As we played in the cannery ruins, we were literally the only girls for miles around. Until our teens when we attended the nearest bush school, we rarely saw another girl. We slept in the same bed, shared the same clothes and dreams, and confided everything in each other. Is it any wonder we were best friends as well as sisters?
Besides, nothing bonds and cements a relationship more than an "Us against Them" situation. And it just so happened that we had three of THEM. (Brothers, I mean.)
We built separate forts from THEM in the forest and in a massive rock crevice with a wide-open view of the bay where bald eagles fished. Our forts were so much neater. After all, we had kitchens stocked with sawdust-in-clamshell "eggs" carefully placed in egg cartons, seaweed salads, jars of reddish orange "chilli" made from crumbly, rotted red cedar stumps. We had shelves and counters made from lumber in the slashpile from our dad's mobile sawmill, and adorned them with rusty and corroded cannery cook shack implements, plates, pots and pans. We cooked up many a gourmet (looking) meal on our pretend stove. Then there were the mossy beds and couches we'd arranged. No wonder THEM always wanted to hang out in our forts.
My sister Megan and I galloped imaginary horses over the gravel beaches, jumping drift logs and muskeg streams, and weaving through the long line of pilings from the ruins of the old cannery, like barrel racers. Only we raced under overcast Alaskan skies, an enormous bay populated by breaching whales in front of us.
Imaginary heroes starred in these adventures. They were real men's men, as was obvious by their names. When we were young they were Whizzie and Whizking. (Really.) As we got older they morphed into the more sophisticated Smith Darcourt and Reuben Challonly, both sporting upper crust British accents and a stiff upper lip.
Sometimes we made up stories about them and other characters--notably the aristocratic, stiff-backed English snob Madam Moonlea--and recorded them on cassette tapes. I'm sure the Brontes would have done the same had they had access to the techonology. We recorded stories of Regency rakes wasting their time and money on "pig races." Or we had western cowboys forking leather and galloping madly after rustlers. We used my model horses for the galloping sound effects. At least one horse was ridden so hard it broke its leg and we had to, sadly, put it out of its misery. Such were the breaks.
We sometimes dressed up and my mom would take pictures. We were so good at coming up with costumes that when we eventually went to the nearest bush school we won costume party contests.
We had Barbie Dolls, of course, like every other girl in America. But no one really told us how to play with them. We soon got bored with dressing them up and making them talk and sending them on epic caravan trips through the tall, brooding forest--we could do that with ourselves to much more entertaining effect. Happily, we accidentally discovered that when a Barbie is bounced so violently off the bed that it strikes the wall--limbs and heads are likely to become detached. Soon it was a competition to see whose doll could have the most spectacular explosion of body parts. Heads, arms, legs and torsos took to the air with abandon.
When we wearied of this pastime we set up scenarios on the bedroom floor. We had Barbie seated in her snazzy red Camaro with the top off, chewing gum and blowing a huge pink bubble. On the hood in front of her was Ken's head. His headless torso was astride a palomino horse whose raised hoof was above a swaddled figure suspiciously like that of a baby.
My mom came in once and was horrifed at the daughters she'd produced.
Then there were the death-defying games of log tag--chasing each other across rolling rafts of floating, loose logs--tree tag--leaping from tree to tree in hot pursuit of each other--rock racing, driftwood log jumping, and so on.
We worked as hard as we played, matching the boys, THEM, every step of the way: fishing and hunting with our dad, hauling and stacking firewood, hauling water from the creek, hauling supplies and groceries up the beach, clearing the land to build our New House on. Hauling lumber from our dad's mobile sawmill. Carting away, in a wheelbarrow, the mountains of sawdust it produced, sometimes late into the evening when the woods became shadowy and we had to pack a .44 pistol on our hip in case of wolves or bears. Both of which we saw a lot of in the area, sometimes within yards of the house.
We could hold our own in any contest of strength and endurance, not to mention sheer recklessness, with THEM.
I only remember having one fight with Megan. Our brothers fought constantly so my mom wanted to nip our unusual discord in the bud. She had us face each other.
"Slap Megan," she told me.
I looked at my best friend and shook my head.
"You're mad at her, slap her," Mom insisted.
I started to cry. "I don't want to."
Mom turned to Megan. "Slap Tara."
She started crying, too. "No, I don't want to."
I think we both wondered what kind of a mother we'd produced. At any rate the treatment worked. We never fought again.
Instead our family learned to never let us play together as a team in any game. Besides having a nifty line in cheat-signals, we were also practically telepathic after spending all that time together, doing everything together. In charades or pictionary we rarely had to make more than one gesture or a sketched line before the other guessed the correct word or phrase. In pinochle, we were frankly unbeatable. And that was only PARTLY due to the cheating.
In the long, dark days of winter we read the same books by kerosene lamplight, or she'd draw and I'd write. Sometimes we combined the two.
In the summer we built forts and swam in the crystal clear Alaskan water, our bodies adapting quickly to the cold. We rowed dinghies or built rafts, repelling invaders (THEM) with chopped up skunk cabbage, or bull kelp, or with homemade wooden swords . We played far into evening when the northern lights came out.
Being constantly together in the isolation of the remote Alaskan bush in our formative years created a bond that time and distance (she now lives in Florida, I still live in the bush) cannot break.
She still draws and paints--her paintings decorate my home, and the homes of people around the world. I still write--obviously. And it was through her ongoing technical help from Florida that this blog is even possible.
Thank you, Megan.
P.S. In the interests of full disclosure, one of THEM also made this blog possible. Thanks, Robin.
Photos: From top to bottom, (1) Playing in Cannery Creek where the salmon spawned and the bears came down to dine (2) playing with our dolls in the cannery ruins and sharing saltine crackers as a treat (3) dressing up in Old West costumes (4) winning a costume party at the nearest bush school. Megan's a Twenties Flapper (right) and I'm Rapunzel with a floathouse mooring hauser on my head. It was so heavy it gave me a headache. (5) As adults, during a visit here from Florida by Megan and her family. (6) Still dressing up, with my niece, Aroon (far left).
Tara Neilson (ADOW)