On Gift Giving

December 26, 2012 at 12:58 PM | Posted in I'm related to these people., Salt of the Earth | Leave a comment

Christmas meant a couple of trips to the dump for my dad.  No, not after the holiday to haul away all the mauled gift wrappings (we were good little re-users and saved paper and ribbons).   Dad went on his voyages of dump discovery long before the holiday season.  See, the dump was a good place to find presents!  Now, this is not “Oliver Twist in Dillingham.”  This is yet another story of how cool my parents were and are.  Dump presents were awesome.  Note: I grew up and went to college.  I’ve been employed for my entire adult life.  No extra organs or appendages have sprouted from my person.  I refuse to buy cheap cheese and I use organic produce.  I have a full set of teeth and health insurance.  Dump presents did not harm me nor turn me into one of the Clampetts.

First, let me explain the dump.  This was in rural Alaska, circa 1980s.  A small community without anything like a rendering plant or nuclear facility.  People mostly threw away cans, rain gear from the summer seasonal workers at the cannery, and things that they couldn’t fix.  This was a gold mine to my dad who, like that guy I married, can fix anything.  And everything.  Doll carriage with a teeny broken axle?  Miniature kitchen dishes with missing wire handles?  All it took was wire, glue, and maybe some hardware and the toys were back in the game.  Of course, they also got a bit of scrubbing from my mother.  She’s a nurse, you know.  Nurses know how to clean stuff.   If my mom were ever going to get a tattoo to go with her recent piercing, it would probably be of the Lysol logo or perhaps a heart encircling “C.B.” for Clorox Bleach.

I remember knowing that the gifts came from the dump.  I thought it was so cool.  No one had the stuff I did (although I suppose they had previously).  And even as a kid, I realized that putting work into a gift added to its value.  Note: I was not a saintly Polyanna-type child exempt from all materialism.  I was quite gleeful the years I received a My Friend Becky doll and a Cabbage Patch Kid (both new in their boxes).  And there was that time I buttered the wheels of my brother’s toy three-wheeler so that it left tracks in the carpet.  That was not saintly.  But it wasn’t like I expected everything to be new all the time.  In fact, I liked the retro and custom nature of my parent’s salvaged gifts.  By the way, they always made sure we had a few new things since coloring books, for example, would be a pretty lame used gift.  Like I said, this isn’t a Dicken’s tale of woe and walking to school barefoot in the snow with wolves and lions and rabid things chasing me.

My appreciation of dump alternative gift-giving is why I was a little horrified when my husband mentioned that his family asks in a slightly worried tone what to BUY for me.  You know, at the STORE.  His family are some of the warmest people you’ll ever meet, so while I’m honored by their wish to buy me something I’ll like, I want them to know that I consider the Salvation Army a terrific place to find gifts for me.  I want them to spend as little money as possible.  Bonus if the thing is avocado green.  After all, the landfills here have giant, crushing bulldozers running all the time.  And I wouldn’t ask people in general to make dump discovery a part of a gift to me.  But I’m glad my parents did it.

We do things a little differently now.  My parents continue finding gifts in places that are not stores, but, much to my dad’s heartbreak, the City of Dillingham updated the dump.  “Ruined it,” according to him.  So, now they find stuff at garage sales, the end-of-summer cannery sales where surplus supplies for fishing industry support can be had for a whistle, and at homes of people who are getting rid of stuff.  And my mom has become a talented navigator of the outlet section of coldwatercreek.com.  I got three new scarves and two new brooches this year, courtesy of the Internet.  But I also got a rack made partially of salvaged wood from Dillingham’s old water tower and vintage wooden candle rings from the recent de-cluttering of Mom’s best friend’s house.

This Christmas, the Guy Who Can Fix Everything gave me a wooden bird that his grandfather carved before passing away.  Just one more way I know that I married the right guy.  He totally understands what I consider a really valuable gift.  And he included a bar of really nice hazelnut-gooshy chocolate (brand-new, of course).  I married the right guy.

Christmas Bird 2012

I hope all of you received gifts that you can treasure this year.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


Again with the pets. Because I love them.

November 16, 2012 at 10:01 PM | Posted in Salt of the Earth | Leave a comment

This one could go to college and tutor in calculus while working as a code-breaker on the weekends.

This one is good at, well, um, breathing.

The guy who can fix everything came with a dog.  Levi, ultimate example of canine perfection:  massive half Husky, half German Shepherd, smart as a whip, and all gorgeousness.  Marriage means sharing and compromising, of course, except for when it comes to Levi.  I have stolen Levi.  I’m not sorry because I love that dog.  Levi is not sorry either.  He adores me and uses most of his intellect and energy to figure out how he can be of ever greater assistance.  He helps me balance my checkbook and program my phone.  He advises me on philosophy and astrophysics.  Walking Levi is sort of like being with a celebrity; everyone oohs and ahs and wants to talk to him and take pictures of his giant, fluffy, shampoo-commercial tail and long eyelashes.  And then he’s all charming and helps the older ladies across the street.  And people swoon and gasp and compose ballads.  Until they see him morph into Security mode.  This happens when Levi senses a threat to my person or well-being, like a leaf blowing in my direction or an unleashed dog that doesn’t meet his standard of courtly manners.  Then he’s all icy attitude and muscles.  Fortunately, he’s also all obedience, so we’re still welcome in the neighborhood.  And also well-respected.

Yes, I am noble and awesome.

And then there’s Lyra.  We’re not sure how she happened.  She’s sort of an accident.  But a happy, wriggly one.  Lyra is not smart.  She spends most of her time licking trees and rocks and trying to remember what “sit” means.  While Levi is signing autographs and posing for pictures, no one notices Lyra.  Except me.  I love that little dog.  She collects the loose hairs from Levi and stores them carefully with her most treasured red squeaky toy.  It’s sort of gross, but so cute that she considers Levi-scraps such treasures.  Humans aren’t left out either.  She wraps her whole self around my foot and coos.  She is the world champion of loving.

I’ve always been around animals.  We constantly kept them when I was growing up, and our neighbors had a dog team for a while.  By the way, dog teams create a stench all their own.  If your neighbors choose to engage in the adventure of dog-mushing, you will probably need to find some things that are approximately the same dimensions as your nostrils so that you can plug off the aroma.  Or you could walk around in scuba gear.  I’m not sure which option would be more attractive.  Ask Levi.  He probably knows.  Anyway, animals have been a constant in my existence and I love that.  This comes from my father.

My dad is like a Disney movie.  You know, the kind where birds and squirrels sing duets with the hero and help him escape the dungeon or prison or underwater lair?  Yep.  My dad’s got that.  Animals universally regard him a being of wonder and splendor.  And he likes them too, talks with them like they’re people and lets them sit on the chair with him (much to the grossed-outedness of my poor mom).  It’s one of the best things my dad has given me, the doggie grins and kitty-cat purrs that form the constant scene and sound of my domestic life.

We go through a lot of lint brushes and vacuum bags.  They’re worth it.

Berry Picking

October 12, 2010 at 9:51 PM | Posted in Adventures in S-Land, I'm related to these people., Salt of the Earth, We Have a Bear on our State Quarter | Leave a comment

All the slapping in the world didn’t keep the mosquitoes away, and dampness seeped through my jeans, making my knees itch.  I knew that my nails would be stained and ragged, and that I’d feel imaginary spiders crawling on me long after we’d cleaned up for the day.  And the bucket rim seemed to stretch up and up.

I never thought I’d like berry picking.  Ever.

Berry picking was a fact of life in rural Alaska where I grew up.  In a place with no roads connecting it to anywhere else and where every orange, apple, carrot, grape, and gallon of milk had to be flown or barged in, food prices were always up.  In our family of six ravenous stomachs and the slim earnings of one traditional fisherman, that meant that we had to gather all the free food we could get.  We weren’t picking berries to have some sort of quaint pancake breakfast.  We were picking for a winter’s worth of vitamins. I remember reading a book about a family going berry-picking and looking forward to lazing through a warm afternoon and picnicking on the fruit they found along with cheese slices and individually-wrapped crackers.  I figured they had to be very rich people to be able to take berry-picking so lightly and to spend only one day doing it.  We picked on weekends and after school, and no one was allowed to stop until the bucket was full.

Subsistence living is very much a way of life for Alaska’s rural residents.  Subsistence tradition ran so deeply in my father that he coped with the day of his mother’s funeral by going berry picking.  He found solace in green moss on trees, the turnipy smells of wild celery and rotting leaves, and the knowledge that he was doing what his family had done for generations.

I didn’t get quite get that.  I found nothing soul-filling nor comforting in getting bitten by bugs and dismayed by the lack of progress towards the bucket’s rim.  I saw berry-picking as one of those things I planned to go to college to avoid.  I figured that I’d move to a shiny city where berries came already cleaned and frozen in neat little plastic packages and where I’d never again wonder if the purple stains were making my backside look bigger.

Like most growth, I can’t pinpoint a moment when things changed.

I know that moving to the shiny city taught me that quiet, even when punctuated by the occasional drone of a mosquito, is a limited commodity.  Berry picking is a place where no energy need go toward tuning anything out and where every sound escapes being noise.

Entering a career in public education meant that my rewards wouldn’t be financial which was rich for me as a person but not accepted as legal tender for any debts, public or private.  The plastic-package berries are more expensive than practicality allows, and I’d rather pay with time in the sun and a good walk where I don’t have to dodge masses of people.

Participating in an activity that has remained unchanged, save for the plastic bucket and advent of denim, for thousands of years can’t help but make me feel connected to something larger and more solid than my current spin-around world of adolescents, deadlines, meetings, phone calls, websites, paperwork, and streaming videos.  I’m reminded that my life isn’t an email and that I come from a past of tradition and stability where gratitude lent grace to every chore.  And none of it was ever measured in backside size, purple or not.

Most dear to me is that choosing to go berry picking honors my father in ways that Father’s Day cards and phone calls can’t.  By doing what he taught me to do, I demonstrate that his life is valuable enough to become a permanent part of mine and that I accept his offer of an inheritance that grows back every year.  When I pour my berries from the bucket onto the cookie sheet, carefully pick out the leaves, bugs, stems, and anything else that isn’t a muffin or smoothie ingredient, and pack the berries into the freezer, I show that he has taught me what wealth is.  He will never need to worry about me being poor.

I suppose that I appreciate berry picking now because it isn’t just about berries filling the bucket anymore.

The mosquitoes aren’t as bad as they used to be either.

Bless you, Mom.

July 26, 2009 at 11:18 AM | Posted in I'm related to these people., Salt of the Earth, We Have a Bear on our State Quarter | 2 Comments
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I love my Mom.  She’s the best because she hasn’t killed any of us yet. 

Perhaps I should explain.  Here is the latest family episode where my mother, in a miracle of self-control and good humor, did not murder anyone:

Yesterday, my mom woke up to rainwater streaming down on her from my dad’s rain gear as he peered down on her and demanded to know where the net was.  Please recall that my father is a commercial fisherman.  His rain gear is way fishy.  The rain gear wake-up call is not one to be savored.  However, my mom heroically put rain gear over her pajamas and went sloshing around in the yard to find the net.  Please recall, again, that my father is a commercial fisherman.  We have lots of nets in the yard.  Like, there are more miles of net out there than calories in a Wendy’s Toffee Coffee Twisted Frosty, which if you haven’t had, you need to.  Because you are slowly dying inside without one.  Go right now.  I will still be here when you get back.  You may thank me then.

And give a shout out to my mother.  Because I still have a dad.

I’m Beginning to Like the Post Office.

March 28, 2009 at 10:42 AM | Posted in Salt of the Earth | Leave a comment

I’m not sure if it’s because the lines are so long and boring that I’m forced to notice interesting things at the Post Office or if interesting things just happen there.  Once, I saw a ceiling tile fall on a gentleman also waiting in the long and boring line.  Once, I saw my godmother’s walk.  Today, I saw chivalry.

An older gentleman was letting all the women in line go in front of him.  I’m not sure how long he was there, but I do know that he saved at least five ladies a little time today.  And he made us feel good about doing it with a crinkly old smile and gracious manner.

And you just don’t see that everyday.


February 18, 2009 at 9:25 PM | Posted in Salt of the Earth | Leave a comment
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Growing up in rural Alaska meant that fresh produce was way expensive.  In a family of six, that meant we didn’t taste much fresh fruit outside of the berries we picked under the direction of the berry-picking whip cracker (hi Dad!  Love you!).  My mom, admirable master of grocery shopping economics, would slice up a single pear and we’d all glory in a piece of it.   

But, when I visited my cool aunt in Anchorage and later Seattle, I got a grapefruit half.  TO MYSELF.  My aunt always called grapefruit our midnight snack, and she taught me to cut around the edges, then around the membranes to create bites to scoop out with this weird little spoon that had teeth on it.  She taught me to sprinkle salt, not sugar, to enhance the citrusy taste and how to keep your eyes closed when squeezing the rind because, after all, that’s where the juice is going to squirt by non-negotiable law of the universe. 

So, pajamas and grapefruit go together since, although I rarely make it to midnight anymore, I only eat grapefruit at night.  But now I’ve achieved ultimate luxury.  That’s right, I eat BOTH halves. 

The whole grapefruit.  This is why I went to college.  This is what it means to live like royalty.

I remember that walk.

January 24, 2009 at 9:22 PM | Posted in Salt of the Earth | Leave a comment

It’s not often that I get choked up in the Post Office.  Normally, I zip in and out to pick up my mail, or stare blandly out the window with everyone else as we wait in line to buy stamps or pick up our latest eBay purchase.  But today, my godmother’s walk was there.

I heard it before I saw it–a rhythmic limp with each foot hitting the floor heavily and sort of rolling forward.  The woman walking up past the Post Office line looked nothing like my godmother–no twisted knot of dark hair wisped back from her face, her nose wasn’t delicate and pointy, and there was no amethyst ring glittering on her hand.  And I bet she didn’t know how to spin sugar into icing roses either.

It was awfully prosaic to mail packages after my moment in reverie.  I mean, how do you just jump back into your daily errands after a part of a loved one goes by?  Shouldn’t there be some harp music or some floaty clouds or something?

Then again, my godmother was from Boston.  She’d prefer that I stop mooning around and get something done today.

Keeping it Virtual

January 16, 2009 at 6:10 AM | Posted in Salt of the Earth | Leave a comment
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A little less than a year ago, I got an email telling me that my grandfather’s barn is “a burning pile of rubble.”  I know that progress is important, and I realize that to keep the farm my grandfather loved and worked going, some changes will need to be made.  I know that working environments are neither museums nor amusement parks and that when something wears out, it needs to be replaced so that work can continue.  I know that visiting my grandparents for a few weeks in the summer doesn’t give me any authority to judge the way things operate.  But I really hate the image of that barn as burning trash.

The barn didn’t just seem like something out of another time–it really was.  It was built over a hundred years ago, which didn’t make it anything special for Iowa where everything seems to be well-settled and deep-rooted, but to me it was like a sea tortoise–old, rare, and worthy of protection.  Instead of being bleached grey by wind and water, the barn remained red (of course) despite the fact that no one ever seemed to paint it.  It had changeable rules too, as any building being governed by wild cats is likely to have.  Sometimes it was full of hay, and sometimes it wasn’t.  Sometimes there would be a mound of corn that shifted underfoot and filled shoes, and sometimes there wouldn’t be.  Sometimes it housed cattle, sometimes pigs, recently horses, and sometimes the only living things that I could see were mice and swallows.  Always there were massive boards that had survived lightning strikes and rope swings and a huge loft that seemed to have its own dark expanse of sky wide enough for the swallows to do speed drills.

I’ll refrain from romanticizing further since the decision is a work-related one, and my grandfather was a big fan of hard work.  I have just one last comment:

My grandfather’s barn did not end in rubble.  I’m keeping it here.


January 4, 2009 at 8:55 PM | Posted in I'm related to these people., Salt of the Earth | Leave a comment
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Pancakes are strong in my family.  My dad makes them, my grandfather took his grandchildren to them, and my grandparents partied over them.

My dad is into cooking things in skillets.  So, pancakes qualify as a Dad Food.  My mom makes them too, but when I look back on Sunday breakfasts as a kid, it seems like my dad was doing the cooking.  He was the one who taught me to look for dull edges before flipping each pancake over which replaced my method of randomly whacking them over with a spatula and spraying batter over every nearby surface.  

My Iowa grandfather was a big fan of the Legion Hall Saturday breakfasts.  It always seemed to me that those breakfasts were held earlier than any human being needed to arise during the summer, but since the breakfasts were events put on by farmers, I’ve come to realize that I was fortunate to not have to plow something as price of admission.  Those breakfasts were a lot of fun, and I cherish the memory of digging into pancakes as my grandfather introduced me, the visiting granddaughter, to all his buddies as “one of Jeanie’s little Alaskans.”

In their later years together, on Saturday nights, my grandparents used to have pancakes for dinner.  After my grandfather’s death, my sister asked my grandmother if she’d like pancakes for dinner.  Grandma smiled, but said, “No thank you.  Pancakes just wouldn’t be as fun without Jim.”

Pancakes are love, People.

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