by Arle 10/4/18
A year ago, on October 4, my mother – known as Anniel to readers of StubbornThings – passed away after a brief stay in the hospital at the age of 78. Her death was one of those things that happens gradually until it happens suddenly. For the five years prior to her final departure, her health had gradually declined and then, within a few days, she was gone before her children could reach her, except for one son who lived nearby in Alaska. Her husband, Bear, ever faithful as a care-giver, was left bereft.
My mother was born to a poor family on the tail end of the Great Depression. Her father, Henry, a polyglot child of Finnish immigrants, spoke English, Finnish, and Swedish as native languages, and learned Spanish and French from his time as a hobo riding the rails throughout the American West in search of work. Ever observant, he acquired the skills of a brakeman and went to work for the Union Pacific in that capacity. My mother has written much about him. His own family life can only be described as severely dysfunctional – and may even have involved a relative selling her own children – and he had his faults, but he did better by his children than had been done to him. He died young, when my mother was in her early thirties.
Her mother, Ruth, was descended from Swedes who came to the U.S. just after the turn of the century in search of religious freedom. Ruth’s mother passed away in the Great Influenza epidemic, leaving four small daughters behind. Although Ruth was at times maddeningly passive, this belied true grit. Once, while the family was spending the summer at a camp in Montana, two bears came and and tried to steal the bacon she was cooking. Everyone else ran away, but Ruth was not about to give up her precious meat: She took her cooking spoon and went after the bears, driving them away in a flurry of whacks.
My mother inherited both the stubborn and quiet resolve of her mother and her father’s deeply felt sense of honor and determination, called sisu in Finnish. At the same time, she was deeply humane and compassionate. More than once, when I was a child, we would go somewhere as a family and split up for a bit, only to come back and find my mother in deep conversation with someone. Inevitably, when she was asked who the person was who so obviously knew my mother well, the response was “I don’t know. I’ve never met this person before.” And then she would tell us how this person had unburdened themselves to her, searching for advice, absolution, or just a sense that someone out there cared. She heard of lost loves, wayward children, dashed hopes, dreams scarcely uttered to the people themselves, and countless other burdens that she helped others to shoulder for a time.
Here I speak not of the trivial confessional vein of modern culture. She was no Counselor Deanna Troi and she harbored no base sentimentality. Rather, she possessed that rare talent of entering into deep human connection with others, something her loyal readers at StubbornThings will clearly not be surprised to hear. The sense you had of her was her true self, not a face she put on.
Those who only knew her in her later years, beat down by years of illness and a body that seemed to fail her at every opportunity, would never have guessed at the daring and vibrant woman she was at heart. She had skied, danced, and sang. She learned Russian, she took art courses, and she enjoyed life. In the early 1970s she did something only hippies or crazy people did at the time: She got on a bike and rode the 220 miles from Anchorage, Alaska to the town of Homer.
Before she met Bear, she left a string of broken hearts behind her. In the midst of a then-undiagnosed illness, she was engaged to four separate men at the same time. After she had her thyroid removed, she realized that this posed certain logistical problems and gently broke it to her suitors that she needed time to recover. It was shortly after this, while she was working as a paralegal for the Alaska Railroad, that a young technician repeatedly came by to fix her phone. As he put it many years later, Bear was looking to fix something, but it wasn’t her phone.
As my mother’s health declined, her physical world contracted into ever-smaller circles and she was forced to retreat from physical sociality. She reached out through the miracle of the Internet. Although she often described herself as a Luddite – it was not until the late 1980s that my father finally convinced her that a microwave might be worth having – her writing and online communities were her lifeline and connection to the world she could no longer visit. Her iPad became her world.
There were times I disagreed with my mother, even passionately. But it speaks worlds of her that her children all are deeply engaged with the world around them and see their beliefs as stemming from her. She loved to debate things with us, even when she thought we were wrong or even foolish. And every once in a while, she might even concede that we had a point.
In StubbornThings, Annie found a community of people who understood her and whom she felt connected to. She loved that she could bring big ideas to the table and have them heard and debated. The readers and contributors became a second family to her. If I had a nickel for everything I heard about Brad or Kung Fu Zu, I suspect I could make a dent in paying off the national debt – albeit a microscopic one compared to the enormity of Washington’s finances. She did not always agree with them (or anyone else) but she relished the debate and the sense of belonging she found here. Her engagement with her readers made all the difference for her. Even in the days immediately before her death, she was still planning months’ and years’ worth of articles she wanted to write. I found sketches of these on her iPad, although sadly they were too fragmentary to turn over to you, her beloved audience.
In the end, it was her heart that gave out. Her doctors found that three of her four coronary arteries were blocked, which meant she had been living for years on her peripheral venous system. I often think of all she did in her last years with a quarter of a heart, and hope I come close to living up to that with a whole heart. I think her readers would agree with that assessment and marvel at the gentle humaneness they benefitted from to such an extent.
Of course life goes on. Those who mourned with Bear may be happy to know that he recently remarried with a woman he had dated in high school and then not seen until his 60th high school reunion. His now-wife and my mother had become close friends, writing to one another regularly in the year before Anniel died. I like to think that my mother, wherever she may be, approves of my father’s choice and new-found happiness.
As the anniversary of her death has been approaching, I found myself thinking more and more of her. There is so much I wish I could tell her and share with her. So much that, were she still here, I am certain she would work into her life of words she shared with you all. I think her greatest gift to us all was her collection of writing and her inspiration to be a little better and do a little better in the world as a course of determined living. • (119 views)