Monday, February 25, 2013

New York City Girls

The cliché “You can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends” wasn’t true in Alaskan small towns. They were strangely interknit organisms made up of people with one thing in common. They needed to accept each other because they all needed each other. If a car went into the ditch, any passing neighbor would stop to help push it back on the road. If a house burned down, people who had very little shared what they had with the family who lost everything. If a woman needed medical care in a hospital, her offspring went to stay with another family. If a man needed a tool that he didn’t possess, he could borrow it from someone who did. It was a lot like Aldous Huxley’s Island without the Utopia.

My father was a gregarious man and he rapidly adjusted to this. My mother was bred from centuries of Maine reserve and she did not. When her house burned to the ground and each of her three little daughters went to stay with separate families; when she returned, with her burned arms that had been treated but hadn't yet healed, to a small one-room cabin that one of the bachelors had lent us to stay in for the rest of the winter; when the room became filled with cardboard cartons stuffed with everything from clothing to kitchen utensils to dolls that had been left on our doorstep, she withdrew. She lived in a little cocoon of loss, pain, and pride for a long time.

I was four and to me the boxes were like Christmas. I burrowed through them gleefully as my mother sat and tried to fade away. And I had another family to retreat to, a houseful of little girls.

I had spent large blocks of time with the Murto family from the time I was two and after my first stint with them I came home speaking Finn. Thelma and Arnie were both from Finland and if I wanted someone to pass me the butter at their table, they insisted I learn to ask in their language. They owned Anchor Point’s only café and they were rarely home, except for an occasional meal. The household was run by the eldest of their five daughters, who was probably twelve when I first became one of the girls.

Their house was in a large meadow that was a short walk from the shores of Cook Inlet and our playground was the beach. The older girls had work to do; the chores of the youngest were minimal—and since I was one of the youngest, the time I spent in that house was filled with finding shells and Japanese green glass floats on the beach or playing paper dolls in the upstairs bedroom. At night we younger children huddled together in a big bed and Ellen, who was eight, whispered bedtime stories until we all fell asleep. It was my favorite place to be, and when my mother came home with her first new baby the year I was two, I came home, inspected my sister, pronounced her very nice, turned to my father and asked, “Please will you take me back to Murtos now?”

There was never a question of whether I liked the Murto girls or they liked me. We were all part of the same family. So was my friend Johnny Howard, who stayed with us once in a while, or Gary Chapman, who lived nearby and whose proposal of marriage I turned down when I was five. And when we moved to the house my father built after the fire, my mother learned how to know the mothers of the children I was close to, in her own way—her mixture of kindness and distance.

Thelma Murto was a woman who worked outside of her home, which made her a sought-after cook when people could afford to eat at her café. as well as an anomaly in 1950’s Anchor Point. Johnny Howard’s mother was a delightful essence of pure tomboy with a beautiful smile; she and her husband Lefty seemed like twins to me when I first met them. Vi Chapman was a deeply religious Pentecostal who grieved that my mother’s Catholic soul was doomed to hellfire; she also made doughnuts and maple bars that she sold from her home kitchen. My mother learned to respect these women and like them too, but she had little to talk about with them besides their children.

I was a greedy reader by the time I was four; I had a dazzling memory and a parroted vocabulary. I was Anchor Point’s wunderkind, people used to come to our house to hear me read the newspaper before I had lost my first baby tooth. I would have been an insufferable brat if I hadn’t met Patty Stutes when I first went to school.

Patty could do everything well. She read as much as I did, she could draw beautifully, and she was a whiz at kickball. She too had a New York grandmother who sent Patty clothes from Manhattan and her mother often set her hair in ringlets, but even so, she ran fast, climbed high, and was absolutely fearless. Her imagination was as vivid as mine, and although I was a year younger, we became friends.

Our games were imaginary plots that we concocted from a single sentence; sometimes we could get the entire schoolyard involved in one for days. We were savage readers and often sat side by side reading companionably. Visiting Patty was wonderful because together we did everything I would do if I were alone.

Her mother had been a ballet dancer in New York; a framed black and white photo of her in her tutu and slippers hung on the wall of their cabin. Dottie was lean and fierce and very funny, specializing in the dry sarcasm that my mother loved. They were both exceedingly private and would probably have never have met if Patty and I hadn’t become friends. Yet they did—two Manhattan girls with brains and energy who knew that Alaska was where they wanted to raise their children.

Dottie and my mother were never as close as Patty and I were, but they were two women with a common language. Nobody can be quite as provincial as a New Yorker; different neighborhoods are different worlds and these women had  backgrounds that were gapingly dissimilar, but they had shared passions. Their infrequent visits must have been both nourishing and painful, since each of them was certainly at times profoundly homesick for the city that had shaped them. Yet finally, after years of isolation, my mother knew another woman who also loved ballet, music, books—and Alaska. Each of them watched their children grow into people they would never have become had they grown up in Manhattan. Patty and I, each in our own way small blazing comets, burned hard and fast. We never became the stars our mothers wished us to be.

Over a half a century from the time that Patty and I collided in a one-room school, we no longer write the long, news-filled letters that linked us when we were parted in childhood. We haven’t seen each other in almost forty years. But our mothers write each other notes, and visit occasionally, still rattling off stories to each other with East Coast speed, still making their sardonic little jokes, still laughing. They’re among the few survivors of Anchor Point women from the 50’s—still at their cores stylish New Yorkers with eccentric dreams.

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