He was a quiet man. Dignified. While his sinew was strong, his skin was wrinkled and soft. Dark. Smelled old somehow. His bones were bird-like, but solid and heavy to the ground. And he had the coolest middle name. Windsor. Aside from the fact that it’s a type of whiskey, the name fit him well. He told you the weather days ahead just by looking at the sky toward the ocean. Windsor.
And whenever I see a wheelbarrow, a scratchy wool plaid shirt or an old man chewing snuff, I think of him. My aunt told me he was friends with Bill Egan. You know, the first governor. They were in the army together. Once when Egan was campaigning, he stopped in Unalakleet and Papa visited with his old friend. Egan offered Papa a job in Juneau, but his wife Laura would never leave her home and family. Unalakleet was all Gram knew. I imagine the disappointment Papa must have felt, but for Fred Windsor Paniptchuk, duty trumped desire. I’m not sure how the story goes, but I imagine Gram simply told him she wasn’t moving and in that moment, Papa quietly accepted.
Later, Papa planted a cottonwood when my sister Karen was born – their first grandchild. It’s now taller than their house and I don’t know life on this earth without it.
Their house had activity and people. Gram making bread. My uncles stopping by for food or coffee. My cousins, whom Papa and Gram raised and raised well. Gram’s brothers who lived next door stopping by for goulash. And my family. Whenever she heard me walking up to their house, I’m told Gram sang a song before my arrival. “A song? Really?” I’d say, thinking it was something flattering, sweet and cute, talking away, excited to visit Papa and Gram. Something not as huge as having a tree planted in my honor, but heartwarming and soft.
“Angayuqaq itiaqpaan,” she’d say in a sing-song voice.
“What does it mean?” I asked, again expecting sweet, smiling words.
“Here comes the bossy little giiiirrl.” The firstborn trumped the baby in that house.
But baby of the family or not, I guarantee you I was not bossy with my Papa. Not because he was scary. He wasn’t. I revered him. He had deep eyes. A strong, purposeful gaze. Action with results. A presence that let you know everything was going to be OK. And honestly, my Gram was bossy enough as it was.
I was quiet around Papa. Once, when heading to their camp across the river to enjoy a sunny day and a picnic, I waited outside as he was getting supplies ready to bring to the boat. I stood by the wheelbarrow as he grabbed the salmon net. The sainik. The uuraq pot. The grub box. All was piled into the red wheelbarrow as I stood there, waiting and watching as he gathered the things to make camp coffee and a one-pot meal. Quietly, I watched him the entire time – hoping.
The boat wasn’t far at all. But for a 4-year-old girl in black rubber boots with red stripes on top, the walk to the boat loomed heavy, like a walk to the Old Woman shelter cabin between Unalakleet and Kaltag. Or at least all the way down to the post office. It felt far. So as he got ready I watched expectantly. And he did it. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t even look me in the eye. He simply motioned with his hand to hop in the wheelbarrow. Like sweeping a crumb off the table. One motion that continues to speak to me today.
You don’t have to walk to the boat.
I am strong. You are a child, and I will care for you.
Life can bring many burdens. For now, sit on the net and enjoy the bumbly ride to the boat.
For now, be a child.
I love you, Aathqhiingaq.
I hopped on, on top of the clean, dry, green net. Happy. Today I can still feel the smoothness of the wheel in front, rolling in front of us. The rhythm of Papa’s footsteps. And I say to myself – a wheelbarrow memory is kind of like a tree. Or a song. I know my place.
This story was first published in We Alaskans, the Sunday Alaska Dispatch publication.