Dad reads us fairy tales at bedtime, all tucked up snug in thick blankets upstairs with the wood stove stoked with a few last slow logs for the night. Sometimes there is a princess, and usually her name is Marya. I thought that Sasha is a girl too, but Dad explains that was a boy's name. We fall asleep dreaming of magic as the house cools with the snow falling quietly outside.
Dad brings home a portable computer. It is so tiny. His computer at work is larger than a refrigerator with so many blinking lights and tape reels. This is only a little bigger than my little suitcase, even though I can't lift it. The bottom folds off and turns into a keyboard. It plays music when you put the right disk in it. I am enchanted. Dad uses it to compose bogus memos that he posts by the elevators at work, and comes home with tales of the stir he's caused this time, well-pleased with his cleverness at making everyone laugh and (usually) not getting caught.
It's well past bedtime when the phone rings and keeps ringing. Dad thuds downstairs to answer it as we all start awake. His voice booms upstairs to come down and come outside. We pull coats over our nightgowns and stuff our bare feet into boots and rush outside to watch the lights in the sky circle and dance. My nose gets cold, but we watch until the ripples fade out into blackness and stars.
Another night, Dad is the one to see the Northern Lights and make the call.
They called it "Seward's Folly", "Seward's Icebox", and only changed their tune after they found gold and then oil. We go over this every Seward's Day at school. He got a great deal when they bought us from Russia. Teacher tells us that they paid more in dollars for our school than they did for Alaska, even though money is worth less now and Alaska was really worth more. But it was still a good deal.
They're sending up rockets again, to get a better view of the Northern Lights. Dad's work stories are less office gossip and more rocket range. Dad stays late again. Mama puts leftovers away. When I wake up, I hear Dad downstairs making coffee. He's gone again before I come down for breakfast.
First it was the Berlin Wall come down, and my stolid 5th grade teacher traced over the line on the roll-down map with tears streaming down her face. Then pieces of Russia tore themselves away, and my 6th grade teacher sighed and talked about new maps. Even fragmented, you could still fit Alaska inside Russia whole and entire.
My sister plays violin with the group every Wednesday before lunch at the museum. I bring a book. Sometimes I steal away into the depths of the museum and look around at the displays. There's usually an aurora display, with the movie playing. I recognize the names in the credits from the stories Dad brings home from work. Mostly, I read as music fills the high echoing hall with its vaulted windows on the sky.
There are some new names coming home from work. Some of the old names have retired or moved. Some people will always be there, old friends and old thorns in Dad's side. Dad sends electronic mail back and forth with other scientists in the frozen North. The fast-talking fellow from Boston has gone to Svalbard for some weeks. The office stories are less entertaining in his absence.
Russia, Dad says. Mama gets upset. We kids go to bed early. Downstairs, he says once-in-a-lifetime scientific and cultural opportunity. Mama says instability, imprisonment, death. We say nothing, as quietly as we can.
Dad packs his warm clothes, plenty of batteries, and even buys cigarettes. We kids are disgusted, but he explains about customs guards and checkpoints and inspections and bribes in the same practical way he explains how charged particles excite atoms in the upper atmosphere to create the Aurora. We subside, still privately thinking that he could have bought more batteries instead of cigarettes.
Mama worries until she gets the telegram from Sweden. Then she worries about what else could happen. We don't understand it. We crawl into the big bed on Dad's side, and she doesn't send us off to our own beds until late. Usually Dad comes upstairs to kick us out sooner.
Dad comes home in a clatter of baggage and stories. Next time, he says, he will bring tea, because when traveling abroad you have to make sure the water is boiled so it will be safe to drink. When he asked for boiled water, they made tea for him, and tea is expensive and people there are so poor. He has perfume for Mama and books for us.
It was always the third youngest brother who succeeded at the quest, got the girl, found the treasure. He was usually named Ivan or Sasha. Baba Yaga, the witch in the hut with the chicken feet, was by turns kindly and malevolent, but never safe. Her gifts had a sting in the tail. Usually Ivan (or Sasha) could avoid it, but sometimes clever Marya had to rescue him from his foolishness.
Dad packs up the old portable and takes it back to the office. Then he brings home a new computer. This one can talk. I christen her Majel (after Majel Barrett, of course, the voice of the only talking computer I know) and we play with her voice-recognition software for hours.
Dad comes home from work chagrined, in receipt of an irate email from his host on the Russian trip. He has sent a care package, with the old Compaq portable and sundry other little comforts from the corrupt capitalist empire. He thought it would be funny to add "To Russia, With Love" in the addressing. Russian customs officers don't have a sense of humor. They also know about James Bond. Dad's host was questioned closely, and while unharmed, was shaken and upset.
This year, it's our turn, and Dad's colleague, his wife, and their two boys come in time for summer. They stay in the cabin that Dad built shortly after he and Mama married, before he built the big house. Dad and the doctor spend time at the University, while Mama plays hostess. I am shy and the boys are wary. We do tourist things together. They go home, finally, and I have peace to read again.
I swear up and down to Mama that as soon as I am old enough to move away, I will not spend another winter in this godforsaken cold land. Maybe I'll move to Florida. Mama goes quiet and looks old and hurt. I pretend not to care. I just want out.
My fiancé and I plan a road trip, just the two of us and our roommate (his best friend) for this, our last summer for a while in Alaska, before we go away to college. We drive down to Valdez, then through the mountains to Anchorage, then back up through the Park to Fairbanks, a grand triangle encompassing only a small part of the state. Each leg takes a day, and that's by blowing the speed limit out of the water on the long straightaways. I have forgotten my camera, but my brain soaks in the expanses of deserted land. We will come back after college, and settle down somewhere outside of town, close enough to work but not too close.
Three years stretches. I have neither a degree nor a husband, but I'm reasonably happy in Arizona on my own. It's not all that different, once you get over the culture shock -- you stay inside where the climate is under control, during the bad months. I still encounter cultural stumbling blocks, references that only another Alaskan will get, or someone who's lived so long in the cold it's crept into your very bones. I don't call home enough.
I have only a few words of Russian left from my elementary school classes. The company I volunteer for has been bought out by a Russian company, and the 'in Soviet Russia' jokes fly thick. I learn a few more words here and there in self-defense, but not much changes except upper management, too far above me for me to get to know them.
Someday I will come back to Alaska, I think. Someone will have to take care of the property once my parents are too old. My sister can't; she's in the Seattle music scene too deep to come home. It will fall to me, the eldest. We could sell it, but the thought is unbearable. It's home.
Someday, perhaps, I will visit the Diomede Islands, and gaze across the Bering Strait at Russian soil.