Turning Home 6: Walking Around Outside my Great Grandparents House

People say the ground in Alaska swallows what’s on it. Traveling around the state it’s hard to find any genuinely old buildings, or visible archaeological sites. Moving to Boston after graduating from high school was a thought revolution for me–facing all the historical locations mixed right in with everyday life.

My great grandparents’ house is no longer lived in, and their property no longer used. The alder and willow, and wild grass has grown up around their buildings, and the driveway from one direction is barely visible. The last time I was in Naknek it was still possible to stay in their house. Growing up, I slept in the back room with my great grandmother. Several years after both my great grandparents had died, and after I’d already stopped fishing, I visited in the middle of summer and slept in the back room where I had growing up. It’s the only place I’ve ever rested so deeply.

I walked around their property for a long time tonight with clear images and moments from childhood flashing through me–I lived there in the summers with my great grandmother till I was ten, and spent much of my time there after. At my youngest, their house was one of the furthest out of town and it was a common occurrence for bears to wander across the property at night. It wouldn’t have been much of a concern except for my great grandfather’s love for his dogs that lived outside. There is a clear image in mind for me of the figure of my wiry, small Grandpappy walking outside at dusk with a shotgun in one hand as he went outside to yell off the bear, and talk to his dogs. I was so scared standing at the little window of his bedroom praying for him to make it inside.

In the middle of the property, Grandpappy had built a Quonset hut for his garage. He spent much of his time outside working on projects there. During the salmon season he’d cut fish into strips and hang them from the rafters, tied together on one end by twine to hook them over for hanging. The fish strips would dry there in the ceiling. Then, some would be brined and slow-smoked for several weeks in the small building at the back of the property. There my great grandfather burned fresh cuttings of wood to flavor the fish until the meat was hard and rich with salmon smoke. There is one type of tree in the area he didn’t like for flavor, and another he did. I wish I could remember which was which.The rest of the dried fish would be left as was to be eaten in winter after having either been boiled, or soaked in seal oil for softening.

To the side of the house my great grandmother hung clothes for drying after washing them in an open top, old-style slosh bucket inside. She did all her house work by hand, having grown at a time long before electricity ever reached the area. She was still scared of things like the vacuum cleaner by the time I was growing up, favoring lifting dirt from the carpet bent over like she was low bush berry picking. Her time was spent almost entirely inside, house work and cooking taking most of the day because of her hand done approach. Each day she kept the same schedule for meals and tea time–5:30 a.m. breakfast, 9 a.m. tea; Noon lunch, 2:30 p.m. tea; 5:30 dinner, 9 p.m. tea. The schedule helped her partition her work, but it also meant anyone knew when it was okay to visit without interrupting her work.

My deepest felt memories reach back to my great grandparents property. My daughter Rachel walked around outside there with me, and gratefully knew to quietly wait till I was ready to tell her about it, rather than ask me. The idea that their property is now silent gives a challenging first view. Finally, I decided I’d look for close-up photos around the property that caught spaces close to how they had been when they were still being used. The images give a feeling of the texture, and shape of the place.

part of the rain water gutter along the side of the quonset hut garage

a bird house on top the quonset hut garage

one of the benches inside the steambath–we would wash in a fashion much like a Russian banya; not just a sauna to sweat, but also for washing

hooks in the dressing room for the steambath

the handle and lock set-up for the entrance to the steambath

the same stove that heated the house was for cooking too

at almost 90-years of age my great grandfather repainted the entire house. he said he wanted a bright blue so it would be easy to see

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I loved your reminiscing, it was beautiful. I can imagine the shock you saw when you went to Boston, we lived in the Boston area for 41 years so I can
    understand your feelings, it is different from the pioneer area. Your stories have been so good and Cheryl and I have enjoyed them so much.

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