I am not myself east of the Mississippi. This is odd, since I spent 19 of my first 22 years in the Midwest surrounded by flat farmlands and suburban strip malls. This displacement is probably not unusual for those of us who voluntarily leave our families and move West, especially to Alaska. We transplants come for many reasons; work, love, and freedom are popular, but no less important is the mystique of the West.
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I was indoctrinated to the West through books like Julie of the Wolves. Later, family stories of immigrants and my parents' brief Vietnam-era stint in Fairbanks became equally vivid to me, and before long I was making my way through the layers of Alaskan life, claiming my own place in the world.
Last month we spent one week in the small Midwestern town that is the epicenter of my extended family. I often view this as the "family obligation," as opposed to the family vacation, since the things we do in northern Michigan seem so ordinary. My four-year old daughter is a born Westerner; mountains and salt water for her are like grasshoppers and grassy lawns to my own youth. Much to my surprise, though, she was enamored of things that seemed so common to me: climbing an apple tree, picking plump tomatoes, swimming in ice-free lakes and playing mini-golf.
One impetus for this trip south was my 20-year high school class reunion. Unfortunately, we missed this by just a few days, but I did see pictures courtesy of an old friend. While the pictures were interesting (and often unidentifiable), they almost made me more, not less, curious about those I knew as a teenager. Was I the only one who felt the pull of the West? The only one who finds comfort in flying over vast spaces void of buildings? The only one who is more at home with the families of close friends so common here than the one I was born into? I still don't know. What I do know is not one single person in those pictures is wearing fleece. Not one. That may be because it is hot in Michigan in July. Personally, I am more comfortable at an event where fleece is the expected fashion accessory, not sparkly purses.
Now back in Juneau, we have done some things that my daughter takes for granted, like sitting in a real submersible that our friend counts fish from. We watched the meteor shower from the glacier, and attended an authentic luau at a neighbor's house, complete with a dance performance. It makes me wonder: Will the thrills of Alaska that I experience be lost on her, a born and raised Alaskan? When I first came West (and North), I was exhilarated, and in some ways reborn, by the mystery of this place. Will my daughter be equally taken by the exotic nature of hosting dinners in the garage on folding tables? By fading red barns?
I imagine I will be as surprised by my own daughter's passions as my great-grandparents were to see their children cross an ocean to find their places.
Marie Ryan McMillan is a Juneau parent and teacher.
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