When she was 13 years old, she quit school to raise four younger siblings. She thought about what to feed her brothers and sisters, and lighting the fire in the stove so they could stay warm. Her parents died of tuberculosis that year in 1945. First, her dad when they were at spring camp up the Unalakleet River. Her mother died two months later, and suddenly my grandma Laura faced the terrifying thought of having to move to the children’s home in Holy Cross, some 130 miles away.
“I knew if we went we’d never come back,” she told me years ago. “I knew because my cousin went there and she never did come back,” she said with sadness in her voice. Grandma told me she cried to her oldest brother Louie, saying she would not move.
“So we didn’t go,” she laughed. The woman knew how to get what she wanted.
At 13, I mostly wanted to stay in town, be with friends, have sleepovers and stay up late. For some reason, that weekend I wanted to go on that trip. My dad, mom and grandma all packed up into dad’s new ocean boat and we traveled 25 miles down the coast for no reason other than to test the boat and camp.
We got down there and checked the Twin Islands for eggs. Not really islands, the Twins are shoals made of enormous, black lava rocks. Some grass, tukaiyuks and willows grow on the islands, but there isn’t one tree.
Walking around the boulders, we found some seagull eggs and went to shore to picnic. While dad and mom made the fire and started cooking, Gram and I walked along the spruce, cottonwood and birch logs that drifted from the Yukon River and settled on our shores. I looked for birch bark we used for fire starter and listened to Gram’s stories. Then I screamed and jumped back in response to a loud, high-pitched noise in front of me — and some furious fluttering. As quickly as it scared me, the noise and frantic fluttering was gone, and Gram was laughing.
“You scared that duck right off her nest!” she said with a giggle in her voice. Still shaken up, adrenaline pumping through my body, I breathed, smiled, laughed and walked forward a few steps. Sure enough, three blue eggs laid in a grassy nest between some cottonwood.
“She was so scared she peed on the eggs, Gram,” I said. We both laughed, grabbed the eggs and brought them to the cooler.
The next morning mom made breakfast while they all drank their coffee.
“Why are you cooking chicken eggs?” Dad asked with judgment in his voice.
We all laughed at her, and she kind of laughed at herself. The quintessential mother could not bring herself to eat a bird egg from our coast. Her heart literally ached for what was taken from the mother bird.
While Gram, dad and I ate our breakfast of boiled duck and gull eggs, mom ate her infertile chicken eggs from the general store. Gram and I looked at each other and smiled because we thought her daughter was sweet and silly.
Last month I found myself in a room full of women, along with my brother and nephew. Gram lie peacefully on the bed. Her niece Arlene was there and led us in singing songs from church. Some in Inupiaq. We were all there a few days and shared stories about Gram. We shared stories she’d earlier shared with us. We laughed and laughed, cried and cried. On that last day, we shared a meal of fried bread and fish spread. After Arlene prayed and we ate, Gram’s skin got so smooth, and she peacefully left us. We all surrounded her and said goodbye.
At her memorial service a week later, people from our community of Unalakleet shared stories of Gram. My dad spoke of when he was in his 20s and relentlessly teased Gram when they both worked at the cannery.
My cousin Bebucks spoke of snowmachining up to Ikpikłaq to ice fish for dollies and seeing the blur of a snowmachine whiz past him. He got to the fishing hole, surprised to learn the blur was my Gram, madly racing to catch up to grandpa Fred who unexpectedly left town before her. “Ever since then I called her Speedy,” Bebucks said.
While each person spoke into the microphone, I remembered my own stories and memories of Gram.
A few days later I realized memories of people continue beyond their time here on earth. And as my uncle Steve says, “Love comes full circle.”
My brother, niece and nephews traveled down the coast to picnic and check the Twins for eggs. I couldn’t remember the last time I grabbed a big speckled egg from a nest. Walking along the biggest of the Twins, we found gull eggs and placed them inside our bucket lined with dried grass. And then it happened: a loud, high-pitched noise in front of me; furious fluttering. I screamed.
As quickly as it scared me, the noise and frantic motion was gone. Adrenaline still pumping through me, I laughed and knew immediately I scared a mama duck from her nest. I took a few steps, looked down and four beautiful eggs lay in the grass and downy nest. I smiled big, remembered Gram and that moment we shared when I was 13 years old. I grabbed the eggs and placed them in the bucket. The rest of the night was filled with thoughts of her. I thanked Gram for crying to my uncle Louie. I thanked her for her strength. For her stubbornness to remain home. I thanked her for her love, spunk and stories. And then I pictured her, mom and papa around a campfire in heaven and took the eggs home. And I said out loud, “Let there be no stop signs in heaven.”