Ma, I finally get it

Posted: Thursday, September 20, 2007

We never called her "Mom." For all three of us boys, it was always "Ma", and she wouldn't have had it any other way. It is a mystery where in the family the title originated, or when, but it seems to have been a part of my vernacular since the characteristic Celtic loquaciousness kicked in. The title's throwback qualities always puts me in mind of pioneer stock, home-baked bread, and maybe a feuding mountain woman with an old rifle stock nestled against her scrawny shoulder, trading chunks of hot lead with the McCoys, Hatfields, or whomever happened to be the opposing clan that year. A generally quiet woman, she'd paper the wall with anyone who'd dare mess with her boys. Her gentleness notwithstanding, she was capable of outlandish outbursts of bravery that at least once sent her more sedate relatives into panic-induced paroxysms. She was also coolheaded when the situation demanded it, a quality that at least once saved our collective hides. But that's another story.

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Ma and Dad moved around a lot after I left home at 18. Arizona, Ireland, England, then finally small town Pennsylvania. The Reeves' had Gypsy feet, but even the Romany blood that had seeped into our Celtic forbears had to cool down eventually.

Utterly devoted to family, Ma was against my moving to Alaska.

"It's so far away," she murmured - a sentiment she'd repeat over the years. Perhaps she thought I'd tire of the country, the isolation or the capricious weather. The financial balancing act my wife and I lived often had her worrying. And then there was her thing with the bears. She hadn't seen any roaming the streets while here, but the mounted ones in the Haines Bald Eagle Foundation building were enough to kick her imagination into overdrive. She didn't want her son to have to be identified by clothing scraps. And, of course, she always hoped I'd "come home" to Pennsylvania. When I never did, she came to see Alaska for herself. At the end of a two-weeks stay in Haines, she admitted with a longing I still recall, "I know why you live here." From then on, it was a done deal.

The stark and unending wilderness that had claimed her boy earned her respect, if not her love, and I suspect that ever after she viewed Alaska, with a cat's-eye chagrin, as a competitor for my affections.

In all, I was able to see her on only three separate occasions over a 17-year period. Three vacations totaling about six weeks. My wife and I were always broke, you see, and it takes a lot of cash to go round trip to anywhere from Alaska. And always, when I left Ma for our northern hinterland, there was the kiss, the extended hug, and the same haunting look in her eyes that spoke the same painful question: When will I see my son again?

Until recently, I could not fully empathize with her sadness. Now, with one daughter gone into the world and another leaving for Outside next year, I finally understand. I find myself murmuring, "But it's so far." And I resent that uncivilized southern land that calls my last daughter away from me, vying for her affections. When she's gone, who will fill our home with songs of a bygone era? Whom will I engage in rapid-fire conversation about old movies, the fabulous Forties, and classic literature? Who will watch my back while we fish the Chilkoot River, ready to call out a warning of approaching bears?

From a hospital bed, the last words Ma ever spoke to me, while she was still able to speak, were, "Don't ever forget me, Kev." I wept, and her words echo across the years.

I say the same now to my daughters, to all of Alaska's young blood siphoned off into places that don't deserve them. Don't ever forget us - your parents, your people, your land. Wander where you have to, make your mark, then come on home.

Someday, like us, you'll be on the receiving end, and you'll be the ones keeping that sourdough pot bubbling for the next generation.

• Kevin Reeves is a freelance writer living in Haines.

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