Every summer, some contingent of my family went to visit my paternal grandparents in California. My mom must have had a part-time job that year because she stayed behind with my older sister and me, while Dad took the three boys south and left them there for the duration. It's the first summer I remember staying home. I was blissfully alone with my imagination, free to roam the small fishing town of Petersburg, Alaska, during its bustling busy season.
That still amazes me. While it's true that everyone in town knew I was the police sergeant’s daughter, I can't imagine giving my own daughters that kind of liberty. And my imagination is pretty good. We moved away from the island when I was ten, but I moved back for two years as an adult, and I could remember the things I had imagined there, better than I could remember reality.
My body also remembered the place. I felt in harmony with my surroundings in a way that I've never felt anywhere else. The constant overcast of clouds and light drizzle of rain were not things that registered as discomforts. They scrubbed the air and kept it soft and moist. Every drawn breath felt like I was taking in an elixir of health.
My ears opened to the silence and I may have travelled back in time. I could hear the squishing of my rain boots in the muck, the splash of a frog jumping into a muskeg hole, the distant buzz of a float plane taking off or landing, the sound of my own breathing...even my own heartbeat thudding loudly in my ears, because, behind each distinct noise was the vast quietude of nothing. A thousand miles of nothing. No low hum of traffic or even of insects. Profound isolation. A quiet so reverent you are loathe to break it with the sounds of your own movement, so you move as quietly as you can as you step off the end of a trail out into nowhere, every step an adventure into new, uncharted territory.
The first place my young feet carried me was the trail up to the senior housing where my maternal grandparents lived. My grandma is more than ten years younger than my grandpa, and she voluntarily helped care for and encourage the more elderly residents. She carved a poultry yard out of the muskeg at one end of the building so they could enjoy feeding breadcrumbs to ducks and geese.
A few of my summer days were spent visiting the other residents with her and learning how to sew a patchwork quilt on her machine. The orange and brown polyester double knits, leftover from the seventies, fit right in on my brothers’ beds. She backed them with peach cotton twin flat sheets and tied them with yarn. Over her decade of residence in Petersburg, she taught numerous women to quilt, and started a longstanding tradition in town. Some of her students became quilt artists, but she was always a practical quilter, creating utilitarian quilts from leftover scraps in the prettiest patterns she could. She prayed over each piece as she worked, creating spiritual and material coverings for her descendants, the transient, and more missionaries than we can count.
At seven, I knew where to go to find what interested me. I knew what I can eat and what I must leave alone. I knew what kind of stream I must find to drink from and how to be careful of bears and other animals that might be getting a drink, too. I wandered off the trail often, with a five gallon bucket and a stick. I dipped the bucket in a muskeg hole to fill it halfway with murky water, then set about catching frogs. When I tired of the frogs, I let them go in exchange for wishes. Then, I picked wild flowers, skunk weed, and other vegetation and pretended to make magic potions. I ground up bark with a sharp piece of blue shale plucked from the roadside to make a fine reddish powder for makeup.
I imagined myself to be characters from books. I'm still especially fond of fairy tales, mythology, Shakespeare, and Bible stories. I was visited by dragons and dinosaurs. An apothecary bottled poison for me. I became a dwarf, my tool an old nail, as I scraped away the soft rock matrix hiding garnets in a boulder brought from an abandoned mine out the road. Animals talked to me and trees listened, gently nodding or swaying like old ladies who disapprove of gossip on principle, but cannot help silently registering their opinion on overhearing it.
I must be home by dark, when evil takes over and my fairyland is no longer safe for humans to wander. But dark is late. Dark is approaching midnight. I don't remember being tired. When I returned as an adult, I found that memory to be true. My body adapted to the length of each day. I needed little sleep in the summer and nearly hibernated through the winter. My stamina returned, and my body became fit and toned without any conscious effort to do so. I had only to go outside every day. To breathe, to walk, to eat the diet of my childhood was enough to bring my body into balance. It made me wonder how much of human adaptation to a localized environment is in our genetic nature and how much is nurtured by the environment of our formative years. Whatever the case, my body knew that it was home.
While it's true that the gray skies and rain barely registered, the occasional breakthrough of sunshine carried more magic by virtue of contrast. When the clouds opened and the sun peeked through, it was easy to imagine that the earth was being kissed by a great benevolent spirit. On my island, every direction you look is filled with a stunning view of snow-capped peaks and untrodden wilderness. It is easy there to believe that leprechauns follow rainbows and Puck is darting through the canopy on a mission to make trouble.
All these woods were my playground from infancy. I never thought much about them, nor that I might miss them. They seemed so permanent, and they are there still. But I am no longer immersed in this fantastical natural setting. Sometimes, I ache from my soul to return again. It is not a place that can simply be seen. It must be felt, heard, smelled, tasted, breathed. You must draw it into your being and let it become a part of you, purify you, so you can carry the magic within you when you leave.
After I turned seven, I was also allowed to go into town. Downtown Petersburg changes in the summer. The population doubles as migrant workers arrive to take jobs in the canneries and on fishing boats. The resident male population comes and goes with the tides and the legal fishing seasons for each species. The women run the town, from the two full-service grocery/general stores to the little local art and books shops. They make up half the volunteer fire department and fill the majority of civil service positions, including Mayor that year. They civilized this little outpost on the last frontier. Like generations of pioneer women before them, they are the pillars of the community, the strength which holds such adventuresome and independent men together so that something more than individual subsistence living can exist.
Into this character web of already odd and interesting individuals streamed college students from all over the world. They came for the promise of a full year’s wages earned over a three-month summer break. They stayed in the cannery barracks my grandpa, helped build, with resident families, or in the tent city just out the road past the airport.
Occasionally, one stayed with my family. My older sister received piano and voice lessons from a woman that stayed in our guest room. This young woman had been raised on the foreign mission field and been part of a Christian rock band before coming north to work to pay for her next adventure. But my sister is six years older than me, and the daily rituals of her life held no meaning for me yet. She was busy avoiding her annoying younger sibling, like all older sisters from the beginning of time. One less thing to hamper my freedom.
I walked the seven blocks downhill to Main Street with a light step. The last block, by the post office, had the only patch of public lawn in town. It was obligatory for free spirited children to roll down...if it ever got dry enough. When it was wet, balancing down the wall alongside it would do. If I crossed the street, I could go upstairs in the city building to the city library. Downstairs lurked the public health nurse with her dreaded shots. No need to visit her. Around the corner was the police station, but my dad worked graveyard shifts and wasn't there to share one of his Canfield's Diet Chocolate Fudge Sodas with me. I popped in anyway to say "Hi" to the dispatchers.
There was a new candy shop in town. I rarely had enough money to go in, so I watched the taffy pulling machine through the window for a while, then took my pennies to the five and dime for gum balls from an old machine they undoubtedly lost money on. I wandered through a gift shop that only opened regularly in the summer, where I knew there would be free samples of fudge. Then, I went into the general store...alone. The stock rarely changed, but I went there often to drool over the Peaches and Cream Barbie I wanted more than anything else in the world. She would be the first Barbie I bought with my own money. But not yet.
My dad wouldn't let me have Barbies because of their "hyper-sexualized image." Fortunately, my babysitter let me come over and play with hers. When I turned seven, my big sister gave Dad what for, and permission was reluctantly granted. She was always good at debate. Mom, not wanting to push the issue, bought me two cheap knockoff fashion dolls for my birthday. Dad's big sister bought me real Barbies. Big sisters may want to avoid you, but they are important when you're seven.
When I'd window shopped sufficiently, I wandered over toward the docks. This was the one area I was not allowed to go. Someone's dog got plucked right off the dock by a sea lion a few years prior, so kids were banned unless actually going to a boat. But I could lean on the fence by the dry docks and watch the sea lions play. I could watch bald eagles fish and occasionally see the back of a whale, orca, or porpoise glide by on its way through the Wrangell Narrows.
This was where I met a new girl. I can't remember her name. I think it was Amy. I never saw her at school. She usually lived on a boat with her dad. That summer she was living in a shack behind the greasy spoon restaurant on Main Street and across from the dry docks. When I say shack, I mean something prefab you might put in your backyard. It held little more than bunk-beds and a dresser.
The idea of a father and daughter living in one room in those conditions made me uncomfortable. Mostly because my cousins had gone through hell the year prior when it was discovered that their dad was molesting them. I didn't entirely know what that meant yet, but I thought it had something to do with sleeping together. When something like that happens in a small town, there's no getting away from the unwanted attention. Even well-meaning attention is unbearable. My aunt divorced him, married another questionable guy because, like so many women, she didn't know how to take care of her kids alone. Then, she left town with them to get away from the shame. My dad was the investigating officer. Even though he kept their confidentiality, I heard enough from others.
But Amy's dad's boat was out of commission, so he was out working on someone else's boat most of the time and had to leave her ashore. Only when I came back as an adult, and got to visit a few fishing boats, did I realize that shack was a veritable palace compared to crew quarters on a boat. So Amy, a girl just my age, was living alone for most of the summer. Everyone knew her by her family, like they knew me, and they looked out for her. She knew places to go that I would never have dared. With my closest regular friend out on her family's fishing boat all season, I spent much of my summer of freedom in Amy's company.
She knew about the penny gum balls and fudge samples (the fudge lady gave bigger samples to her). She also went straight into the back dining room of the greasy spoon and ate sugar packets, and no one bothered her. The waitresses brought water out, checked that she'd eaten real food, and asked where she'd been. When I had a little pocket change, she introduced me to Lik-M-Aid. She had her own secret Lik-M-Aid recipes involving glasses of water and more sugar packets. She knew the way over the hill at the end of Main Street to the beachy portion of the coastline where we could ineffectively dig for clams with sticks and dare each other to touch sea cucumbers. She knew where they were building the new harbor and where there were crab pots to climb on. She knew what all the different types of boats were fishing for and how the different equipment on them was used.
On the Fourth of July we watched the town parade as it meandered down Main Street, then up around the block and down Main Street again. We dug for change in the big pile of sawdust the bank sponsored, then spent it at the booths lining the sidewalks. We watched the lumberjack games together. We sat around an old wooden cable-spool-turned-table on the deck of Harbor Lights Pizza until eleven o'clock at night, so we'd have a good seat to watch the town fireworks display set off across the water. We listened to the thunderous rumble of the explosions echo up and down Frederick Sound.
I brought her up the hill to my house, a world as foreign to her as hers had been to me. I packed a picnic, saltines and a can from my mother's secret stash of Diet Cokes, into my orange Tupperware picnic basket, and took her up the hill further. A back trail led to the little league diamond. We could pick salmonberries along the way. Then we went off the trails to catch frogs, a pastime she loved. She wasn't as keen to let them go at the end. We took buckets of them home to keep. The dogs tipped the buckets during the night and dined on frog legs.
Before the summer was over, she disappeared. One day the shack was closed up and she was gone. My other friend came home about the same time, so whatever Amy's dad had been fishing for was probably no longer in season and he had earned enough money to fix his own boat. She wasn't at school when it opened in September. No one seemed to remember her or be worried about her. Her transience through my life has made me wonder if I imagined her, but how could I imagine something so foreign to me? Her world was entirely outside of my experience. Like a character in a fairy tale coming into my life for a season, to open my eyes to a bigger world, then leaving without adieu. More magic.
School started in September, as it inevitably does, and I got the best second grade teacher ever. Ms. Franzel had long red hair and loved to read Pippi Longstocking. She dressed up as Pippi for Halloween, wired red braids and all. Because I loved my teacher, I dressed up as Pippi, too. She understood my love of learning and let me go ahead of the class in reading and math. She decided the whole class was advanced enough to learn cursive, something I dearly longed to do. Something our third grade teacher got mad about the following year.
I wanted to go to school every day, and I hugged her goodbye every afternoon. When I took the standardized tests at the end of the year, I got 100% on three of them and 99% on the other two. Because she made me want to try, I discovered that I was unusually gifted academically. Something I needed to know as the fourth child in a talented family. My mom always said everyone was good at something, but I didn't know what I was good at until that year.
This superpower I discovered in myself was the magic that carried me through the following school year, in which I had a teacher who hated smart kids. I felt so bullied by my third grade teacher that I went back down the hall to hug Ms. Franzel every day after school. Good teachers plant magic beans in the hearts of children that grow into enormous beanstalks reaching up to the heights of our imaginations. We climb them and discover the treasure within ourselves and our innate ability to defeat giants.
Not all magic is good. Seven was also the year I watched an after-school special and realized what my older foster brother had done to me when I was five, just before he was sent to a state facility because he was getting into too much trouble. Everything we were taught about good touch, bad touch, and sexual abuse, in school and on TV, urged me to tell. But I remembered what happened to my cousins. I watched their family be destroyed. Worst of all, they had to leave my island. I knew what it would mean for this to happen in my dad's house. The man who was charged by the town with investigating this type of crime. I knew what my foster brother's history had been, and that he was already basically in jail. I considered carefully.
For me it was a choice between revenge against a boy I had no feeling of vengeance toward, only sympathy as he was passing on his own experience of abuse, and protecting my family from the fallout of this kind of scandal in a small town. I decided to say nothing. As an adult, I've never regretted my decision to be silent then. I acknowledge my experience was an unusual exception. He quickly hit the three strikes law in Alaska, so I know he's in prison and not out hurting other children. I took control of my future and chose what would have the best outcome for me and my family. In doing so, I effectively ended the ability of his actions to negatively impact my future.
The realization that this had happened to me and that I had been unaware, caused me to engage with reality. I still overlaid it with my imagination, but I was aware of the reality. Like Sleeping Beauty, who lived a hundred years in a dream, I had lived entirely within my mind. But this strange magic came when I was seven, and woke me up to the world.
My fourth daughter turned seven this year. Once again, I am watching a child transit that mystical bridge between her world within and the world around her. It demands her attention, sometimes frightens, sometimes awes. She is discovering her own strength. That she has power to create ripples, however small they may be, in the collective experience of humanity. How young she seems, but how powerful. She knows about the magic, too.