Coming Home

UNALAKLEET — The plan was to earn an English degree, marry, travel to inspiring places, return to Unalakleet and teach high school English. I’d have students read and analyze “Beowulf,” “Hills Like White Elephants” and “Dulce et Decorum Est.” I’d have them write in-class essays and I’d be the cool teacher who played music while they wrote. I’d have the students write about an influential person in their life. Write about method, showing peers how to set a net, cut a fish or make chocolate-chip cookies. I’d give tests as tests are given in college, just like Matt Genné, my high school English teacher, did.

That was the plan, and you know what they say about the best-laid plans.

Unalakleet, Alaska

After all, I hadn’t seen myself as one of those people. The people from home who return only for Christmas. For berry picking and silver salmon fishing. Or even worse, the person who only comes for funerals. I was going to be a lifer. Someone who returned. You know. For good.

Turns out, I am one of those people because it wasn’t until 19 years later, I found myself making a phone call. “Unalakleet schools” I heard on the other end, and I smiled. I got Sid enrolled into high school by the same lady who enrolled me in kindergarten.

A few days later I stopped by Glenda’s office and was thrilled that not much had changed. She still had the same smile. The same blue-flowered typewriter cover made by my cousin Curtis. The same friendly, matter-of-fact way of taking care of business.

Then it hit me. I now live at home. I’m not just visiting for berry picking, fishing, a wedding or even a funeral. I live here.

Beyond tickled

I called my daughter after her first day of school. She was walking down the main road in Unalakleet. We were talking about classes and friends and she stopped our conversation to talk with someone. I heard her say, “Hi,” and “Yeah,” and some unintelligible phrases. I heard in her voice that she is happy. She came back to the phone.

“Who was that?” I asked curiously.

“Great Papa,” she said.

“Oh. Cool!”

I imagined her Great Papa Ralph stopping with his four-wheeler, smiling. I was beyond tickled he stopped to say hi to Sid, whom he no doubt called “Mischief,” his nickname for her since she was a toddler. He’s always liked her.

Perhaps there’s a reason. Sidney’s Great Papa is 92 years old and still takes his boat to commercial fish for salmon. This spring, the man had a life-saving surgery and we all wondered if he’d be at his shop later, hanging his net to prepare for the season. He was there, of course. And this summer his boat was ready and launched. He was seen slinging fish at the plant. No doubt he was more active this summer than most people with all the gardening, hauling, chopping and stacking wood and commercial fishing. He was definitely more active than I was. To hear him stop and talk with my Sid makes us stronger, better and happier, I have to believe.

Papa Ralph shopping for shells to go burd hunting. Yes. He’s 92.

Grounded and inspired

And it’s funny how you feel you’re giving and end up receiving more in return. A few weeks after Sid’s after-school chat with Great Papa, we went to a cake-walk fundraiser. The early childhood education teacher aide was receiving cancer treatment, probably wishing she were back in the classroom. Not surprisingly, the room was packed and people in town donated not only cakes and akpik cheesecakes, but moose meat, smoked salmon, herring eggs and kuspuks. Landing on No. 18 on our 17th try, Sid won caramel cinnamon rolls. We left grounded and inspired by the way the community comes together and supports one another, as they do in most rural communities. But somehow this was different. This was home.

Today, I reread “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway. It had been more than 20 years. I recalled my first introduction to Hemingway’s writing, and I realize I am someone who sees life full of fields, rivers, trees and mountain views, but I have learned the best-laid plans often go awry. I am home and I do not return as a high school English teacher. I do not return married, but divorced. I do not return well traveled, ready to teach others about life and the world. I have relaxed and realize I am simply part of this community, ready to learn from my 92-year-old grandpa. Ready for life as solid as my school secretary. And hopefully learn to be as giving as my kindergarten teacher aide Marlene, and as generous as those who pray for and organize fundraisers for her.

Life is still a life of fields, rivers, trees and mountains, despite changes in plans.

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