With sprinkles of water from gray skies cooling my cheeks, I followed in Auntie Rita’s footsteps along the shore of what she called, “A secret spot.”
Kyra and Ethan’s giggles echoed in the wind whipping across the ocean. At the moment, they had no interest in what Auntie Rita and I were doing. Ethan sunk his fingers into the sand and massaged it into his hair. Kyra tunneled her Zhu Zhu Pet Hamster. And if they weren’t both marinated enough in the earth, Kyra shoveled it into their laps. They simply couldn’t believe that they could play on a beach in Alaska.
I couldn’t believe that Auntie Rita wanted to spend Mother’s Day with us. Some people call her Grandmother Rita of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. Others call her Dr. Blumenstein, Alaska’s first certified “tribal doctor.”
Over a decade of being part of her life, I am still in awe that this internationally renowned and revered woman, who has three kids, ten grandchildren and ten great grandchildren, loves me like one of her own.
Tightening her bright blue hood around her wizened face, she broke out into a mischievous smile and beckoned me close. She stretched out both hands, leaned down towards a round low shrub, and closed her eyes. Her lips moved and I wish I could have heard what she said to that plant.
She pulled out a plastic bag from her backpack and said to me, “Take just a little from each.”
Then, she snapped off several stems and whispered to the plant, “Thank you.” She brushed the leaflets against my nose. I inhaled a cilantro-like fragrance. “Petrushki!” she announced and hurried off to the next shrub with the speed of a child collecting candy that scattered from a piñata.
As we harvested, Auntie Rita taught me about some of the other plants growing in the area. She pointed out the ones to avoid. She kept saying to me, “I just love you so much,” filling the emptiness that my mother’s death had left within.
We snacked on crisp petrushki and paused frequently to inhale the wind laced with the breath of the plants and sea animals and ocean.
When my kids tired of their hard labor on the beach, they each drifted towards me on their own time. I repeated what Auntie Rita taught me. To respect the plants. Talk to them. Say thank you.
Ethan gently stroked the shrubs and asked, “What’s that?” He patted his belly and asked, “For me?”
I placed a petrushki leaflet on his tongue and he crinkled his nose and spit it out. “Mommee, this is for Daddee. I pick for Daddee.”
“Okay,” I laughed. He was right. Thomas loves cilantro, so I knew he would like petrushki sprinkled on his pasta and stews.
Kyra approached each shrub with all her masculine energy, which Auntie Rita had sensed when Kyra was still in my belly. “This one is a boy,” Auntie Rita had said. “I am never wrong.” So the first time Auntie Rita met Kyra, she had bounced the lively four-month-old in her lap, shook her head, and laughed. She said something in Yupik and explained that she gave Kyra her mother’s name. It means something strong like penetrating rock.
Auntie Rita watched in the distance as I instructed Kyra not to grab fistfuls of petrushki but just a stem at a time.
“Like this Mommee?” she asked, waving three stems bristling with leaflets in my face. Her cheeks flushed pink from the past hour on the beach.
“That’s better. Now, what do you do?” I asked.
She shut her eyes and said, “Mommee, I have to go pee.”
“Can you hold it, please?” I whispered, glancing nervously at Auntie Rita who had her back turned to us.
“No,” Kyra howled and started to twist her legs together.
Hoping we weren’t contaminating any food source, I rushed off deep into the woods with my naughty daughter. About a half an hour later after we resolved her business, we slipped quietly back to our harvesting spot. Kyra grabbed the plastic bag out of my hands and stuffed some leaflets roughly in. Then, she punctuated each stem-bending-pat on each shrub with “Thank You.”
Auntie Rita thanked me many times too. She said that she couldn’t have thought of a better Mother’s Day gift.
I told her the feeling was mutual. Ever since I became pregnant with Kyra, I wanted to raise my kids with a traditional lifestyle and diet, which research proves has tremendous nutritional, spiritual, and physical benefits.
However, subsistence is not easy if you aren’t born into these traditions. Hunting and fishing has been expensive and risky. Even the simple act of harvesting plants can be potentially dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing.
Glancing to my left where Auntie Rita bent low over the ground and to the right where my kids rolled in the sand, the weight on my shoulders lightened as the task I set for myself about a month ago in Dandelion Killer came into fruition.
It was not easy to arrange this day or find the right words to share this special moment with Auntie Rita but I hope this post resonates with KTDontheGo: Alaska’s Very Own Secret Garden, Daddy Dynamic: The Classroom in the Backyard, and tomorrow’s show The Hunting and Fishing Family.