Monday, June 3, 2013

Going to the Dogs

Women of my mother’s time and place, in mid-century rural Alaska, had no time or money to spend on clothes, Mother often left her house wearing a sweatshirt and  jeans, one of my father’s army surplus parkas, and a pair of warm and sturdy boots, with a plaid woolen headscarf tied babushka-fashion over her hair.

The total effect was very Soviet. When we spent one winter in a small town with a little supermarket a mile from our cabin, Mother would hop on the Ford tractor, drive it to the store, fill the rumble seat with groceries, and drive back home. In her scarf and army parka, perched on her tractor, driving through the snow, she looked like a photograph from a National Geographic feature on indomitable Russian women.  But when she walked through that grocery store, she always carried herself as though she were shopping on Fifth Avenue.

When I was growing up, I silently mocked my mother’s gift for self-delusion. The truth was she simply didn’t care what other people thought of her. That most of the women she knew dressed the same way as she did must have helped her lack of embarrassment. Alaska was filled with eccentrics and Mother was widely admired in the little community we lived in for having the resourcefulness to use a tractor as the family’s second car. Decades later when I met someone from Kenai, usually  “Your mother was the one who used to get around town on a tractor” would enter the conversation and always in tones of admiration.

She was more akin to a young version of one of Nsncy Mitford’s dowager duchesses than to Holy Mother Russia. Her disregard of public opinion was inbred by centuries of New England rectitude and it drove her wild when I began to study fashion magazines, looking for trends. She wanted me to be a well-scrubbed debutante with a shiny pageboy while my fashion role model became Anita in West Side Story.

Mother should have realized that you don’t get a debutante from a little girl who was taught to admire pirates and gypsies. Finishing school manners go only surface-deep when a child spends most of her time outdoors, roaming for miles in forests and open grassland. Where I lived was the perfect Petri dish for raising a rebel and for years nothing was done to discourage that tendency in me. I think at heart Mother truthfully liked that I was becoming the child’s answer to the Noble Savage. Whether she admitted it to herself or not, she was carefully cultivating a human weapon of mass destruction, sarcastic, undisciplined, and a smartass.

There were personality quirks that arose in me as I approached adolescence that I’m sure I channeled straight from Mother. I was the child who didn’t come in a set, as my two younger sisters and the two babies of the family did, and I was ruthless in my desire to be distant from the other children. “Privacy, I want privacy,” I would howl at them and climbed a long ladder, book tucked under one arm, so I could read on the roof of our house, two and a half stories above the convivial noise of our household. My mother never stopped me; my yearning for silence and uninterrupted reading mirrored her own

That same longing for solitude, coupled with the years of being sternly told to go outside and play, turned me into a child who was as comfortable outdoors as I was in a house. When we lived within walking distance of the shores of Cook Inlet, and walking distance was anything under five miles, I’d make a sandwich and set off for what we called “the beach.” I learned to love it in winter most of all. when rocks that stood higher than I were covered with a thick glaze of ice, and everywhere I looked, sand, sky, water, trees were all the same relentless shade of grey. Piles of driftwood made fine shelters against the stiff breeze that kicked up a wall of small but intense surf and I’d sit there to eat my sandwich and warm up a little before walking on and on, alone except for our dogs.

I learned to be comfortable with silence and space, whether I moved through it on foot or on horseback. When I came home, my mother never asked me where I went. She knew. She allowed me this freedom because she couldn't yet grab it for herself; when she finally did, she was as purposeful and as merciless as I had ever been.

She taught me to be fearless within the world that was ours. There were black bear and there were moose but I never saw them in my hours of walking through tall grass. They preferred the muskeg, the bogs that stretched below the hills, with wallows of water, malformed, spindly trees, and an abundance of wild berries. I loved the miles of grass, alive under the wind, stretching off into more and more hills where nobody lived. I never got tired of taking off with one of our dogs on one of the rare days that wasn’t wet, finding old hunting trails to walk on, or pushing through green waves  that were unending.

On our own hill, the sky was a key element of the landscape; weather blew in from the inlet, across the muskeg, pushing thick billows of mist in our direction. Clouds in peculiar shapes raced beyond our windows or settled in clumps of grey, thin and tattered, bringing rain. On clear nights, especially in winter, stars glittered over deserts of snow and the moon turned the belts of trees behind our house into a place that wasn’t ours, holding something that enticed me and then made me turn back. On nights like that, we’d go sledding along the snow dunes that took on a soft pearl-like glow in the moonlight.

My mother often told me of how she and my father crossed the border into Canada on their first drive to Alaska and immediately had their rifles sealed by the customs officers. If they left the country with those seals broken, the penalty would be severe. So they camped their way across Canada, along a highway that was one of the least traveled on earth, sleeping in a tent with me, with no defense against marauding animals—and there were none. By the time they crossed the line between the Yukon Territory and Alaska, my mother had lost any vestigial urban fear that she might have brought with her from Manhattan, and she brought up her children to feel disdain for anybody who carried a gun for protection. We shared our country with animals who had been there long before we showed up and they were nothing to be afraid of.

When we lived in the small town with the supermarket, I joined a Brownie troop that met one day a week after school. When I walked to the church where the meetings took place, I was joined by quite a few sled dogs that were allowed to roam free, and they accompanied me to the Brownies every week, They were big and I was still small and I felt sure they had come to protect me and keep me company. When the meeting was over, they never followed me all the way home, which I thought was good manners on their part.

I told the girls in the troop about my companions one day and the mother who was our leader looked quite alarmed. “Aren’t you afraid, dear?” she asked and I assured her that the dogs were my friends.

That night her husband walked home with me and had a chat with my mother. Soon thereafter, I stopped going to Brownies, which wasn’t really a blow, but I did miss those dogs. They had proved to me that my father’s cautions against approaching our own sled dogs was just a lot of hooey, as I tearfully informed him one night at the supper table, shortly before I became an ex-Brownie. My mother remained silent but I was certain that at heart she agreed with me. I could imagine the dogs with their wolfish smiles, happily racing beside her at least part of the way as she drove the groceries home on her troika--I mean tractor.


usedbuyer 2.0 said...

This was hilarious and beautiful, as per usual.

Janet Brown said...

Brad, thank you so much! Who was it who said comedy is tragedy plus time?

Stephen Cysewski said...

I can see where you were, Clam Gulch or maybe up by the Captain Cook Recreation area, or maybe Ninilchik. I wonder why you did not mention the volcanoes across the Inlet, they are another source of wonder. The comments about Alaska in the Facebook link somehow do not fit what you expressed in your writing.

Janet Brown said...

Farther south than Ninilchik, although this part is about Kenai. The volcanoes are in another part of the book that this will eventually be. And everyone who grew up in Alaska as opposed to those who chose to be there have schizoid feelings about the place. Love it AND leave it--no romanticism. We leave that to those who find it as adults.

Stephen Cysewski said...

I wonder about romanticism, to me it grew on me. I came here as a VISTA Volunteer in 1967, stayed for career reasons, and only eventually learned to appreciate it. I would not say it is romanticism, to me it is the quality of life. When I was an advisor at TVC I would ask people who moved to Alaska why they came, there was a diversity of opinions, the most interesting were the military people who retired up here, for them it was the quality of life too, the freedom to be an individual. Alaska takes time to appreciate. It is true if you do not see it as a choice then it might inhibit the freedom to appreciate, but that is true of everything.

Janet Brown said...

That's very sweet, Stephen. Mazel tov.