For as far back as my mom, Romi, can remember, she wanted to move to Alaska. Her dad fed those dreams by declaring that they'd be moving to Alaska in the spring.
And every year my mom believed him and as spring approached, she'd eagerly anticipate the Great Adventure--the whole family moving to Alaska!
And every time she'd be disappointed as her peripatetic father moved them all across the continent, from Minnesota to Montana and all points in between. My mom was always the new girl in school, or the outsider, always having to adjust and fit in. Her escape and her comfort was to color. She remembers that when she was two-years-old she was given a coloring book by family friends. One of the pages had a chicken and an egg, and she remembers how much she wanted to make it look realistic. With only two colors, yellow for the chicken, white for the egg, she knew, even at that young age, that the key was in the shading to give it texture and make it look real.
Whenever she was stressed, or disappointed--as when her father put off Alaska for one more year--she could lose herself in art, either sketching, painting or coloring. For hours on end.
Then, after she'd left home, married my dad, had one child and another on the way (me), her father moved his family to Alaska.
It was her father's heart attack that finally got my mom to Alaska on a visit. Fortunately, he recovered and my mom's first, long awaited taste of Alaska was not marred by tragedy. But that taste wasn't enough. Happily, all it took was one visit of his own for my dad to say, "We're moving to Alaska."
Their first attempt was when I was a baby. They packed up and hit the AlCan Highway, but broke down in British Columbia, Canada and were stranded there for several months. It was more than five years and three more kids later when they finally made it.
For someone who had never cared for the practical aspects of life, who had sophisticated and cultured tastes, my mom embraced the need to adapt to a nearly pioneer existence. No electricity, only kerosene lamps, wood heat, one tiny store, mail on a weekly, weather permitting basis, very little access to the outside world.
And her home floated.
She and my dad had bought my grandparents' floathouse as their first Alaskan home. (A floathouse is a regular woodframe house that rests on a foundation of logs and floats and "goes dry" as the tide comes in or goes out. Many floathouses, other than ours, in SE Alaska float all the time, regardless of the tide, if they're anchored in deep enough water.)
With five kids all under ten, my mom adapted to the need for life vests becoming mandatory outdoor wear. She also adapted to kids innocently announcing--dripping all over the floor--that they'd "accidentally" fallen in. Many times a day. Not to mention learning to take in her stride the need to come up with cures for jellyfish encounters, boots lost in the tidal muck, kids smelling of seaweed, the threat of bears, worry about the kids getting lost in the encircling woods....but on the plus side, the kids endlessly entertained themselves right within view, fishing or swimming from her front deck.
It gave her the opportunity to hold deep, philosophical conversations with my Aunt Marion, discuss books recently read with anyone who visited, or catch up on her books on British history, or sing around the house as she did housework--her other dream, besides moving to Alaska, was to be a torch singer in Paris.
And, of course, the kids' love affair with the water, allowed her time to spend time with her coloring and sketching.
Some of my favorite childhood memories were of the rainy, windy days that we were forced to spend inside. My mom would expand our rural horizons by playing audiobooks of the classics while we all sprawled around with coloring books, trying to emulate her wonderful texturing. Or she'd expose us to a wide range of music, everything from classical composers, to classical rock, to world music, to jazz, to blues, to show tunes, to--my favorite--popular music from the thirties and forties.
Our young lives were saturated with music and color.
My mom's favorite early memory of floathouse living was when my dad got a job at the lumber camp--largest in the world at the time--at Thorne Bay across Clarence Strait from the village where they were living. With my Uncle Rory's commercial fishing boat, the Velvet, towing their floathouse (and attached wanigan: smaller, floating cabin) they crossed the strait.
Out in the middle of this major artery of the fabled Inside Passage, with the waves shushing by and splashing against her house's foundation of logs, she watched the sun sink on one side of her floating, traveling home, and the moon rise on the other.
She was finally living the Great Alaskan Adventure.
After a year the house was towed back to the village, then towed to the abandoned, burned down cannery where we pounded down stakes and cleared land to build the dream house of my mom's design. It was a six bedroom, two story house with open beams, a cathedral ceiling over the living room and 1,836 square feet of living space. My dad milled all the wood from his sawmill, which us kids packed. All of the labor was provided by my family. I particularly remember when it came time to lift the upstairs endwall using only block and tackle--and my mom at the front of the rope and the rest of us kids in descending order of size hauling it up as my dad guided and brute muscled it into place.
It was at the cannery, when she was alone in the wilderness with five kids while my dad continued to work in Thorne Bay only coming home on weekends, that she came to depend on the stress relieving properties of coloring.
"Don't call me Mommy. My name is Romi!"
In the vast emptiness of the wilderness my mom was surrounded, 24/7, by piping little-kid voices. If my dad couldn't commute on the weekend due to weather, she had no one but children to converse with for weeks on end.
To escape she immersed herself in coloring or reading books. Us kids learned that those were the best times to ask her for something we weren't supposed to do or have. She would, without fail, absently wave us off with a "yes, yes, whatever," and we would immediately scamper off, chuckling evilly as we delved into the food supply that was supposed to last us until my dad got home. Or we'd get permission to do something reckless and dangerous that she had absolutely forbidden, like "log tag." This involved chasing each other over the floating logs my dad had corraled for firewood or lumber. My mom had nightmares of a child falling between the logs and drowning.
She tried to encourage us to have mature conversations with her, which we sometimes managed. When that was mostly a failure, she tried to tune out the incessant kid squabbling, kid yelling, kid giggling, kid chattering by losing herself in the soothing intensity of colors, of getting exactly the right shading, or overcoming a kid-scribbled page and turning it into a work of art--those were challenges she relished and could lose herself in for hours. But when she came back up out of the world of art she found herself once more on the edge of nowhere, surrounded and outnumbered by kid ideas, kid needs and kid wants.
Sometimes, in desperation, my mom would turn to the "telephone channel" on the marine radio and listen to adult voices talking about adult concerns.
There was also the fear of running out of food, which happened after one prolonged storm. She had to allow her preteen oldest son, my brother Jamie, to go hunting in the forest to bring home something to feed the kids. If Jamie didn't return, what could she do? If she got lost looking for him, the other four kids would be on their own. She couldn't call for help because of the storm that was keeping my dad from crossing the strait.
Which brought up the fear of anything happening to the radio, her only connection with the outside world....Her only access to emergency help if a kid got hurt or sick.
She had no skiff of her own. My dad had the only one we owned at that time, which he needed to be able to commute. But she had a creative, think-outside-the-box, unconventional mind so when a floatplane landed at our anchored float, her solution for getting out to the pilot was to climb into our tin bathtub and paddle it out to the float and receive the mail my dad had sent.
But the bathtub wouldn't work to reach the nearest village. And trying to make it through the impassible, dense forest wasn't an option.
She was well and turly on her own.
As us kids got older we provided better conversation, and then my dad was home permanently. Plus we had occasional neighbors and tutors pass through for sometimes months at a time.
One time a young couple from New York that had been left to fend for themselves at a cabin to the north of us, stumbled out of the forest onto the beach where us kids were playing.
We stared at them in shock. We'd seen a lot of things step out of the wilderness, but never humans.
They were desperate humans, starving, their city clothes and shoes in tatters, white-faced and a little wild-eyed.
My mom invited them inside, fed them and most importantly, offered them her treasured Cafe Francais, a latte that came in a tin, and drew them out with her interest and knowledge of their New York life. They calmed right down and were so grateful they almost cried.
Another time my two younger brothers invited two kids from Sweden, who were visiting family in the nearby village, over for a spaghetti dinner. When the Swedish kids looked at their forks and piles of noodles with helpless inactivity, my mom handed them spoons. My brothers looked on, dumbfounded, as the Swedish kids, instead of forking up and sucking, used the spoons to wind the noodles into neat balls on their forks.
When we were growing up, my mom was the sole bastion of refinement and culture on the edge of the world where barbarism constantly lurked, threatening a complete takeover.
My parents were the classic opposites-attract match. Which worked out well for us kids.
On the one hand my dad taught us to be self-sufficient, how to build anything, how not to be daunted by any physical task or danger Alaska could throw at us. I don't think the word "impossible" exists in our vocabularly because of him.
From my mom we all acquired a love of books, music, art, movies, color and laughter. We appreciate manners and try, each in our own ways, to live up to a certain standard. We're all spiritually inclined, perhaps thanks to the Bible studies my mom had with us out on a massive rock that overlooked the bay populated by feeding humpback whales while eagles flew overhead.
Because of her we learned it was possible to live in the wilderness and yet be able to adapt to new experiences, other points of view, other cultures, other lifestyles. And that there was a world out there of rich and varied wonders that we could embrace as our own if we chose.
We had the best of both worlds because my mom never stopped dreaming of Alaska.
Some of my mom's art can be found on my sister's website at www.madartdesigns.com, under "Romi's Art."
Tara Neilson (ADOW)