Tag Archives: family

The Real Alaska

I don’t have much to say today, other than we were gone nearly two months, and it wasn’t until the last weekend in Alaska that we spent time in the woods, in the Real Alaska.

My family were Pioneers. Not the Gold Rush pioneers, but my dad was still considered a “sourdough” to the locals. He moved to Alaska in 1949, when the Alcan Highway was barely more than a dirt track, and everyone hunted, fished, gardened and berry picked to “put up” enough food for the families for the winter.

The best part of every trip back to Alaska is spending a long weekend in the woods…but we’re more civilized now than when I was growing up and sleeping in tents.

The cabin was built by my brother and his wife on some property owned by her family up the Goodpasture River about 100 miles south of Fairbanks. Only way to reach the cabin is about a 45 minute boat ride from a landing on the Tanana River near Delta Junction. Theirs is the new cabin. I’m sorry to say I didn’t take any pictures of the “old” cabin, built in the early 70’s by my sister-in-law’s grandfather.

So, instead of tents, we spend our nights in cabins heated by fireplaces, but the days are spent outdoors fishing for grayling, chopping wood, having meals cooked over the campfire. The most relaxing weekend of our too-long summer vacation. I don’t think I could ever get tired of being there, and I can’t say how much it means that my lovely sister-in-law and her family shares this beautiful place with the rest of us.




As happens every few visits to Alaska, this is a wet one. While the Lower 48 is in drought and heat waves, Alaska is a soggy mess. I like rain. Heck, I love the rain. I live in the Pacific Northwest! But all the rain makes it difficult to really enjoy what Alaska has to offer—other than my family of course.

I’m looking forward to my birthday party this weekend, which I’ll share the celebration with one brother-in-law, whose birthday is a few days after mine. The party has turned into a small reunion of sorts, since a lot of family from all over the state is converging on the farm. (My folk’s place was originally a 40-acre homestead, and has been cut up into parcels, but only family lives and builds on those plots of land. We all still say we’re going to the farm if we’re heading to my mom’s or my sister’s place.) And no, we’re not hippies or anything of the sort. This is just kind of the Alaskan way…our way.

My family is huge and scattered all over the state. Brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews. It all started in 1949 when, on April 1st—just in case it didn’t work out they could say it was a joke—my dad and his first wife, pregnant with their first child, headed to Alaska on the newly built Alcan highway, leaving their families in Nebraska

The stories of adventure, some of them lost forever because those first pioneers of the family are no longer with us, are countless. Dad loved the land and convinced a lot of his siblings to relocate here, and his mother, too.

Life is undoubtedly easier now than it was more than a half century ago when they lived off the land, hunting and fishing to fill the freezer for the winter, taking what jobs were available. My dad ran a courier service, was a mailman for the US Postal Service, was a bush pilot, and eventually owned a feed and livestock store until people stopped raising their own chickens and pigs for food.

Now, my family careers range from the artistic—one brother is a carver who sells his bone and antler carvings during the summer months to art enthusiasts who can afford his work—to a sister who is an RN and one who is a firefighter. Another brother is a contractor who employs several family members and sometimes hundreds of Alaskans, and another sister who is in her 60’s and spent her life devoted to her children as a stay-at-home army wife and mother. I have brothers who are pilots, fixed wing and helicopter, and a cousin who runs a trucking company and actually drives the Alaska Ice Road.

But I have to say, in my opinion, my most intriguing relative, when it comes to Alaskan history, is one aunt who was born in Fairbanks. Her grandmother was a madam why back when there were a lot of little whore houses around town, catering to men in search of a little company after spending months in the bush, on the rivers, searching for gold. And my sweet aunt, a woman I have adored for as long as I can remember, started smoking when she was in her fifties, because she could, damn it. But the coolest thing about her, the proof that she’s got to be the most Alaskan person in my family, is that my dear sweet aunt (who can’t be 110 lbs soaking wet) was already a grandmother when she ran in the Iditarod sled dog race, just to prove she could do it. And she won the Red Lantern prize—coming in very last but crossing that finish line. She’s in her seventies now and serves up the best biscuits in Alaska in her gorgeous little B&B.

So, you can see why I return every couple of years. My home isn’t here any longer, but a big part of my heart is. I come back to sit and listen to stories. Old stories I’ve heard a hundred times and new ones about the kids and grandkids of my siblings as we all get older and the next generation grows.

Sitting around a camp fire, out on the old Denali Highway in a spot my family has gone to since long before me, the baby of the family, was born, watching my sister’s grandkids play in the mud—because it rained there too—we had to laugh. When the family first came to that little patch of land, once flattened out by a road crew building that rutted, gravelly highway that we pray never gets paved, we’re now the older generation. I remember fishing in that stream with my uncles and dad—so old to me back then—teaching me how to cast my little fishing rod. We’re that generation now, watching the little ones grow, teaching them to fish, to be Alaskans.

Anna Leigh

Growing Pains of the Heart

This has been a time of transition, difficulty, and loss in our family. My older son is struggling to recover from hitting a major roadblock on his path to college. My younger son is working through the aftermath of his first great heartache after a breakup. I spent the past 48 hours on a marathon trip to and from the Cleveland Clinic with my father and sat with him as he made the very difficult decision not to treat a medical problem and to let the disease run its course.

There is no moving through this life without loss and pain. We have choices only in how we cope with it.

I grew up with a mother afraid of her own strong emotions. Perhaps her early personal losses, or the time she lived through made this so. Regardless, I have vivid memories of bringing her my own heartaches and losses and having them minimized.

“It’s not so bad.”
“You don’t really want that.”
“A year from now, it won’t matter anymore.”

While from a pragmatic standpoint, all of those statements may be true, that truth matters less than the underlying message I received: I couldn’t trust my own experience or emotions. It nearly crippled me.

It took me years of hard work to find and trust the core of myself. I still have to work hard at it. Long before I had children of my own, I swore I would never minimize their pain. Not that I would coddle them and go to that other extreme (‘oh, you poor thing, how terrible, let me make it all go away.’), but there is a middle path that acknowledges pain exists; pain of the heart as real as that of the bruised shin, broken bone, or burst appendix.

And another truth–you can’t compare pain. It’s all to easy from the jaded perspective of an adult to belittle those first experiences of loss. My 16 year old’s pain after his relationship ended is no less devastating to him than my experience of watching my mother’s dementia steal her from me. Loss is loss. Playing the oneupsmanship game only diminishes us.

I wanted my children to grow up experiencing both the joy of accomplishment as well as the desolation of failure. I ensured that we talked about both as a family. Along the way, in helping them navigate through their growing pains of the heart, I realized that my own heart had become more resilient, too.

I hope that I have given my children what they will need to move through their own heartaches, if not with grace, than a kind of balanced understanding.

I have come to believe we grow as human beings in facing the reality of loss and moving through it. I believe heartache stretches the container of our selves and leaves us expanded, with more room to feel. I believe this is our greatest strength, our greatest asset, and our greatest challenge.

Without the lessons we all taught one another, I would never have begun to trust my writing and my stories. I wouldn’t have been willing to risk failure or what I saw as the humiliation of rejection.

I wouldn’t have been able to sit with the terrible knowledge that my father will die, likely of the aneurism he has chosen not to treat. My heart hurts. I want to throw myself to the floor and kick and scream like a toddler in the grip of a tantrum. Instead, I gather up that toddler and hold her tightly. She will hurt, she will cry, she will rage, but she will be okay.