighted with auburn, had responded with full, thick waves. Here, she used a Toni permanent kit to give it fullness. The straight line of her short bangs appeared as though someone had carefully marked a pencil-line – and then cut with precision. Her hazel eyes looked out from behind glasses that had dark upper frames and sparkles in the corners. Red lipstick brightened her winter-pale face, which, with more potent sunlight than Alaska offered, would have been olive-tanned. Oftentimes, she dabbed some of the lipstick on her checks and then blended it with her fingers – as a substitute for rouge. There was no Kansas heat to flush her face.
A worn-soft bib apron shielded her from the cloud of flour she’d just worked into a pile of dough. Bread-making was usually a twice-weeklyroutine; except when company was invited for dinner or missionaries flew into the village and needed a place to stay for a weekend, or week or two; then she baked nearly daily and the yeasty aroma was prolonged within the house.
Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined herself in this setting: Tanana, Alaska, a village of approximately 300 people, mostly Athabascan (ath-uh-BASS-kun) Indians, along the renowned Yukon River, and in the heart of the Last Frontier. The location was poles away from her and Elmer’s heritage in the Mennonite farming settlement of Central Kansas, where she’d expected to perpetuate a lifestyle like that of her parents, and their parents – the Leppkes and Litkes. By no means had she anticipated that the ordinary farm boy, Elmer Gaede, with the mischievous grin, who had aspired to be a dairy farmer, would instead pursue medicine – in Alaska. Would she have married him if she’d known? Who knows? The girl off the Kansas farm was in love.
Ruby’s introduction to Alaska had been in Kansas City, at the Covenant Church where she and Elmer walked each Sunday during his family practice internship at Kansas University medical school. One afternoon at a ladies’ meeting, a missionary woman from Nome, Alaska, showed slides. When the Kansas-bred young woman had seen the pictures, her initial, and remaining thought was, “Dark and cold. Who on earth would want to go to Alaska?” During this same time, Elmer crossed paths with a nurse from Bethel, Alaska. She urged him to consider Alaska. “The Public Health Service’s pay is fantastic!” she said. “Physicians get $7,000 to $9,000 salary per year!” This was put in perspective with teachers earning $3,440 to $4,700. And, in the early 1950s, houses sold for $14,000, and cars for $2,000. Another incentive for Elmer was that he would be able to fulfill his military obligation, which he had deferred by working on his parent’s farm. 
Ruby’s musings ended with the yowl of a half-grown kitten bursting into the room in front of a yelling chubby-legged preschooler. Mark lost his balance in the pursuit of the kitten and slipped on the floor. The kitten perched with arched back on the couch, and watched the boy scream until tears rolled down his cheeks. Before Ruby could respond, a blast of foggy, frozen air entered from the hallway door by the kitchen, signaling that school was out for Naomi and Ruth. The stomping of their feet on the back porch could never be heard with the padded silence of the moose-skin mukluks they wore.
In synchronized motion, the grade-schoolers pushed back fox-fur ruffed red parka hoods and shook loose their tangled brown braids. Naomi’s short bangs mirrored her mother’s and her hair retained its morning neatness. In contrast, her younger sister’s hair was softened by wisped edges that pulled out and curled, or stood up in a cowlick wherever it pleased.
“The handle won’t turn on the ice cream!” declared Naomi. Surprisingly she had not started the question with a “why.” Her first observation about nearly anything was not “what”, but “why.” In this situation, it wouldhave been appropriate to ask why ice cream was even being made, rather than hot cocoa dotted with bouncing marshmallows, or steaming chicken noodle soup with soggy crackers floating atop.
Wintertime in Interior Alaska was certainlyan odd time to be making homemade ice cream; nevertheless, it was Ruby’s propensity to make ice cream with glacier ice, river ice, and this time, to curiously experiment with making it without any ice at all. Perhaps this ice-cream-making was a means of staying linked to her home place, where cousins, aunts, and uncles regularly took time on a Sunday afternoon from the hard work of carving life out of the prairie, and gather for the simple enjoyment of sharing chilly bowls of rich dessert, combined from the pure ingredients of farm eggs and milk from their own chickens and cows.
Ruby cherished those memories. Oftentimes when she cranked the ice cream freezer, she talked softly to anyone around, about the way it was back then, intermittently giving a quick laugh of amusement or pleasure. Today, she was not cranking or reminiscing, and her experimental ice cream inclination may have been just one more way she found fun in the ordinary or difficult routines of life. She was often the instigator of celebrations and parties; not necessarily in spectacular dramas, but in spontaneous and homey ways, ways that made an observer or participant chuckle, “Who would ever think of that?” Making ice cream on a dark winter afternoon in the Last Frontier was one of those occasions.
“Mark, you leave my cat alone!” Ruth said in an unusually loud voice. More typically, she defended her little brother, and believed he could do no wrong. Furthermore, she did not like to draw attention to herself and often remained in the background. Obviously, she felt strongly about cat-torment, or at least the well-being of her gray and white kitten, Yukon.
Mark thrashed around on the floor in a temper tantrum, banging his reddish-brown curls on the square linoleum tiles; his blue eyes squeezed shut.
Ruby walked down the hall toward the bedrooms to find a tissue to wipe Mark’s teary eyes and running nose. By the time she returned to the kitchen, Ruth had disappeared to the basement, where she was most likely rearranging the toy villages and farms around the electric train track.
Chances are, the first-grader was crouched over, or sitting on the floor with legs spread beneath her like a “W,” beside the electric train track her father had carefully laid out and tacked to a large piece of quarter-inch plywood. She would be putting precisely the right amount of magical drops in the engine smokestack. There, in her serene after-school retreat, the electric train chugged around the track, past a herd of Guernsey cows and pen of pink pigs, puffing subtle but enchanting bursts of smoke. Who knows where the cat had fled.
Naomi plopped herself at the table, ready to report on every piece of trivia from the school day. It all seemed so astonishing and important to her, from the ice around the outhouse seat holes, to the government subsidized cheesethat so-and-so refused to eat, to her broken silver crayon that she had rationed for only very special pictures. “What will I ever do?” She asked anyone in hearing distance, of which there was only her mother.
Ruby listened with only one ear because Mark, who had finally realized that flailing on the floor would not make the kitten cuddle with him, had climbed up inside the built-in Hi-Fi cabinets, where he scratchily started and stopped and restarted his record-player. She had had just about enough of “The Little Engine that Could,” who thought-he-could and thought-he-could. She really wished that that train could get itself up the hill and out of her hearing range.
Ruby pulled open the oven door and lifted out golden-topped crescent rolls. The yeasty aroma filled the kitchen, and the burst of hot air fogged her glasses. She set the pan on top the stove and wiped her glasses with her well-worn apron.
At the table, Naomi and Ruth, her grade-school daughters, sat ready with small plates, a knife, oleo-margarine, and grape jelly. “I’m glad we’re having company tonight,” said Naomi, not that Ruby only baked when there were dinner guests.
Baking bread was in Ruby’s DNA. Her Mennonite ancestors had migrated across the ocean from South Russia with zwieback, double-decker rolls, packed into trunks. The zwieback, translated as “twice baked,” had been toasted, and the crisp, crunchy pieces had endured the days of travel, without molding. Even after her family had settled in to farm life in Central Kansas, and didn’t need to preserve food for such long-term sustenance, they would toast zwieback and crush the crispy crumbs them into a cup of milk, or hot Postum, a roasted-grain coffee substitute, created by Post Cereal founder C.W. Post in 1895.
Ruby also baked raisin, rye-graham, and molasses breads in two-pound Fleischmann’s yeast cans. The soft circular slices had no crust. Decades later, Naomi would treasure those same cans, and make cinnamon bread as well.
When Ruby’s physician husband, Elmer Gaede, accepted a position with Public Health Services in Tanana, Alaska, a remote Athabascan Indian village, she learned about Sailor Boy Pilot Bread, a 3-inch-round, thick cracker, which had come over with sailing ships in the mid-1800s. The flat, dry, saltless cracker became a staple in the Alaskan villages and continues to be so today. Whether zwieback or Pilot Boy Bread, the concept was the same: long shelf-life and basic nourishment.
In March 2020, flour and yeast flew off the shelves. What instigated the buying frenzy? What need was acute? What did “bread” mean on an emotional or physical level? Did it remind people of sitting as a child, in the safety and warmth of grandma’s kitchen, watching her knead dough on a floury pastry cloth, and anticipating the mouthwatering outcome? Or, did the first-time making of bread offer a sense of confidence that the newbie baker could take care and provide for him or herself? Was it touch therapy of massaging the pliable dough? Was it a womb-like experience of protection in a world where predictability of everyday life had been shattered? Whatever the reason, homemade bread took on a significant, primal meaning – and the ingredients flew off the store shelves.
Sally and Naomi baking in Tanana, Alaska
Every culture has a “bread,” whether tortillas, Naan, fry bread, Challah, baguettes, cornbread, flatbread, pita, lavash, pandesal, or injera. The Bible often speaks of bread. God sent bread down from heaven so the wandering Israelites would be fed. Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves of bread. Jesus broke bread with his disciples. In John 6:35, Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me shall never hunger…” He understands our basic needs. He is our comfort and hope. He is good therapy. He is good bread. He is the warmth of grandma’s kitchen.
When your friend said to you, “You’re just like your mother,” did you cringe? Smile ruefully? Laugh with pleasure? When she continued, “I don’t ever want to be like my mother,” did you pause before you responded, thinking how much the two were alike?
Over the decades, I’ve been in both places: not wanting to be like my mother, and now, holding tight the comments that I’m like her.
My mother, a Kansas farm girl who ended up in Alaska with her farmer-turned-physician husband, was known forhospitality. It was not unusual for six additional people to gather around our Sunday dinner table. Missionaries flew in from remote villages to have a baby, or get medical attention. They would walk into our house, inhale the yeasty smell of baking bread, and feel a hug of hospitality. Our playroom was turned into a guest room, and we often shared one bathroom. At least it was indoors.
I’ve kept missionaries for a week or two and had friends stay a month. I’ve filled my calendar with dinners for church and neighborhood newcomers, and shared cinnamon rolls with anyone within arm’s reach. As much as I try to have freshly baked bread for company’s breakfast, sometimes I’ve served Costco quiche and store-bought raisin bread. Yet, I could say I’m known for walk-right-in, sit-right-down hospitality.
My mother loved her grandchildren in a down-on-the-floor kind of way. She had tea parties with tiny china sets, put together a zillion puzzles, and patiently showed them how to make sizzling spudnut doughnuts, all the while laughing, embracing, and listening to their frustrations and dreams. Dusting could wait, peeling logs could wait, but building memories could not.
I like a tidy house. Should I wait until my grandboys no longer leave green and blue playdoh crumbles on the floor? Or no longer do face-plants against my glass storm door, where I rub off sticky imprints of excitement and glee? When they understand that “dump the sand out of you shoes,” means, outside, and not inside the house.
Waiting would be too late to learn their favorite color, stuffed animal, and games recess, and their best friends. I’m towed along in my mother’s grand-parenting wake.
My mother embodied hands-on compassion. Praying for the sick and lonely, and giving money to the needy wasn’t enough. She rode with my father to deliver babies when the nurse’s car wouldn’t start at 40 below zero. She cared for women who chose alcohol to manage dark, cold winter nights, and husbands working out-of-town. She cleaned them up, feed them, prayed with them, and loved them to Jesus, and to better ways of coping.
My visits to a friend with MS were both heartbreaking and inspiring. Those visits motivated me to train my dog for therapy work. Together, we go to nursing homes. And, just like my mother, I send care packages and encouraging cards to missionaries in Alaska. Shoveling snow for an older neighbor can be viewed as “compassion,” even though for me, it is a pleasure to be outdoors.
My mother had a passion for life. Who else would joyously sing Christmas carols in below zero temperatures? Make a campfire in the middle of the frozen Yukon River, because roasting hot dogs sounded tasty? Wonder if leaving a can of homemade ice cream mix outdoors, in a frigid winter, would eliminate the need for cranking it with salt and ice?
I’ve scared myself silly ziplining and rappelling. I’ve giggled uncontrollably when my grandboy and I made Slime – and got stuck in it. I’ve soaked in an outdoor hot tub with snowflakes flurrying on my face, jumped out to roll in the snow, and shouting exuberantly with friends.
My mother seized the moments, knew the value of building relationships – no matter how inconvenient – and embraced the goodness in life. I want to live well. I want to be like my mother.
Ruby Leppke Gaede driving a snow machine on the Gaede-80 Homestead, Soldotna, Alaska
(Draft of “Ruby Takes up Hunting,” in the upcoming book, The Bush Doctor’s Wife.)
Dishwater gray skies with thin drizzle dimmed the memory of the high summer sun. Berry foliage darkened daily, from bright red to crimson and purple-burgundy. The grass around the lakes and swamps was rusty-orange. Chainsaws buzzed by woodpiles. A sense of urgency filled the air. Urgency to prepare for the swiftly approaching winter; even though it as only the middle of September. Urgency of bull moose to fight other bulls to mate the cow moose that were not certain they wanted the wild, dramatic seasonal attention of the bulls. Urgent hunters needing to provide for their families. Adrenalin. Testosterone. Nervousness. Excitement.
Elmer loved nothing better than hunting, unless it was flying – or practicing medicine. Now he was ready for moose hunting. He had cleaned his .300 magnum and 30.06 rifles. His hunting knife was sharpened. His gear was sorted and ready. And, unlike most of the other people in the village, he had an airplane, which greatly increases the hunter’s success.
The Natives depended on moose meat for their winter grocery supply and hunting wasn’t for the thrill of the kill or for a trophy. In most cases, they had to walk into the woods to see what they could scare up. Elmer recognized their plight and was generous with his time and aviation gas to assist whenever he could.
First, he took out Pete Miller, the hospital maintenance man. It had been a terrible day with heavy rain and wind. “Can’t you wait to see if it will clear up tomorrow?” Ruby had asked, kneading the palms of her hands together and trying to catch his eye. “No,” he had replied without looking at her. “This is moose hunting season. They like this weather. They won’t be as cautious as usual. They will be out challenging each other and following the cows.”
Pete and Elmer brought back a moose before the day was over. Both men were soaked to the bone. Both men were as thrilled as little boys catching their first fish or shooting their first rabbit.
Next up was Roy Gronning. They took off into an unsettled, restless sky with low-hanging clouds and an undefined horizon. As soon as the Family Cruiser was in the air, clouds bunched against the windows with only fleeting patches of visibility below. At only several hundred feet above the ground, Elmer circled back to the airstrip to land, meanwhile getting a dim bird’s eye view of everything beneath him. As he did, he spotted a moose three-fourth a mile off the end of the airstrip and near the road to the village dump. “Hey, Roy!” He yelled. “This could be easier than we expected.”
The men traded the airplane for the hospital dump truck and Ruby told the rest of the story in her family letter:
“They drove the truck as far as they could go and then hiked into the woods and after awhile they listened and heard the moose come towards them, the wind in their favor when the moose got real close Rev. G plunked him with one shot, it was a 900 lb. bull. It took them all day to get it in and of course I did not know where they really were and so I always wonder if every thing is alright. This is the 3rdone he has helped get.”
In quick succession, there was another hunt and Ruby reported, “Elmer just informed me that he and Leonard Lane, the Eskimo who helped him get the polar bear, shot another moose.”
Elmer never spared details of his adventures, which were often shared over a bedtime snack with the children, who listened as they ate chocolate pudding, homemade ice cream, or a bowl of cold cereal at the table beside him. Ruby felt proud of her husband’s successes and that he helped other men. He was the hunter. She was the gatherer of wild berries and the vegetable garden.
Her hunter husband did what he could to get her to go with him, not only to accompany him, bur to shoot a moose herself. He dried dishes after supper. He tried to reason with her, reminding her what a strong farm girl she was. He solved the problem of what to do with the children if they flew out after work to hunt. “The new Mennonite nurse, Olga Neufeld, can watch Mark and Mishal, and then Anna and Harriet can come over after school is out and the girls come home.”
Finally, he wore down his wife with his good deeds, solutions to her obstacles, and his confidence in her ability to actually shoot a moose.
“Okay,” she said wearily one evening, following another pep talk by him. “I’ll go with you. Perhaps we should do some target shooting first.”
That they did after work the next day. She was a good shot. She kept her eyes open even though the tremendous boom of the rifle jarred her entire body. She braced herself well for the recoil and did not fall backward. After each shot, she inhaled the acrid smell of the gunpowder and observed the warmth of the gun barrel. Her husband cleared his throat, patted her on the shoulder, and said, “You’re ready.”
By this time, Ruby was quite a savvy Alaskan woman and knew how to dress for the outdoors, which was really not that much different than for her chilly-day hot dog roasts or berry-picking. In this case, however, she needed better footgear. Between the two of them, they found boots that were waterproof and tall enough to manage at least some marshy terrain. Just like her husband, she had an army surplus coat, albeit a size too large. A green wool scarf, or muffler as she called it, was added to the assembly, not for fashion, but to keep the chill from traveling down her neck. The rosy pink lipstick? Well, that was standard for her, no matter the circumstance.
As could be expected, her letters home documented this new experience in the Last Frontier.
“We have been out nearly every night this week moose hunting. Last night we spotted two bulls l with large racks so we landed on a sand bar and started hiking through the woods. It got dark on us and we got a bit confused as to direction but the Lord brought us out near the same place we had entered the woods. When we get to heaven I will ask the Lord why we did not get to the moose. I feel it was devine guidance, as Elmer has never gotten confused in the woods before. It scared me a bit and I hardly have the nerve to hunt moose again until I can get one on the sand bar, which is impossible.”
Remarkably, this initiation did not completely ground her from taking off for another hunt. Elmer most likely was amazed himself. He didn’t even have to dry more suppertime dishes. She just dried out her wet clothes and looked at him expectantly. Away they went.
“Last Wednesday night he took me out and we spotted a bull just across the river from this village so we landed on a sandbar and found ourselves in a bit of soup as the sand was not dry enough but we ignored that and hiked to find the moose and to our dismay we could not cross a small stream of water so back to the plane we go and we pus it out of the soft sand on higher ground and take off to spot something better along the Yukon. 35 miles down river we spotted one on a sand bar, we flew low and sure enough he has a small rack, we landed and started firing, I always shoot first and Elmer after mine, I was so excited the gun did not even hurt my shoulder but my ears stopped up from all the noise, we hurt the mooses back leg and he took off faster than we would follow. We hunted for a while but couldn’t find a thing. Back to the plane we go, it is now 5:50 and as we started back for home and decided to see if the first bull was still in the original spot and he was! Elmer looked for a better place to land so that we could cross the stream, he found a strip of sandbar that was good but it was such a long way to hike but hike we must! After I thought m legs would come off with woods to go through, high meadow grass (always hoping a bear was there taking a nap), swamp to cross, we finally got close to where we thought he should be, we smelled moose, Elmer called him by rubbing a small (piece of moose) rack across some trees and sure enough we hear the same type of noise a bit farther away (bulls act that way during rutting (mating) season) so we crept along the low brush along the meadow around another bend and then Elmer backed up (he always is the trail blazer) and says there he is and there he was all 900 lbs of him slowly meandering our way to see who was calling him. I says “Hope he doesn’t charge”, Elmer says “SHOOT, I was so tired I could not fully appreciate it all and it thrills me more as I recall the incident as I write this. There the monster was sprawled out. Elmer looked at his watch and it was 5:00 and not long till sunset. We not skin him since it was so late but Elmer just gutted him and left him on him on the ground for the nite in the freezing temperatures.
Then we marked our trail back to the plane with toilet paper and we took a short cut from the way we came I and we had a 45 minute hike back to the plane and got home by 6:30. Boy, how hot coffee hit the spot. I wished I could do it over again when I wasn’t so tired.
The next morning Elmer got up at 6:00 and Rev. Gronning helped him skin, pack out and fly in the meat. It took them till 1:00 noon. The Leonard and Elmer went back to get the head and rack and if it is possible, we will have it mounted! Of all things, while they were working, what did they see but two more bulls so Leonard plunked one and they had to pack that one out, they scared the other one away as we just can not use any more moose meat. We plan to share some with the school teachers and probably furnish some for the Village Potlach at Christmas time.
She had done it. Moose hunting season was over for her. Well, all except picking hair off the raw moose quarters, cutting up the meat, and determining what would be roasts, little minute steaks, or hamburger. She knew the process. In Anchorage, after Elmer’s first moose hunt, she had learned about packaging the meat tightly in slick, white freezer paper. The packages were labeled for an easy selection later. Was this process difficult? No. Tedious? A bit. However, it came with the satisfaction of standing beside her husband and working as a team; it was a rare and special occasion where her husband wasn’t off tending medical emergencies or pushing the limits of his curiosity. She had him to herself. They recounted the hunt. They laughed. They wondered aloud what their families would think when they received her letter describing the event. Her emotional reservoir was filled with happiness.
After all was said and done, the meal provisions of her moose were stacked in the large hospital freezer, along with her husband’s. Soon after, and many times after that, she would pull out a package of steaks, pound them for supper, dip them in flour, sprinkle on salt and pepper, fry them in oil until the outsides were crispy and the insides tender, and marvel at her amazing accomplishment. Her husband had been right: the bush doctor’s wife could shoot a moose.
The Northern Lights newspaper credited her husband for his successes but said nothing of hers. His write up demonstrated his virility as the bush doctor.
After shooting a moose and spending 4 hours packing the meat to a sandbar on which his plane was resting, Dr. Gaede spent the night in a sleeping bag only to get up the next morning and fly the meat to the airport and then haul it back and forth to the hospital. But the exercise didn’t hurt him for the next day he was to be found playing basketball.
Perhaps a write-up about the doctor’s wife would have been something like this:
After following her husband and wandering around in the woods, pushing through tall grass, stumbling across soggy marshes, surviving frightening landings and takeoffs on sandbars, and being overcome with fatigue, Ruby Gaede held her ground against a charging 900-pound bull moose, which she downed with her first shot. This was her first moose hunt. But the experience didn’t hurt her. The next week she was found making Christmas gifts of aluminum trays with Alaskan scenes sketched on them and the edges uniformly bent up and crimpled like a piecrust; as well as melting, tinting, and forming candles, complete with white whipped wax and adorned with sparkling sequins.
Following this initial moose hunt, she did not volunteer to go hunting again in Tanana, by airplane; however, several years later, when the family relocated to another part of Alaska that was on the road system, she was more than willing to get up early or drive at dusk, with two guns between her husband and herself.
The Incredible Journey of the Moose Head
In the fall of 1959, the moose head mount was sent to Ruby’s parents, Solomon and Bertha (Litke) Leppke’s in Peabody, Kansas. Later, it was transferred to Elmer’s parents in Reedley, California. In a third move, it resided at Elmer’s brother, Harold Gaede’s, in Fresno, California.
Several years after Harold died (2011), his wife, Marianna, decided to move to a retirement community. The moose would not be moving with her. She and her family decided it should be returned to the Elmer and Ruby Gaede family on the Gaede-80 Homestead, outside Soldotna, Alaska.
The re-transplantation could not happen with a quick trip to UPS, a Large Priority mailing box, or Fed Ex; in fact, nothing about this reloction would be easy. The moose head was put into a custom-made wood box 57-inches wide, 65-inches tall, and 61-inches high, and took up space equivalent to one-and-a-half pallets. This Alaska-size box was loaded onto Wanda and Dan Doerksen’s 18-wheeler fruit truck, which for many summers had been driven up the Alaska-Canada (Alcan) Highway, with driving times of four to five days, to provide California fresh fruit to Alaskans, in particular, peaches.
On June 29, 2015, the truck headed north with Ruby’s moose head, surrounded by cherries, berries, oranges, and other fruit. On July 6, 2015, Elmer and Ruby’s son, Mark, met the truck in Anchorage, Alaska, loaded the crate onto his utility trailer, and hauled the moose two-and-a-half hours back to the Gaede homestead, outside Soldotna. Fifty-seven years later, the moose was back in its natural habitat, most likely needing to reacclimatize after being in warmer climes for decades.
(Do you have questions, comments, or suggestions for a rewrite of this chapter? Let me know. Thank you.)
“Let’s swing,” said my sister, Ruth, in a soft voice.
It was a sunny, but cool afternoon in Alaska. Her husband had built a tall swing set for their grandchildren and situated it carefully in their manicured lawn, which was surrounded by a fence to keep out the moose. Ruth continually sought to tame the ever-encroaching wilderness and had cleared the underbrush between spruce trees she had left along the edges. The little trails beckoned me to morph into my little girl-self and run among the trees, play chase, and disappear.
Ruth and I started swinging when we were preschoolers in Kansas City, where our father was doing his medical residency. It had been a little metal-pipe swing set, just our size. We also had a tire swing. When it rained, a puddle formed beneath it. On subsequent hot, humid summer days, we would giggle with glee, hang with our bottoms beneath the tire, and swing through the puddle. Our undies were a muddy mess; all the same, our mother didn’t say a word. She brought out a bucket and we took turns trying to sit in it, wash off, and cool off.
A decade later, in Alaska when our parents were proving up our 80 acre homestead and clearing land, our father trimmed out, but left standing, two tall, close together spruce trees. Somehow he climbed to the top, fashioned a sturdy crosspiece, and attached two thick ropes for a swing. In the evenings of the Midnight Sun, on the longest swing ever, we stood on the flat wooden seat in our puffy Baby Doll pajamas, and took turns swinging high and wild, shouting and laughing, feeling the wind in our hair and dodging mosquitos.
A few years ago, I took my grandboy to Alaska. We went to Ruth’s place and pulled ourselves onto the two swings and started pumping. “Watch me,” I instructed him. I jumped off and turned around. He jumped, too, nearly yanking his arms off.
“Oh dear! Time for a lesson.” And so I taught him to pull his arms around to the inside before he jumped. “Now you won’t pull your arms out of your sockets!”
He rubbed his shoulders – and laughed – and tried it the way I had shown him. “That’s better, Nomi,” he said with a big smile.
And so it was last summer that Ruth said quietly, “Swing with me.” Silently, we pulled ourselves onto the swings, each in our own thoughts. My eyes teared up. I slipped back in time and thought of us as two little girls. I could see her beside me, her brown hair curling in ringlets around her face. When we were ages four and five, we were uprooted from our Kansas prairie and transplanted to the Alaska tundra. Away from cousins and grandparents, we were there for each other.
Yes, my dear sister, I will swing with you, then, now, and into the sunset.
(First printed in the Kansas “Country Register,” April/May 2019 issue.)
As child, where did you swing? Your backyard? A schoolyard? A park? Over a creek? On a tire?