The aroma of lupine lingered in the air at my mother’s deathbed. It was the day of my last conversation with Patricia Anne (Cox) Stolpe.
Her illness, a combination of ailments brought on by age, had finally left her bed-ridden and for my mother, that was akin to chaining a gorilla to a zoo cage or the state Legislature to its respective Capitol floors.
She had asked me to open the window.
She wanted to smell the lupine.
My mother knew all the Alaska wildflowers and plants and edibles. She left the trees to my father, who could build with them great things or chip a piece off for placement in his pocket and the scent would allow him another day to not bathe.
My mother, however, loved the smells of mornings in the backyard, afternoons out the road and evenings along a logging road.
When the family outing was a drive past the “Man Made Hole” and to the “End of the Road,” we had our noses pressed to the truck window and they smeared our grimy little slobberings as we bumped up and down on then-unpaved Mitkof Island highways as my mother called out “Indian paintbrush,” “shooting star,” “fireweed,” “goldenrod.”
My mother's garden, per se, was a compilation of whatever had taken root on our homesteaded corner at Hungry Point, overlooking Frederick Sound, under midday shadows cast by Petersburg Mountain and night-time moon phases across the waters on the Canadian mainland nailed down by Devils Thumb.
We had many floras I still cannot name.
But she would rattle off their names and slang terms and later, on an outing, our young fat fingers would try to claw more of them from the earth because we now knew how important they were.
What many perceived was an inhospitable wasteland of vegetable fallout tangling along our home was in fact where she could be at peace and in love with life.
A hard life meant she could not tend this heavenly arrangement as diligently as she would have liked.
Nothing was fancy.
Placing a marigold buttercup under my chin to see if there was a yellow reflection and thus I loved butter, in keeping with the old playground game.
Sliding open the kitchen window and shouting for us to hand her up a stalk of wild rhubarb, of course with a bite or two missing from us hungry harvesters, was the highlight for me and my neighborhood gang of bicycle-riding friends.
In the hills and haddocks of my mother’s yard around my father’s house my pals and I were U.S. Army, cowboys, superheroes and champions of all sports.
So here I was cracking a window just an inch.
Just enough to allow the breeze to tiredly crawl in, slither across the floor aided by sturdy wild scents that avoided colliding with pudding-like sustenance on trays, baby sippy cups, a bed pan, crossword puzzle books and a large Seattle Mariners foam finger.
“Ahhhhh, third base,” she said as scents, only an experienced matriarch could feel, sifted in from the world outside.
And she weakly laughed.
The aroma of third base was our joke.
It was only fitting that my mother passed in baseball season.
I think for young lads and lasses the youth of spring and summer is tied up along the base paths of the Little League circuit and in the eyes of those who tie our tiny cleats as we head out the door.
And my mother, somehow, found the time to be the town scorekeeper for our league, and lesson giver for her offspring players.
Third base was where I, at age 10, was struck in the back by the unleashing of a fielded ball in center by the cannon-arm of Dougy Homer, the impact of which sent me careening in an unwarranted slide of indignity, resulting in painful wailing.
The reality, of course, was that Dougy’s throws usually bounced once before reaching the infield and this one probably was on a downward spiral after such a bounce when it clipped me and being a balanced athlete of 10 I was tripped up and stumbling forward with my face as the cushion.
The embarrassment was the pain.
And my dear scorekeeper mother made it a point to stop the game, come down to the field, pick a bit of something growing from the woodland marsh along third base line and hand it to me.
“Ahhhhhhh, third base,” my mother said again, longingly looking out the window, eyes misting as if there were a wildflower out there that she had forgotten.
I would not play Little League at age 9 because in Little Norway you automatically went to a team if an older sibling was on the roster.
My brother, Jim, was a Tiger and 12 years old. We were the yin and yang of bunk bed mates and wanted no part of each other and thanked the stars when the older sibs moved on and bedrooms opened up.
My neighborhood gang all played for the Braves, so that was what I wanted.
I learned you don't always get what you want as my mother would bring me to every game anyway and I would have to watch my friends play while my brother wore the red and white of the Tigers.
So at 10 I was given the uniform of my brother and, in another lesson, the same number.
I acted in defiance, of course, for all of one game. Standing on the mound, delivering pitches and pretending I was all that, I pointed after strikes and kicked dirt after balls spun past me and my infield, many gliding far enough in the air until they nestled in muskeg and thus were determined home runs (as we had no fence). I cursed once...
I discovered it was better to have the scorekeeper hand you flowers than stop the game, stand and admonish you in front of your peers and call you “skunk cabbage.”
So on my mother’s deathbed she and I talked of wildflowers and the scents of each.
I was supposed to travel to California to photograph my daughter’s wedding.
I was torn.
“No, you go,” she said. “I am okay.”
She promised she would wait for me to return. She said to bring my daughter a Lupine bouquet for her wedding.
My mother had visited with all her children except my sister, who would arrive the day I was flying out.
The doctor said it would be a week before there would be no need to crack the window again and my mother agreed.
Lupine swirled about us as my moist lips touched her dry ones.
I flew out of Petersburg that evening and sitting in the Seattle terminal waiting for my connection to California I thought about her life.
To those who knew my mother, they saw her constant efflorescence.
At Queen Anne High School, above the Seattle waterfront, she was “Prettiest Smile” in the yearbook.
Classmate Hank Ketchum, who went on to cartoon design fame for his script of his four-year-old son Dennis (the Menace), graced the yearbook with a likeness of “Patty” connecting on a softball swing and the ball heading into orbit.
It was the Great Depression.
My mother gave up a college dream to attend to siblings and married a Navy man because love at that time often meant security for someone other than yourself.
I don’t think my mother knew she would be “Prettiest Mother with Five Children Left on an Island in Alaska by a Drunk Husband” in the yearbook.
That category never has enough print space in yearbooks.
Nor does “Most Likely to Have a Mother Who Commits Suicide at a Young Age.”
Yet these things happened to my mother and still she kept on, as she never knew anything other than working to better those around her.
In 1953, with my five soon-to-be half-siblings my mother was brought to Petersburg.
It was there while working the town telephone switchboard that she met her true love and future husband, my father Harold.
Her talent was talking and his listening. They had my brother Jim and then me. We still have the switchboard.
My mother became a waitress at The Pastime Café, a cook at the Beachcomber Inn, a bookkeeper for Hammer & Wikan and Lee’s Clothing, a budget and finance clerk for the U.S. Forest Service and work crew dispatcher.
She is most remembered by the town folk, however, for her time as a radio dispatcher for Petersburg Air Taxi, Afton’s Flying Service and Viking Airways.
My mother’s voice over the air waves could soothe cloud-based pilots, calm grounded ones and chide those bent on risk-taking.
On our landline phone she would tell wives that their husbands’ boats were just “rounding the point” or “he is weathered in such-and-such Bay, I have him on the radio and all is well.”
She stood on our front porch and waved towels at the large (by past standards) Canadian steamship Princess Patricia. This practice included other vessels as well and became a town tradition.
When the captain of the Princess Patricia was on his retirement voyage he made an impromptu docking at Petersburg Fisheries and came out to our house to deliver a set of the ship's china to my mother.
My mother was a member of Women of the Moose, Pioneers of Alaska and the Episcopal Church.
At one point our living room hosted cancan dancers, the Alaska governor, two Inupiaq opponents we were housing for my sixth grade basketball game, a passerby (or two) and my father shaking his head to the quite common occurrence of my mother hosting a full house.
There is more, a lot more.
Like any son I appreciated too late all the things in her life and my father’s that were given to me.
I told my mother that on her death bed and we talked of wildflowers.
One day later, driving down I-5 from Escondido toward San Diego, wearing my suit and tie, preparing to photograph my daughter’s wedding, my cousin called.
“Grandma Pat passed this morning,” he said.
I pulled my rental car to the side of the freeway.
I tried to imagine the rows of lupine along the dirt road at about mile 25 of Mitkof Highway.
My teary face pressed against the window, the colors of the wildflowers flowing past and the scent of lupine creeping in.