Helen, my youngest child, sits at the kitchen table on a Sunday evening, college applications spread out, fan-like, in front of her. She turns to look at me, doubt clouding over. “What if they don’t accept me?” She has worked on her personal essay for days now, reshaping, rephrasing, trying to convey in a mere 650 words to an admission board the worth of her life.
I want to smile and hug her. Of course they will, I want to tell her. You have excelled in your classes and scored highly on the SAT test. You will tell them your story and win them over in an interview. You are young and strong. The world is beckoning to you.
Soon it will be her turn to leave. She is ready to go, to the Lower 48 States, not because she doesn’t love Alaska, but because of practicalities. Fairbanks has yielded to her everything it could. She has tapped into every academic resource that living in a small town on the edge of wilderness could offer. Her competitive soccer playing has dwindled, as players “age out” and teams to play against grow scarcer, far away, in Wasilla or in Palmer or in Anchorage. She is brimming for more, she explains. Proximity to the urban bustle of some larger city. The cultural enrichment of museums and musical performances. The social amenities of shopping malls and clubs and restaurants. A college or university that will offer her fresh courses, diverse topics, a new challenge. The opportunity to live on her own, resourceful and independent.
I share her excitement, smiling at her exuberance, encouraging her to go. At the same time, I swallow. When has time started to gallop so?
“I should tell them about Alaska, don’t you think?” she asks aloud, even though the essay she has written follows a different prompt.
I nod. It is the place that shaped you.
A Last Frontier, but she and the other kids, growing up, didn’t really know what that meant. It is something visitors to the Far North said, something that is etched onto the license plates of cars. For them, Alaska meant waiting at snowy school bus stops and sledding down steep driveways. It meant looking out for the northern lights on dark winter nights, whenever they remembered to do so. In the summer months it meant campers parked on gravel bars, and fishing for salmon in swift rivers, and going to the Tanana Valley Fair. It meant combing the hillsides for blueberries in the fall and walking with dogs through the boreal forest. The usual. A typical childhood for them.
This time next year, in the fall, she will be honing her own path, wherever she finds herself. In time, perhaps, after the exuberance of cities and universities become commonplace and their novelty tapers, she will remember again the land she left behind, bountiful in landscape and wildlife and adventure, the place she had given little thought to while she was growing up in it. One day she might, even, return north.