On my first full day back in Alaska (August 20, 2009) since my last visit when my father was desperately ill in 1990 my brother took me back to the Eagle River Valley where my family first moved in 1957 after they left Los Angeles.
Eagle River has drastically changed and holds few signs of the tiny village it was when I left home in 1969. At least the original Tastee Freeze is still standing, windows boarded, weeds growing tall in its still dirt parking lot.
My brother called J.V. from Eagle River proper so that he could get from her the telephone number of the man who had bought the piece of our homestead that contained what we knew of home during our homesteading years. J.V. provided the number, and welcomed us to stop by her home for a visit as we headed up the now paved Eagle River road
As my brother turned into J.V.’s driveway I could see house after house after house built close to one another, covering what used to be summer lush green pasture that in the 50s and 60s lead up to the base of the mountain where J.V.’s family kept their horses and their hog barn in the ‘olden days’. Now subdivided, it was clear to me that the placement of those houses meant one important thing to J.V.’s family – money.
J.V. met us at the door, a very short and still attractive woman who has to be in her 80s and looks perhaps 65. She has the kind of genuine, radiant smile that could stop a grizzly bear or a raging bull dead in its tracks. I doubt that there’s a person alive who could pause for even a moment to exchange a word with that woman and for that brief moment even remember a single trouble that they might have in their lives.
My brother and I shed our shoes in the small entry inside of her door Alaskan style, and stepped into her pine sided living room that seemed to glow with its own golden light streaming in from the large windows that were only partly screened by pot after pot of lush green plants. It would not be possible to find any plant either happier or healthier under anybody’s care.
J.V.’s house sits at the bank of Meadow Creek, the same creek that flows under the Eagle River road and reappears to flow along side the log house we first lived in when we went to Alaska, the same log house that seemed to become as much a part of my family’s story as the homestead itself did once we staked claim to it. This creek holds clear water that falls fast enough over medium stones to give it what I would call the most classic sound one could think of if one remembers any magical creek they might have stumbled upon, if not into, in their life time.
I remembered the creek. I had first met it a month before my sixth birthday. I remembered its sound. That creek is one that even today I would wish to sit down beside and not leave until all of the troubles of my entire lifetime were washed away by its clear, sparkling waters. J.V.’s house lot bends its earth downward in the lush green of lawn, and obvious relationship between creek edge and bank that was established many, many years in the past, that has been lovingly maintained, and that reminded me of the differences between how J.V.’s family experienced Alaska from how my family did.
My brother and I each took a seat on a different couch as J.V. settled into what I would guess is one of her favorite chairs beside the creek-facing window. Within a matter of moments the topic of our conversation turned toward J.V.’s long term friendship with my mother. I wish I had taken notes. I wish I could have recorded J.V.’s words. All that I can record here is what I remember of what J.V. said, and I am certain I will be missing a large chunk of her words.
I did not recognize J.V. from my childhood. She is the first person from my early life other than family I have seen in the 40 years that have passed since I left home and entered the Navy when I was 18. J.V. described how she and her husband had homesteaded in Anchorage in 1948, sold that land and bought this piece in Eagle River. She has lived in that house for 56 years and has no intention of ever leaving it until her life on earth is through. Although her husband has passed from her life, J.V. shows no sign of having lost any of her zest for life.
J.V.’s yard is as verdant and well cared for as everything else surrounding her seems to be. She described how arthritis has now settled into her feet and ankles. She loves to garden so she bought herself a riding lawn mower, removed the blades, and is buying a small trailer to pull behind her with her gardening tools so she can continue to move around her yard and participate in its thriving economy.
J.V. first met my mother and our family in the fall of 1957 when we first arrived in Alaska and took up our residency in the log house across the road from her. J.V. is, to my knowledge, the single person who maintained a friendship of any kind with my mother until the last breath my mother took. It was J.V. who had called my mother in the spring of 2002 as my mother resided in a dingy, shabby motel room. My mother did not answer the call, so J.V. drove to Anchorage and found my mother sick and dying.
Against my mother’s request that she be left alone, J.V. was there when 911 was called and my mother was rushed to the emergency room to be prepped for surgery to correct her twisted intestine. It was too late, and my mother died before she reached the operating room door.
J.V. felt to me to be the most grounded, centered, strong, clear woman I think I have ever met. She minced no words as she described what she knows about my mother. J.V. is also a woman who has lived a successful personal, farm and business life, who remains active and involved with all kinds of people. The first point she made in her conversation with my brother and I was that of all the people she has ever met in her life time, my mother was both the most interesting and the most lost.
I do not understand the practicalities of land sale and transfer of ‘notes’, but it was to J.V. that my mother went after my father transferred title to her for the best piece of the homestead with clear title. He placed all the outstanding mortgages against the homestead on the remaining piece he kept for himself after their divorce. J.V. described how my mother was absolutely terrible with anything that involved money and finances, and how she had done everything in her power to convince my mother than selling her land to J.V. was a mistake. Mother insisted so it was J.V. that bought the prize piece of the homestead from my mother and resold it.
After my father’s irreversible brain damage caused by hemorrhaging from pituitary tumor surgery in 1990, it was J.V. that also bought his upper mountain piece for resale so that the debt against that land could be cleared for my father. My family owns not one square inch of the land that we once cherished perhaps more than each other.
What else I remember from the 45 minute visit with J.V. feels disjointed inside of me now as I try to write the words that stem from that memory. I know that my mother had over the years confided much to J.V. about her childhood, about her parent’s divorce, about my mother’s relationship with my father and about homesteading. I have a sense that never was there a time in my mother’s life that she wasn’t on the verge of desperate hysterics.
I left that visit with J.V. knowing fundamentally, and in a way far deeper than I have ever known before, how serious, severe, comprehensive and pervasive my mother’s mental illness was. I could for the first time see how it impacted not only her ability to parent her children, but every single other aspect of her existence in the world to the moment of her death, as well.
I am at this moment both surprised and awed at how difficult this piece is for me to write. It’s like I’m trying to stand at the edge of a raging volcano, knowing my feet are slipping and I will plunge into the raging inferno. There’s something inescapable and eerie about hearing the words spoken about my mother from a woman who had her own place of inoculated safety so that she could retain my mother within the circle of her life without herself being one bit impacted by anything my mother ever said or ever did.
I do not have that luxury, nor do I seem likely to be able to create it for myself. I stood at the center of the sun with this woman who was my mother. I tumbled with her down steep rocky mountainsides with the deadly boulders that crushed me near daily as my mother’s brutalizing insanity knocked me over and over again from any tiny ledge of inner safety or security I might have been able to find for myself, being my mother’s hated daughter.
In some inner way I would rather take a shower in battery acid than face the objectivity of J.V.’s descriptions of my mother. What I so desperately needed as a child J.V. had – immunity from any possible impact from my mother’s insanity.
There is something primitive and primal about the kind of mental illness my mother had. It operated at the brink of where genesis lies, where destruction touches each ongoing moment of life. My mother’s illness existed at the borderline between life and death. I asked J.V. if she’d ever heard the term Borderline Personality Disorder. She said she had not. As I gave J.V. that diagnostic term, I felt in some way I had given her a container within which she could finally drop everything she ever knew about my mother in the 46 years she had known her.
J.V. was probably the calm to my mother’s storm. J.V. was unshakable. She was invincible. She was consistent, steady, not emotionally involved, clear, outspoken and wise. My mother could not throw the lasso of her insanity around J.V. and yank her in. She could not employ J.V. to join with her in craziness in any way. My mother could not cajole J.V. into any role in her ongoing destructive drama of her life. Somehow J.V. had something rarer than any precious gem. She had the ability to be a severe borderline’s friend for 46 years.
Somehow through her dedication to my mother J.V. is, for me, some version of a timekeeper for my mother’s incoherent, insecurely attached disorganized-disoriented life. Listening to J.V. talk about my mother was like watching an hour glass being tipped over so that the grains of sand of the passing of my mother’s life appeared to me in J.V.’s words.
J.V. stated unequivocally that homesteading was my mother’s idea, my mother’s passion, my mother’s obsession, not my father’s. She told my brother and I that something was never right about how my mother felt about our land. J.V. knew that my mother grew up loving the woods and the out-of-doors in the New England countryside where her family spent part of each summer, and that somehow those childhood memories were tied to Alaska in my mother’s mind and through her troubled emotions.
J.V. also believes that things were very troubled between my mother and father for a long time, and that my mother believed that somehow bringing the two ‘Alaskan sons’ into their lives would somehow make things better in their marriage. This was in spite of the fact that our family was continually in constant chaos and could not provide stability for the children my parents brought with them to Alaska from their years in California. J.V. also felt that once the two Alaskan babies were born that the older four of us ceased to be at all important to my mother.
J.V. also commented that she remembers when she first met our family how odd it was to her that she could walk over to visit my mother just after she had put the older two of us on the bus for school, having fed and dressed the two younger children, and upon J.V.’s arrival mother’s house was immaculate without signs that any children lived there at all. “Did your mother get you all up at four in the morning to get you ready for school or what?” J.V. asked. I’m not sure that anyone not a part of our family could ever begin to truly imagine what ‘life with Mildred’ was really like.
My mother had obviously shared many aspects about her childhood with J.V. over time. J.V. knew about my mother’s parent’s divorce, and about the terrible sorrows my mother remembered about those years. J.V. recounted to us a story my mother had shared with her about the early years she, her mother and her grandmother had spent in Los Angeles after they had abandoned their Boston life for relocation there for my grandmother’s health in 1945. In fact, one particular story my mother told J.V. has since found its way into the lore of J.V.’s own family over time.
My mother told J.V. about how she remembered the two room flat they lived in. My mother would have been perhaps 21. My grandmother worked with her counseling clients in one of the rooms. It was my mother’s responsibility to care for her grandmother and keep her quiet in the adjoining room as these sessions occurred.
My mother recounted to J.V. how her grandmother’s voice could be heard through the walls as she expressed her version of pitiful care. “All I need is a crust of bread and a glass of water,” my mother’s grandmother would moan as my grandmother worked. “Please, if anyone cares about me at all, please bring me a crust of bread and a glass of water. That’s all I ask. A crust of bread and a glass of water.”
J.V. explained that since hearing that story her own family uses those words in joking fashion about how J.V. can be taken care of in her latest years. “Don’t worry, mother,” her sons will tell her. “We will take care of you. We will make sure you have a crust of bread and a glass of water.”
My brother mentioned after J.V. told this story that in our mother’s later years when my brothers tried to take my mother out for lunch or dinner she would not let them order a meal for her. She echoed her long-ago story by telling them, “I’m not hungry. All I want is a piece of fruit and a cup of yogurt.”
J.V. also described to us how my mother was toward food in her later years as she refused to eat for five days at a time, living only on water. J.V. would try to get my mother to eat, even offering to take her out for meals. My mother would respond to her by saying “no thank you.” She told J.V. that she needed to practice, that she needed to know that she could go without food so she could be certain that she could survive in the future if “things got bad.”
J.V. told us that after these starvation periods my mother would then spend days gorging herself with food, and believes that these harmful patterns with food contributed to my mother’s twisted intestine. My mother had excellent insurance but refused to get her ‘female troubles’ attended to and refused to get medical care for her intestinal troubles – which killed her.
I remember bits and pieces of other things that J.V. told us about my mother. She said that mother was one of the most interesting people she had ever met. My mother fascinated J.V. because she could never figure her out. J.V. was always puzzled and amazed at the continual and nearly constant moving that my mother did. That never made any sense to J.V.
She also described how my mother happened to stop by their house one evening when J.V. and her family were relaxing together in their living room, playing games in front of a fire in their fireplace. J.V. explained that my mother became unreasonably upset by this, became angry and displayed a resentment against J.V.that my mother maintained for a long time afterward. This made absolutely no sense to J.V.! I, however, know exactly what it meant.
My mother always longed from the depths of her soul for the perfect storybook family life. What she saw in that Norman Rockwell-esque image of J.V.’s family together in their living room portrayed to my mother both what she wanted most and what was most impossible for her to obtain. J.V. had tried to explain to my mother that their family was like any other family and had good times and bad. Nothing she could say got through to my mother. Mother went away and ceased any contact with J.V. for a long time after that. But she eventually returned, a pattern that was repeated many, many times over the years of their friendship.
J.V. described how she was always straight with my mother and permanently refused to play any of what she called the junior high school games that my mother seemed to play with every other Eagle River woman my mother knew. J.V. simply did not need my mother in any way, though she was always willing to let my mother make contact with her when she wished.
J.V. also puzzled at the seemingly shy, uncomfortable nervousness my mother often expressed to her about being with her grown sons, I think particularly in public. I see this condition as being only one of the myriad tragedies of my mother’s life. I believe that fearful insecure attachments are a hallmark of the Borderline Personality Disorder condition. (J.V. also did not seem to have any idea that my mother’s severe abuse of me existed during my childhood.)
J.V. described how my mother had told her one time (long after I had left home) about a possible job she might get selling insurance. The next thing J.V. knew my mother came to visit her to show her the expensive attaché case and dress outfit she had purchased for this possible job. My mother had matching expensive stationary and business cards to match these props, but never actually got a job with this company.
I explained to J.V. that my mother could not tell the difference between stories and the real world, and how, yes, this inability very often resulted in great wastes of money. J.V. also knew about the several storage lockers my mother continued to pay to keep, at least one of them for over 20 years.
I am grateful to my brother for contacting J.V. while I was in Alaska, and I am also very appreciative that she welcomed us into her home and was willing to talk frankly with us about our mother. What scares me most is that I feel nearly as lost in my life as I think my mother was as if she passed her ‘lostness’ directly down to me. J.V. appeared to me in contrast to be the polar opposite of lost, and I envy that about her.
J.V. had inner and therefore outer resources that my mother never had. I’m still not sure what my own resources are even though I am 58 years old. What I suspect I most need to let myself remember is that I am not my mother, I am my mother’s daughter.
Yet as I remember sitting with my brother in J.V.’s sunlit living room as we talked about my mother is that it seems some essence of my mother’s life was in that room with us. It’s as if her heart lay torn and bleeding upon that immaculate carpet as we remembered her. I have no doubt that even as tragic as my mother’s life was she always did the best she could do with what she had been given.
But I will never make the mistake of believing that what life results from a malevolent childhood in combination with genetic potential is the same in quality as the one that could have been lived if the childhood experiences had been what that child truly needed and deserved. Although my mother is dead now it gives me solace to know that someone like J.V. not only remained in her life for the long run, but remembers her now.
It gives me comfort to know now that my mother was not quite as alone through her life’s journey as I’ve always believed her to be. Although the words were not spoken, I believe it to be true that J.V. loved my mother. I feel honored to have met my mother’s friend.
NOTE: This piece of writing feels jerky, awkward and poorly articulated to me, but it is the best that I can do. My visit with J.V. is probably the closest experience I will ever have to a memorial for my mother.