Among their other shortcomings as parents, Mildred and my father shared an astounding inability to manage their personal finances in anything resembling a reasonable way. Although Dad always kept steady civil service employment, there was never any household budget, or savings, or debt avoidance, or tax planning. Mildred always blamed her husband for over-borrowing and running the family into debt, yet exhibited classic passive-aggressive behavior by refusing to participate in planning or decision-making, placing my father in the impossible position of having to make important financial choices without her input, all the while knowing she would forever throw them back in his face.
The first phase of the Homestead subdivision occurred around 1980, resulting in about 40 acres being sold off in 5-acre parcels. The decision to let a single square foot of land be sold must have been a terrible blow to Mildred’s still-cherished dream that the LAND would somehow survive to be the magnet that would draw our family close at last, and she resisted furiously what she characterized as my father’s wish to deprive us of our collective birthright by subdividing any more of the Homestead property.
Within a few years, though, rising property taxes coupled with the financial strain of maintaining two households, paying rent on storage lockers scattered around the country, and servicing the debt that had steadily grown as Dad pledged the land as collateral for a growing collection of credit union loans made selling some more land a necessity. The second subdivision phase was completed in 1984-85 but by then Alaska was entering what would become a severe post-Pipeline recession that caused values for all types of real estate to plunge. The remaining lots sold slowly, and for much less than comparable ones had realized just a few short years earlier.
By the time my father suffered a brain tumor and stroke in late 1990—a malady which permanently and dramatically affected his memory and personality—my parents’ collective financial situation was precarious. As part of the 1985 subdivision, Dad had created two large parcels of the remaining Homestead land (roughly 60 acres each) which were divided into “his and hers” parcels as part of the property settlement surrounding their 1986 divorce. There was a first and second mortgage on each parcel, the proceeds of which had been used to finance road construction costs that spiraled upward between the 1980 and 1985 subdivision phases.
My father’s illness left him blissfully unaware of the mess, and Mildred increasingly anxious and financially strained, since her sole source of income was alimony from my father, whose income had dropped dramatically once his 12-plus months of accrued sick pay ran out. I inherited the unenviable task of managing my father’s business affairs, which put me square in the role I had managed to escape when I left Mildred in 1984—the role of managing not just Dad’s deteriorating finances, but by extension my mother’s as well.
I solicited advice—and ultimately permission—from all three of my sisters to make the only viable decision that could be made. (My two brothers were left out of the decision for reasons that don’t concern us here.) With extremely heavy hearts, the four of us came to the realization that there was no way to “hang on to the Homestead” any longer, and the two large parcels were sold at fire-sale prices for just enough to pay off the outstanding mortgages.
As my father’s court-appointed conservator (rather like an executor, but for someone still living although mentally incapacitated) I signed the transfer documents in 1994. After all the formal arrangement had been made, I sat across the desk at a local title company, signing the dozens of papers needed to pay off loans, transfer deeds, and so on. I was very businesslike about it, and intellectually I knew it was the only possible choice we could make.
When I left the closing appointment and sat down in my car to leave, a wave of overwhelming sadness hit me with a ferocity I can’t describe. From out of nowhere, every muscle in my body began to tremble and a torrent of sobs broke loose that felt like they came from the depths of my soul. I leaned my head on the steering wheel and wept like my heart was breaking. I was 29 years old, and I knew that everything my parents had worked for, every sacrifice they had chosen to make—and compelled their children to make—had been completely and utterly for nothing! The Homestead had been the Holy Grail of our familial consciousness since before I was born, and it was gone.
June 4, 2009