Pictured Left to Right Dave S. Koster, Emily Plotnik, Arliss Banta, and Kathleen Comerate, sometime in the spring of 1979, Forest Lake, MN.
To say that I’m growing weary of posting goodbyes this year would be an understatement. This time, I’m afraid I haven’t got a witty story, I’m just really sad. Today, we lost my grandmother, Arliss. It was one of those inevitable things the family has been dreading for a couple of years of deteriorating health. Her time finally came this morning.
As with many non-Alaskan native transplants, my extended family is far away. Hell, much of my immediate family is far away and some of them are even in the same state. You simply can’t get to where my youngest brother lives without taking a plane or possibly extended dog-sled trip. It means that routine visits to grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts that so many others around the country take for granted, and even dread over the holidays, aren’t always possible. When the trips to visit family do happen, each one ends up being a memorable event and a time of celebration – good times, good conversation and connections that are far more infrequent and generally more appreciated by folks like us. Without question, my fondest, most cherished, childhood memories are those of visiting my grandparents in Minnesota. I loved waking up there, the smell of the coffee pot on in that old farm house is what I think of when I’ve woken up on a particularly fine day. That smell meant spending the morning visiting with my grandparents at the kitchen table before heading off on some adventure which sometimes just involved mowing the lawn and goofing off with the uncles.
The sheer distance an Alaskan immigrant is from family is never so apparent as when a family member grows ill or passes. You can’t get there in time to say goodbye. In my case, I wasn’t able to visit as often as I really should have. Getting a family of five halfway across the continent is generally more expensive than an family of 5 can afford. I did get the chance to visit the summer before last and I’m glad I did. I should have visited more. Perhaps once a year even, but the distance and expense is real and while it’s not true in this case, it can be, believe it or not, dangerous.
Three years ago, my mother in law passed. I was on a business trip in Fairbanks, a 45 minute flight from Anchorage, which is about an hour from home. I got the call in the middle of a presentation for which I explicitly told my wife not to call me in the middle of unless her mom was dying. Well, she was. Fortunately, I had (and still have) excellent co-workers and they had me on the next flight to Anchorage. Unfortunately, the weather turned, as it sometimes does, so I made it to Anchorage, but was advised against the 3-hour drive to Seward due to dangerous road conditions. We opted to be safe and stayed until morning. The call came at just after 6am. We didn’t make it. I am still kicking myself for not just putting on my Alaskan hat and getting our ass down the road. I mean, come on, I drive to work in worse conditions right? Well, maybe not in this case, it was the remnants of a typhoon crashing up against the Chugach range. Instead, we found ourselves there in time for the funeral.
I only relate this story because my mom had intended to get down there this weekend in the hopes of a last visit. She didn’t make it. She got the call today, her birthday, 4000 miles and 3 time zones away. Now, she’ll be making it for the funeral. Watching my wife lose her mother and being just short of getting there in time brings into focus just how difficult this is and how hard it can be when you live in a place so completely disconnected from your roots and family.
Anyhow. The point of all of this is that I’m going to miss my grandmother and I hate the fact that my family and I weren’t a bit closer. Alaska is great, but there are sacrifices.