It would never have occurred to my mother that she was courageous. In moving from Alaska to Buffalo in 2011, I realized the extent to which she was.
When her dream of a life as a farmer’s wife in Pennsylvania was derailed by my father’s larger dream of becoming a pioneer in Alaska, she did not flinch. In 1958, Alaska was still a territory of far-off remoteness. Mom left behind her family and the secure life on the large sheep and cattle farm she and Dad owned in the rolling fields of Greene County. In a station wagon pulling a trailer, she followed Dad and his truck for 4,000 miles on the monthlong drive to Alaska. She and Dad had a young family – four kids, ages 6 to 1.
Mom left behind a two-story white farmhouse in a community in which her family had lived for generations. Nothing awaited them on their arrival – no job, property, friends or family. They arrived in the Matanuska Susitna valley in July and soon my father found work as a hired hand on a farm. In September just before the first snowfall, the farmer’s son returned and wanted his job and basement apartment back. My parents quickly found a 160-acre homestead for sale on a mountain nearby and moved in shortly before winter.
My father wrote: “Snow on the ground. No wood had been cut and dried for winter, and the wind was blowing. Some of it went under the house, but part of it went through the house.” Dad spent the first winter cutting firewood, repairing the house and hauling water. Mom was busy with children and doing her best to adjust to a very different lifestyle, one without indoor plumbing.
My older sister remembers Mom didn’t have much to spend on groceries that first lean winter. Our new home was bordered by tall mountains on three sides, and it must have made her feel isolated. The winter winds would come from the north and howl across the face of the mountain where I grew up. Alaska is a land of extremes – the winter months are dark, but the sun never seems to set in the summer. How alien it all must have seemed to her.
Shortly before she died in 2010 she told me she was “not an Alaskan wilderness woman.” She described herself as a homemaker, a behind-the-scenes-person whose role was laying the groundwork for her family’s stability. Her strength was in her family and her belief in God.
It was my turn to find a source of strength in April 2011 when my husband and I moved to Depew to help care for his mother, 92 years of age. The day we drove our little caravan away from my Alaskan valley, I wrote: I will miss my family and the mountains, but I am truly ready to test myself, to see how I can adapt to change and to flourish.”
Alone in my car except for the company of two of our dogs, I followed my husband as he drove our moving van across Canada to Nova Scotia and then down to his childhood home on the outskirts of Buffalo. I spent 7,000 miles reflecting on the journey and of my mother as she had driven many of the same highways back in 1958. In my mind and heart I continued to measure myself against her and our respective experiences. Even though she has been dead for three years, I found myself looking to her when things got tough. When I was faced with a section of highway mostly underwater from flooding, Mom came to mind and I told myself I could do it despite my fear. When I didn’t want to face another day on the road, I thought of her and how she not only drove on endless gravel roads back then but did it with four restless kids.
She was with me in spirit and still is today as I continue to adjust to a lifestyle not at all like the one I grew up with.