written October 12, 2009
Age 12 – My March 27, 1964 Alaskan Earthquake Story
Sometimes I wonder in today’s modern cultures how many women actually remember their menarche, the day of their first menstruation that marked their transition from being a child to being a woman. Sometimes I think that because there was no possible way that my mother could recognize the importance of that transition for me, Mother Earth and Nature itself created such a memorable celebration for me that I will never in my lifetime forget my own.
At the same time I wonder about the consequences of the Great Alaskan 1964 Earthquake for me personally, I feel at the same time both honored and embarrassed and ashamed, as if my assumption of any personal significance is egotistical and something I need to apologize for or keep completely secret.
When I was studying for my masters degree in art therapy one of the special topics I chose to study was try to find out what some of the factors might be that lead women to become pregnant when they aren’t married. Statistics in America continue to show that giving birth to a baby outside of marriage while in her teens is the number one correlating factor to a life time of poverty for any young woman.
I can no longer find the research study that mentioned what I most believe is true. The number one correlating factor to unmarried teen pregnancy is a girl’s mother’s degree of comfort with her own body and her own sexuality, coupled with the degree of comfort the mother has in talking with her daughter openly about her feelings about being a woman.
Researchers found the clearest factor they could use to measure a woman’s comfort with her own sexuality was the degree of comfort a girl’s mother has with talking with her daughter about her own menarche. Not only that, but even more specifically the likelihood of a young girl giving birth to a baby while in her teens and not married appears to be connected to how positive or negative the young mother’s own mother’s experience of menarche was.
Probably every indigenous culture on our planet has a history of some kind of rite of passage connected to the menarche experience. We have lost any overall cultural ties to menarche celebrations and corresponding practices in our modern mainstream American culture. Life in a patriarch society is not likely to offer young girls what they truly need for a meaningful transition from childhood to womanhood through the experience of menarche.
I believe, however, that all women who missed a positive menarche experience can reclaim one for themselves by revisiting the time surrounding their first menstruation – and by honoring it. Menarche is a woman’s quickening.
Usually when I think of the events that culminated in my first period, I think that the earthquake so scared me that it literally shook my period out of me. If, however, I can allow myself to acknowledge yet another dimension of my experience, I can say that although my own mother never celebrated my existence at all, and could therefore not celebrate my transition into my womanhood, Mother Earth herself met me as I crossed that sacred threshold of my menarche – dancing.
As you will be able to see as you read my accounting of my experience with the Alaskan earthquake, I cannot tell it without my great grandmother Hunter, my mother’s maternal grandmother, coming into the story. In fact, my guess is that this part of the story goes back even further to my great great grandmother. Here, let me tell you how.
Nobody was in school the day the earthquake happened because it was a Good Friday. My parents made plans to meet their homesteading neighbor friends in Anchorage that evening for a rare evening dinner out. They had left me, my two sisters and my 3 year old brother at another neighboring homesteading family home as they passed out of the valley on their way into town.
My sister was friends with our baby sitter’s daughter, and the four of us girls were sitting on a bed preparing the Monopoly board for a game. Just as we completed sorting out all the money, and were setting the cards in their places on the board, things began to bounce around.
“Hey! Stop moving around, you’re making everything a mess!” We all started to accuse one another, until the bouncing became an undeniable shaking and we all knew an earthquake was in progress.
We ran into the adjoining room that served in this house as the kitchen, dining area and living room. As the shaking became more and more violent, the mother, Laila, called to all the children from the center of the room. I stood in the outer circle with Laila, her daughter and my 2-year-younger sister as we closed Laila’s son, my youngest sister and my little brother in the center to protect them.
Laila’s husband ran to the wall by the front door and draped his body over his short wave radio, hugging it with his arms as the floor beneath us began to tilt wildly. Everything that could possibly move in the house slid past us across the floor, first in one direction and then back again in the other direction, banging against our bodies where we stood braced against one another to keep our feet.
I looked out the front window I could see the family’s vehicles bounding around the yard. I could see the tips of the trees ripping back and forth through the air as they nearly touched the ground. The earth roared, rumbled and growled like I had never heard it do before. For three long minutes that seemed as if they would never end we stood in the center of that room riding with the shocks as if standing on the deck of a wildly pitching boat at sea in a terrifying storm.
The quaking stopped more suddenly than it had began, leaving behind it a silence so grand it seemed to swallow us whole. Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. There was not even any way to think a thought in those first silent seconds. But it didn’t take long, and we were all running out the door and across the yard as we piled into their parked car. And we sat there in silence, hearts pounding, waiting, waiting. When nothing else seemed ready to happen, we climbed out of the car and walked back into the house’s terrible mess.
It took hours for my parents to drive out of Anchorage, stop and pick up my brother who was fine, having endured the earthquake in a tree house after spending the night at his friend’s house, and make it all the way back into the valley to pick the rest of us up at Eklund’s house.
[see also: *Mother’s Story of the 1964 Quake]
We spoke in hushed voices as we drove up the mountain, all of us anxious about what we would find as we turned the last curve and climbed the last hill to our canvas Jamesway home. Would it even be standing?
It was. As we walked in the door we could see our house had of course not been spared from shaking. Furniture had moved around the floor. Everything had been tossed out of the kitchen cupboards onto the floor. The plastic lid covering our 35 gallon plastic ‘garbage can’ full of drinking water had popped off, and dishes and food had fallen into it. The medicine cabinet door was open and all those contents were spilled onto the floor. Books out of the bookcases, linens fallen out of the closets, beds scooted into the center of the floor.
But, here comes the miracle. When my mother’s mother had been forced to move out of the big house she had been living in when we left California because of the freeway construction that was designed to run through her living room, and when she had moved into her much smaller house, she had sent to my mother all my great grandmother’s expensive leaded cut-glass crystal. My mother had just the day before unpacked every single piece. It had been her grand mother’s crystal, and very possibly belonged to grandmothers even further back in my mother’s history. She had set it all out, edge to edge, filling the top of the large redwood picnic table in the Jamesway living room. I heard my mother call to my father, “Bill! Bill! Come here! Look at this!”
One by one we all ended up gathered around that large table, staring. The heating stove in the corner of the room had been shaken loose from its chimney and stood inches from the far edge of the table. There was nowhere in the entire house we could look and not see that everything movable had been shaken loose and moved. Except, evidently, for this table. Every single piece of cut-glass stood perfectly in its place, still fractions of inches away from one another, but unmoved. Not one single piece had fallen to the floor!
Nobody said what I thought then, and still find myself thinking today. Someone or something had to have picked that solid, heavy table up and held it floating in the air for that entire long three minute earthquake. [Eventually, after my mother’s mother died, my mother in her grief pawned every piece of that glass. It made her too sad to keep it.]
And in this story of motion and of standing still, there is only one more thing I want to mention. After our time of staring at the perfect, protected crystal, I paused in our tiny bathroom doorway (with no running water or plumbing attached to its fixtures) and called softly to my mother as she headed by it down the hallway. It scared me to have to do so, but I called to her, “Mother, can you come here for a minute? I need to tell you something.”
She came into the little room; I told her I had gotten my period. [I only knew what had happened to me because of the little pamphlet they had given us in school that year]. I was extremely grateful that something so much more significant had happened that day that my mother had no time to pay attention to me. She bent down, opened the little door of our sink stand, reached in and pulled out a small zippered pouch with a ‘sanitary belt’ in it that she handed to me.
“Here,” she said as she was already turning to leave. “Use this. The pads are down there, too. Do you know how to use them?” This whole exchange took less than the three minutes the earth had just taken to shake.
“Yes, mother,” I said, never meeting her eyes. “I do.”
That was that. She never mentioned those few moments again, and neither did I.
Aftershocks shook the land for days after the big quake. About a week later I was outside building snow sculptures in the yard on the mountain. I made a horse big and solid enough I could sit on it. In those days denim wasn’t colorfast, and I found my pants had dyed my snow horse blue. As I sat on its back I heard the roar of a large aftershock coming. I heard the sound of it racing under the earth from down at the open end of the valley by the ocean toward the homestead. The roar grew louder and louder as the tremors approached. I was thrilled. I waited. Like riding a wave on a surfboard I felt the earth shake and quiver as the quake passed down the valley, bring my horse to life underneath me.
Such was the passing of my girlhood into womanhood.