Last Friday Aaron’s cousin’s father-in-law Butch hosted us for dinner. Butch has a nearly-finished cabin on the Kenai River. He’s a retired cop, and like a lot of the people I’ve met up here, he is so immediately at ease and direct with strangers that at first, I have the vague notion I’m in trouble. But it comes to me eventually—he can be straight with people because he’s happy to have them visit. I set Clara down and hug some cousins I haven’t seen in awhile, and there’s a fishing pole in one hand and a beer in another.
You don’t move to Alaska unless you’re looking for something, and usually that something is enough space to build a life that doesn’t look like everyone else’s. When Clara was little, we bought here a string of toys from Walmart that could be affixed to her car seat. Soon, I noticed that every child under the age of six months was playing with the same singing frog and spinning rattle in their car seats. Maybe it’s not a big deal, maybe it’s always been that way, but I am concerned that babies, children, teenagers, and adults everywhere are playing with all the same toys, living in the same floor plans, and eating the same oranges from central California. I’m pretty sure that when I lived in Florida, I bought oranges from California.
Up here, there is one street where the houses look alike but for the most part, everyone seems to dabble in amateur architecture and use their PFD every couple years to build a new shed or add a room to the top of their house. Also, the eighteen hours of sunlight conspire with the afternoon showers to force innocent people into gardening. So, I eat lettuce and rhubarb and zucchinis grown out of the same ground my daughter tramples on when we visit friends. I know the terms “environmentalism” and “local economy” are so ubiquitous, they’re cliché, but I swear the lettuce my friend served from her yard last night actually looked a little bit like her. I thought, yeah, that’s Shaya’s lettuce. I don’t know, when I sit in the chair Jimi made or put the jam Mandy canned on my toast, I understand transubstantiation. It’s like a piece of us goes into the things we make.
It has taken us a long time to figure out what to do with the space we came here to claim, but even if we can’t till the ground we rent, we can gather friends and let them shape our lives into something unique enough that we know they’re ours alone. I find the more friendships I have, the less homogenized my life feels. But sometimes I don’t want to feel different. Sometimes I want to recognize myself in someone else. That’s what family is for.
Quite a few of Aaron’s family pictures look like this:
Three family members—maybe a trio of brothers or cousins or a couple brothers and a grandpa—standing in front of nature or a fireplace with their hands in their pockets or by their sides and a slight smile that seems just a little amused with the whole ordeal of posing for pictures.
When I saw Aaron’s cousins after all these years, I immediately saw Aaron in them. After the visit Aaron used the word “kin” for the first time in years, so I know he felt what I observed. A likeness. An understanding that lives on blood and baseball games as a kid. We sat around Butch’s table, eating the first meal I’ve ever eaten prepared exclusively by a man who wasn’t getting paid to do so, and they were being so witty and funny together. It wasn’t like they were telling one joke at a time but instead, they seemed to tell one funny story all together.
After the picture above, Butch yells from the fishing platform, “Hey, act like you like each other!”
So we got this one, too:
Meanwhile, Brandy, who is Jeremy’s wife, and I sat on the swing and watched the river:
Whether friends, family, or strangers, I get to feeling all warm inside when I see my girl happy in the company of others. Clara did her baby talk thing, and Andy was a good listener.
It was a good day. Fish have a way of bringing people together. When you’re not ready to ask “So, married, eh? Gonna have kids?,” you can say, “Can I net that one for you?” instead.
Jeremy, Butch, and Brandy had the brilliant idea of erecting a tent for us into which we could zip up our kids. Nena and Clara played “paper confetti” for at least a half hour before sweet Nena asked from inside, “Mom, Can I come out now?” Yes, Nena, we are done exploiting your seven-year-old innocence; your babysitting obligations have been met.
Earlier that day, Clara cultivated her own friendship with her dear friend Anna.
They exchanged fashion advice. “I’m not sure the purple hat goes with your yellow jacket, Clara. Here, let me help,” offers Anna.
They also took long walks on the beach together. I can hear Clara confiding in Anna about how I just don’t understand that she’s growing up and it’s so frustrating when parents don’t understand guttural utterances.
Here’s one more, just ‘cause I love that smile.