It was 1958 and twenty below outside. On Monday, Mom’s day off from her job at the library, 11AM was too early for television. I think it started around 2PM. TV was recent. We had three channels and, with wobbly rabbit ears on the roof, there was a lot of static. Secret Storm danced around so much on the screen, the title was ironic. That left us with reading, writing letters (mom), sewing (me), painting (dad) and story telling.
“Did I ever tell you about the time we were picking berries in Rampart?” Mom put down her book, an Ellery Queen mystery. “I must have been about five years old.” Dad peered at her over the top of the Anchorage Daily Times. He was reading his letter to the editor in which he criticized the red tape and error in Alaska’s politics.
“We were picking berries in Rampart,” Mom said again, looking at me. “And your grandmother started to whistle.” Mom pursed her lips and pierced the air with a low, eerie whistle. It sent shivers down my back. Our foxy, orange Pomeranian, napping against Dad’s leg, leaped to the tiled floor and skittered on its high polish. He glared at Mom.
I was at the table, folding the tissue of a Vogue pattern. Four yards of teal blue taffeta ordered from Sears drifted promisingly around our black Singer Featherweight.
“So what happened?” I said. I was fifteen and focused on the Junior Prom, the tissue waiting to be pinned on the slippery fabric that was to be my dress, and my tall, handsome date who played first trumpet in the high school band.
“The wind came, it blew the chaff from the berries.” Mom smiled. “And cleaned them.”
“The wind came?” I looked up. “Grandma whistled for the wind and it came?” From anyone else I wouldn’t believe this. “You sure the air wasn’t moving?”
“No.” Mom shook her head. “It was dead still. We kids thought it was a game to entertain us. We didn’t have any toys.” *
If Mom was five, this had to be 1915. She was Athabascan, Russian and Irish. She looked Japanese. She had spent her first eight years living along the Yukon River where her parents hunted, fished and chopped wood to sell to passing steamboats. She had a lot of stories of her childhood – about the Nicolina, (Alaska’s Bigfoot) and haunted roadhouses and mortuaries. Some were funny, some eerie. But in our house, the haunted and inexplicable were reasonable possibilities.
Dad looked up. “Interesting, huh, kid?” His blue eyes crinkled and his baldhead gleamed in the light streaming through the windows. My father was Dutch, German and French, by way of the Dakotas. With a hat on, he looked like Bing Crosby. Oh Pete, if you only had hair, Mom’s cousin, Hazel would tease.
We were steady readers. Mom always came home from the library loaded with books and magazines. She had a college degree, but preferred novels and mysteries. John D. MacDonald was a favorite. Dad read TIME and LIFE cover to cover and had a growing collection of books on flying saucers, reincarnation, Atlantis, Lemuria and the Land of Mu. He was less interested in the hereafter than who we might have been. “I bet you were an artist in a past life, Pete,” fellow believers would say, flattering him into giving them a painting. He always did.
Dad’s speculations that Mom, an avid letter writer, was once an author, or that my lethargic efforts with the clarinet, stemmed from a former life as a musician, made us laugh.
These light-hearted imaginings lifted our long, dark winter days — days filled with frozen piles of sooty snow and the constant shoveling of paths and driveways. And the unavoidable cabin fever that occasionally involved encounters with fractious relatives.
* This story is excerpted from “Cold River Spirits” (2000) by Jan Harper Haines.