Simply, water is life.
Over the past year, our prices have doubled. This represents a week’s worth of groceries for two. I used to spend a little over $100 each week. There is an extravagance of $28.19 for 2 rib eye steaks which will be used for two meals. The bill was a tiny bit higher than usual due to the fact that I needed laundry soap, shampoo, and the makings for Easter bread; and I do have to try to feed myself organic when I can. This was two good sized bags and two medium bags (not plastic, of course). Four bags! Thank god fishing season is only three months away. The freezer is getting bare.
Since being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis my life has become one big puzzle about what, when, and how my immune system has already been and is still being impacted. Suffice it to say, it sucks. No longer included in my diet are wheat and soy. Never do I use processed foods. I make my own ghee so that I can have butter. I should eat only organic foods, but living in the Aleutian Islands makes that nearly impossible. I think holidays are probably the times when I really miss certain foods. I think the one thing that I miss the most is my mother’s Easter bread, or what we call kulich , made for our Orthodox Easter. I am honestly going to try to make it with gluten free flour one of these years. I just have to prepare myself for what may be utter failure and a waste of resources.
My daddy loved kielbaska, sauerkraut, noodles, cabbage, and perogies, albeit the perogies definitely had a native flair to them. His love of nut rolls and pastries with poppyseeds had my mother making special loaves and twists for Christmas morning breakfast that her great grandchildren expect, still, to this day. My father was born in Chicago and did not know more than a few words of English when he went to school in first grade. How is that? He was raised in a Slovakian community in the Chicago area. He soon moved to a farm in Wisconsin and finished his formative years in a very rural, close knit Slovakian community. He received The Fraternal Herald until the day he passed away, and a small insurance policy was paid out to my mother from a Slovakian insurance company policy that his parents bought when my dad was small.
And, yet, his four daughters knew very little about his Slovakian heritage. He felt it was more important that we be raised in mom’s culture, Unangax, an indigenous group from the Aleutian Islands. Once a people numbering 20,000 prior to Russian contact, within 60 years of contact the population was a shocking 1,875. And besides, he fell in love with the islands.
As time began taking a visible toll on my dad, it became so important to make sure he was comfortable and happy; that he not worry about anything. That he know that he did not have to leave the home he loved. That we do everything we could to make this happen. One night, when I made haluska for dinner, my mother looked at me like – whaaat? Well, I said, this is a Slovakian dish and I thought dad would appreciate it. He did and it was delicious. It’s funny how as we see time slipping by, we bring out the things we think will bring memories and comfort.
My family ties got a little broader and tighter this past week. I got a chance to meet my mother’s sister’s son’s grandchildren. Our family has relatives far-flung all over these United States. It was not a conscious decision for my mother’s family to disperse in all directions from the Aleutian Islands. It was, instead, due to a forced evacuation of all Native peoples from the islands during World War II. My mother’s older sister Myrtle ended up being sent to her military husband’s family in the deep south. After the war, they eventually ended up settling in Nevada and raising 3 children. The kids had several chances to visit as they were growing up and these visits stuck like glue in the mind of the oldest son. He made several trips as an adult, once with one of his children. Several other times with his wife. The time before this trip, to spread some of his mother’s ashes in the family plot, to be reunited with her mother, father, and brothers and sisters who had preceded her in passing.
On one of these trips, he was in Unalaska during the time that our Traditional Knowledge summer camp was taking place. From that experience sprang the seeds of an idea to have his grandchildren experience their roots and learn about their indigenous culture.
Dennis and his two granddaughters arrived the day before camp began on a day with the fog hanging halfway down the mountains and after having spent two hours in Cold Bay, Alaska waiting for fuel. They were unfortunate to land in Cold Bay after 2 Japanese military planes had emptied the fuel trucks of all fuel. Two of his children were to arrive three days later. His daughter, the mother of the girls, and his son, both of whom had never been here before. They had the true Aleutian experience of flying to the point of being directly overhead, and turning around to return to Anchorage because they couldn’t find the airport in the fog. Well….not a true Aleutian experience because they actually made it onto a flight the next day and landed.
Oh the girls had an experience like no other. The fish – baked, smoked, made into lox. The octopus. The fish pie. The sea lion. Learning to weave. Making masks. Learning some Unangam tunuu, the Aleut language. Songs and dance. And the son and daughter? Hiking some of the trails made by their ancestors some 8,000 years before. Climbing above the clouds and watching the landscape and village magically appear as the clouds dissolved.
But the real magic was in the sharing of family and history. Seeing the bonds forged between a great, great aunt and great, great nieces; between great aunts and great niece and great nephew; between cousins and second cousins, and beyond. The magic of feeling a kinship with virtual strangers. The real magic was in the wistful expressions on the day of departure. The strange pulling at the heart strings that the islands give to people who come here with their hearts wide open. Yes. And the promise of returning again someday.
When you live in Alaska there are just certain things that you expect. You expect the long days of summer when the sun barely sets before coming above the horizon again. You expect to spend a majority of your time hunting and gathering from May through October. You don’t know when, but you expect that first dusting of snow on the mountains, more commonly known as termination dust. And you expect it to be cold. In the Aleutians, we also expect wind.
February was called Qisagunax^ by the indigenous people of the Aleutians prior to 1834. This means famine. February was the month when you were gaining about 4 minutes of daylight per day. It was the month when you had already braved the storms of November, December, and January. It was the month when you were coming to the end of some of your subsistence foods. So food was scarce. The communities were hungry. It was a time when you needed to get out there and find something to eat again.
It is amazing that February is also the month during our long winters that can have some of the most beautiful weather. Perhaps my ancestors knew this about February, so they were not particularly careful about their food stocks. They did like to party and were generous to a fault. Perhaps they knew they could count on the most gorgeous, brilliant sunny days in February, when the tide was out really low. And the winds abated. They could get out in their iqyan and fish, or hunt for that stray sea mammal. Or access the tidepools for delicacies like sea urchins, mussels, clams, octopus, limpets, chitons, and seaweed. Then they would hunker down when those north winds picked up again, coating everything in ice from the sea spray.
On days like these ones, I like to pull a fish out of the freezer and enjoy the fruits of our labors from the summer months. I like to be warm and toasty in my little home, not caring what is going on outside my doors. Like the windows, everything has a hazy, muted feeling of being cut off from the world. Especially if the wind is blowing and your ability to hear anything besides the wind is gone. Yes….just hunkering down and enjoying my solitude.
I am a master at dedication. Over the years I have dedicated myself to performing major feats. Raising three children on my own. Coordinating a summer culture camp. Planning a secret anniversary party for my parents with my sisters, where practically the whole town was invited, and it remained a secret. Many, many feats. So this morning, when I still have over 100 chocolates to dip, why am I sitting here procrastinating? I will be mad at myself later when I am running around trying to get them packaged up. I will really be pissed when I’m trying to squeeze in time to make that homemade ginger ale. Why is it that I am a master at dedication and procrastination? And look at that fingerprint on the peppermint…guess I’ll just have to eat that one.