“Welcome to your new home and school Mrs. Crace. There is a bear that has been living in the school.”
These are words that greeted my mother as she accepted her first teaching position in rural Alaska in 1977. After driving the ALCAN highway, we (a family of 5) flew into the village of Pedro Bay on a clear day and landed on the beautiful lake in front of the school that had originally been built in the 1950s as a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) School. Under the Molly Hootch Law, the school needed 8 children in the village to open again, and Mom came with 3 school-aged children so, as we like to joke, we were all hired. After a local Native man shot the bear with his “Dirty-Dirty” (30-30) gun, we were able to move into the one-room school-house with attached living quarters. From my perspective as a young child, it was a new adventure. One thing Mom has always been good at is masking her feelings, so I wonder, even today, what she thought as we settled in so very far from her hometown of West Sayville on Long Island, New York.
Mom grew up as the grand-daughter of Dutch immigrants, and the only child of an N.Y. policeman and book-keeper.
After completing college in Holland, Michigan, she was working as a first-grade teacher when she met my dad who had just returned from Vietnam and a trip to Alaska to fulfilling a childhood dream of his. He had returned to Michigan with the sole purpose of finding a wife. Under the historically-accurate advice of some Alaskans at the time, he was looking for someone who worked as a nurse or a teacher since those were jobs in high-demand in rural Alaska. As the saying goes, the rest is history and in 1975 Mom found herself headed to Alaska with 3 kids in tow.
What makes up a “Tough Alaskan Woman,” for me, is really three things: 1) an adventurous spirit, 2) grit, and 3) resiliency.
Mom has all three. I could write a book about our adventures in rural Alaska over the years, living in different villages as us kids grew up and eventually left home. For now, let me paint you a picture in “A Day-In-The-Life-Of” style to give you an idea of how Mom not only embodied the image but lived it.
It is 6 a.m., and we awake to a warm house with plenty of heating oil in the stove.
Luckily, the pipes did not freeze during the night (as they frequently do in the winter) so we also have running water. With dad gone flying and building cabins most of the time, Mom goes to the outbuilding to help start the generator so we will have electricity for the day. Next, is a quick breakfast of pilot bread and home-made salmon spread or peanut-butter and jelly, powdered eggs, and powdered milk. The “real” bread (home-made) is saved for dinners. We then finish getting ready and we walk into the schoolroom to begin the day. Using textbooks that are 10 to 20 years old, Mom prepares the lessons for 8 children spanning grades K-8 (high school was not added until later on), to include utilizing the only basketball hoop outside for P.E., using an old record player for Music time, and self-devising crafts to satisfy the Art component. Having no computer or typewriter, she uses a drum-roll and ink copier system to make copies for us students and writes all of her lesson plans, report card grades, and parent notes out by longhand.
It is now mid-day and time for lunch. A local Native woman employed by the school district cooks and serves us lunch and then teaches us some of the local Athabascan Dena’ina language. As one of my favorite times of the day, I am reluctant to leave the kitchen and return to class. A few hours later school ends to the sound of the mail plane landing, and I ask Mom if I can go with her to the post office to check for any packages we ordered from a catalog over a month ago. There is only one phone in the village and it, too, is a walk-away so we decide to take the long trail to the post office since the lake is frozen and the boat is put up for the winter.
As we walk the trail back home, I notice that the packages are addressed to “#2 Salmon Drive.”
After asking Mom if that is our address, she replies that she made it up since most catalog companies will not ship to a General Delivery address. I smile inside and think about how clever she is and how unique it is that we still get our mail.
We open the door to the school just in time for the messages from the district office to come over the CB radio. It is 4 p.m., and they arrive at the same time every day. Today’s news includes an upcoming teacher in-service in Naknek, and the notification that the “area principal” (who does Mom’s evaluations) is expected to visit again tomorrow. This means Mom is putting him up on the school floor in a sleeping bag and feeding him 3x a day until he leaves, only to return again in 3 months. As one of only 3 women principal/teachers in the district at this time, her professional evaluations are lengthy.
As evening arrives, we are busy doing homework, planning the next day, feeding the farm animals dad flew in and helping cook dinner on the oil stove. Eventually, we fall asleep to the sound of the stove flu flapping from the wind outside as the generator powers down.
After the first two years in the bush, Mom decided that she didn’t want to be at the mercy of anyone else when it came to travel, so we rented an apartment in Anchorage for the summer, and she took flying lessons in Birchwood and soloed after 10 weeks, earning her private pilot’s license.
In 1979 we moved to the village of Chignik Lagoon on the Aleutian Chain. The teacher housing was also attached to the one-room school, and we had to cross the lagoon by boat to get groceries at the cannery store. The crossings were often windy and dangerous which meant that the weather dictated whether or not a trip to the cannery for flour was worth risking your life over. We often saw whales go through the lagoon during our grocery runs. Luckily, the locals would drop off huge bags of live king crab in the housing area, and we would hear the tick-tack of crab legs walking around in the living quarters during school hours. Those were special days when Mom would put on a massive pot of boiling water, and we ate like kings.
After one year in Chignik Lagoon, we moved to Anchorage for a year before relocating to the village of Manokotak. Mom taught there for 5 years and dad flew for Southwest Airlines, Yute Air, Herman Air, and others. Aside from teaching full time, she pursued her master’s degree from U.A.F. which also required spending two summers in Fairbanks. This led to a move to Bethel where we lived another 6 years before they moved to Fairbanks and then eventually retired down states.
It is easy to say that rural life has it struggles, but that would be a rather benign way of describing the small day-to-day challenges that add up and make life interesting or the more significant challenges that sometimes come with “looking like” those who have come before us who have caused historical trauma for the Native people. Mom always handled these challenges with grace, and with great strength.
As a mother myself, I much admire my Mom’s sense of adventure, her tenacity, and her resiliency.
On days when I want to kick back with a glass of wine after a long day at work and risking my life driving the Glenn Highway, I think of how Mom would have loved such a simple luxury but could not indulge because the villages were “dry” (meaning no alcohol allowed in or out of the village). And, when I dread going to Fred Meyer for the third time during the week, I am reminded of how each successful trip to the cannery store was such a blessing. When I sit at the salon well into the third hour of my hair appointment, I remember us hysterically laughing as dad hauled freezing water from the lake to rinse the dye off of Mom’s head because the pipes had frozen. Lastly, when we book our tickets to Hawaii to break up the winter months, I remind my kids of how lucky they are to travel so much, and how we grew up with such resourceful parents who, themselves, flew us where we needed to go.
All things told (and untold for that matter), Mom was more than tough. She was mother, wife, teacher, principal, cook, creative-genius, planner, student, and pilot. She was (and IS) Alaskan.