Happy Birthday to my Mom!
my family when I’m about 8 years old. In back: dad, mom; in front from left: Melanie, Paula, me
One of the brightest memories I have of my mother she is singing in church. I am looking up watching her and she towers above me. Her voice chimes over the sound of the congregation. It is her face I remember most clearly, and its feeling. She is singing old gospel taken by joy filled calm.
My mother was raised in Bristol Bay, remote Alaska on the Western coast at the source of the largest wild salmon run in the world. The area rests on the ring of fire, a volcanic circle in the North Pacific that created a climb of islands, including the Aleutian chain and Alaskan Peninsula.
Bristol Bay is historically Russian Orthodox. As my mother tells it, when the regional priest arrived to town once a season, everyone would quickly get married, buried, and baptised. In summers, I’d attend service with Umma, my great grandmother, while my great grandfather, Grandpappy, assisted the priest.
Orthodox prayers were promises from the bible chanted to sound like singing. At prayer, the cabin sized building would be filled with a lifting, resonant song that at times felt like it could lift the church to flying.
Between the priest’s visits, prayers were kept by Grandpappy who had earned his way to becoming the church Reader. He assisted the priest during service reciting prayers from the back in call and response, and tended the church in the priest’s absence. The role was a deep source of honor for my family. In his 90s, when Grandpappy died he was buried in his gold Reader’s robe.
At home, each room of my great grandparents house held an Orthodox holy picture. They would rise and pray towards the picture, bowing up and down while saying their prayers in Aleut. Prayers would happen again at regular intervals throughout the day, before meals, at tea breaks, before bed.
My mother explained, you’re born Orthodox, you don’t become it as one would in Protestant tradition find Jesus. So there is never a moment of conversion. You are simply born Orthodox, and always will be. In marrying my father, my mom then also became Presbyterian, her Orthodox prayers uniting with gospel song.
In adulthood, I would come to think of that lack of conversion as definitive of my mother’s general character. Without conversion there is no pivotal epiphany or moment of change. There is only devotion. My mother carries in anything she does steady resolve without distraction.
At ten she began commercial salmon fishing with Grandpappy. “I was his only son,” she often jokes to explain how she, a girl, started so young. She was raised by her grandparents, and when he needed a fishing partner, my mother was the one that could help so she did. The launch of her salmon career would become a family tradition, each of us starting in our tenth summer (mine at the age of nine).
The steady resolve that carries my mother forward under-girds her persistence in work as well. Commercial salmon fishing, much like winegrowing, arrives when it is time and comes as fast and hard as that season demands. My mother raised us to understand when the fish came in we were there to catch them. Setting aside any questions of if it could be done would allow simple work to take doubts’ place.
One tide my mother, my brother-in-law, and I alone caught more than 20,000 pounds in two hours in a non-automated open skiff. I can’t explain how it was done but we hauled, picked, and delivered that entire catch ourselves, then returned mere hours later to do it again.
My mother returns in mere weeks to begin her sixtieth season commercial fishing. Today she turns seventy.
More than any other person in my life, my mother taught me it is never a question of if we can do what is in front of us, it is simply a matter of steady resolve occasionally filled by song.
from left: Melanie, my mom, Paula, and I, August 2013 on my parents’ 50th anniversary
Happy Birthday, dear mom. I couldn’t be prouder, or more grateful to be your daughter. Along with Rachel’s, your love, with dad’s matters most.
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