The Meaning of Family.

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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.

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Hunkering down

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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.

Dedication and Procrastination

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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.

Fine comforts.

Setting the tone.

Setting the tone.

When do we become aware that we are creatures of comfort?  I am certain it is well into our twenties or thirties.  When we are young, we take for granted the running water in our homes, our own bed, food on the table, and the freedom to run and play outside.  As we leave home for a higher education, we even take that for granted, perhaps not realizing the sacrifices others make for us in terms of financial burdens.  When comfort, or the lack thereof, really comes into focus is when we are responsible for our own comfort.  In those early years of fending for ourselves, we give ourselves comforts as we can afford them.  Gradually, we become more adept at providing for ourselves, and we sometimes go over board in the comfort area, once again becoming slightly immune to our fortune of having comforts.

And then we come full circle when we realize that our creature comforts really aren’t that numberous.  We need shelter and food and water.  Whatever else we choose to bring into our lives, really, becomes the finer comforts that we have learned to appreciate over time.  A bouquet of flowers.  Silver to grace the luncheon buffet.  Crystal, given a semblance of warmth with the glow of candlelight.   The greatest comfort is knowing that the finest comfort is not these things, but the dear friends and  family that complete the picture.

Ugigdada – Share

Ugigdada, or share, is a  very important Unangan value.  It relates to anything that can be shared, as opposed to just sharing a resource.  Examples are work, joy, responsibility, happiness.  Most importantly though, the Unangan shared the food that they acquired from hunting and gathering.  It is still one of the first values that is taught to youngsters who are learning to provide for their families.  You are responsible for providing for your family, but you are also responsible for ensuring that your community has enough.  If someone cannot hunt due to illness, you share what you get with them.  You are responsible for making sure that the Elders in your community have enough traditional food to keep them not only healthy, but happy.  You can expect to be treated the same way under the same circumstances.

Getting ready to fillet a red salmon.

Getting ready to fillet a red salmon.

My husband Caleb and I fish.  It started out that we would help mom and dad as they got older, but has evolved from the first moment.  We fish, but we wouldn’t be fishing the front beach if our brother-in-law didn’t share his boat, engine, and net with us.  We wouldn’t be very successful fisherman if we didn’t have the help from sons, nephews, grandsons, daughters, and friends who share their strength and time in helping us pull in the net.  With all the new regulations in fishing, having to monitor the net makes it hard for us to take care of the fish immediately like we have been taught.  So my mother shares not only her most excellent filleting abilities by being responsible for filleting the fish, but she also shares her knowledge by teaching all of us how to fillet.  This comes in handy when we just tire her out and then we step in.  My dad shares his knowledge in producing the final product whether it be dried fish, smoked fish, canned, or frozen.  There is no one who knows more about the brine, the wood, and the timing.

Mom stripping red salmon to hang them in the smoke house.

Mom stripping red salmon to hang them in the smoke house.

Eating the foods that we grew up eating is so important to us.  Not only are the foods healthy and good for us, but they provide a feeling of well being.  Because of this, Mom and Dad make sure they send food to family who does not live here.  But she also thinks of her “old pals”, so we have food going to the Pribilofs, Anchorage, Juneau, Seattle, and where ever someone may be spending time.

Ugigdada.  Share.

Already, the year is so old??

Stunning firewords compliments of the City of Unalaska!

Good grief, time flies.  I really need to get past living from holiday to holiday, event to event, and meeting to meeting.  It blurs all those good days in between!

We had a wonderful New Year’s Eve, celebrating not only the new year, but, of course, the birthdays of my mother, Gert Svarny, who welcomed her 81st year with perfect grace, and my husband, Caleb, who grumpily acknowledges his birthday each year.  Of course, if a big deal was not made of it, I am sure he would be totally disappointed!!

So every year, I debate the great cake question….what kind of cakes this year?  I settled on a cheesecake with a nut crust, enrobed in chocoate and served over a strawberry coulis, plus an incredibly dense chocolate cake with chocolate ganache.  To tie them together, each had orange in them and were sprinkled with orange zest.

Cheesecake

Crazy, dense chocolate cake.

The chocolate cake was so heavy, (literally, I could not carry it with one hand) I was really afraid to cut into it and serve it.  But, thank god, it was absolutely delicious.  I believe I have found the perfect cake for the Chocolate Extravaganza!

Pirates invaded the party at about 11:45.

As we get older, we joke about being able to stay awake until midnight!  We have devised a schedule to help us out….a late dinner at 8 PM, socializing and drinking(!), then, started for the kids several years ago, we play our “traditional” New Year’s Bingo games with great prizes of things mom wants to get rid of!!  At 11:45 things start to ball up….getting the champagne ready, watching the ball drop, toasting the new year in, running outside to watch the fireworks, coming back inside for a hearty rendition of Happy Birthday, eating cake and opening presents!  By the time this is all done, it is usually about 1:30AM.

And so, with a great start for 2011, here’s hoping your year will be filled with happiness and prosperity.  If not that, at least have some fun!

Christmas Eve 2010

Okay, it has been a while!  I wonder if anyone believes how incredibly busy a small town can be?  Enough said.

Christmas Eve 2010 was worth the effort put in.  Mom and I planned, then parceled out some cooking duties:  Cookies – Greg Hawthorne, Gingerbread cookies, Alena Syverson, Scallop ceviche, Wendy Svarny-Hawthorne, who promptly parceled that one out to  her son, Nicky Hawthorne.   Brie with cranberries in puff pastry, Wendy, as well as hot crab dip.  Laresa was designated the official setter-upper, which includes setting up the table, the buffet, and the dreaded wrapping of the silverware.

Of course Mom cleaned house for almost 2 weeks before hand.  Holiday cleaning…why didn’t I inherit that gene?  On the 22nd and 23rd we started cooking in earnest.

Nicky Hawthorne's scallop ceviche....delish!

Alena's gingerbread cookies and Zoya's million layer Russian cake.

Cookies made by Greg and Mom; truffles by me.

Silver salmon lox, octopus, and pickled salmon.

Yum...Perushkies, brie, layered shrimp & potato salads, ham, curried rice, etc.

Gert Svarny, without whom the party would be nothing!

SP digging in!

Catching Sam just at the right moment!

Greg Hawthorne and son, Jacob, enjoying themselves.

Yekatrina, Michelle, and Zoya, hanging out in the kitchen!

The tree!

Enjoying family, friends, and food.  What could be better?