Aaka’sAug 15th, 2005 | By crexford | Category: Student 2005
By Cathy Tagnak Rexford
The TV was always on at Aaka’s, from the moment she first awoke in the morning and her plastic-bottomed Isotoner slippers swished past my room, to the late evening when she again shuffled the unusually long hallway back to her bedroom to fall asleep on her side of the bed, despite the fact that she was the only one to occupy it. After 60 years of marriage, old habits are hard to break. My grandfather, my Aapa, built a beautiful, brown, two-story home, but as she aged, Aaka’s arthritis confined her to the first floor; so in his old age he bought her a new house where she moved about with ease.
After Aapa passed away, lawyers in big city Anchorage transferred the modern one-story to his wife, Mildred Sikatuaq Rexford. My 13-year-old cousin, Matthew Ekowana Rexford, as the oldest grandson, inherited the quirky two-story—an inheritance somewhat bothersome to all the older granddaughters.
We unlucky females, left with no inheritance, a question of self-worth, and wrinkle apparitions between our eyebrows from our scowls, would have to make it on our own in the arctic. However, my grandmother remained in her pre-fabricated, three-bedroom home on 105 First Street in Kaktovik, AK, for the rest of her days.
Her government-issued house was painted gold, which faded over the years to a muddy cream. Built on top of wood pilings, about 5 feet off the ground, as all houses are in Northern Alaska so as not to sink into the permafrosted tundra, this house spent most months draped in a skirt of snow.
White drifts butted up against the windows and hardened with the telling footprints of younger cousins escaping out of the house at night to meet boys until they got caught or moved away to college. As spring melted the snow and ice, Aaka liked to open her windows to extend the view of her world, which was confined to her house, her telephone, and her citizens-band radio.
The living room and dining room, the heart of Aaka’s house, were always filled with sound, always filled with people. Only in the small hours of the morning could you actually hear the bzzzz of the refrigerator mixed with the sound of the natural gas furnace. There was something soothing about waking each morning to “The Price is Right” on TV, interrupted by Aaka yelling prices of canned asparagus, dishwashers, and cars to the helpless contestants. To this day, I turn on the TV for background noise, unable to think or concentrate in silence.
There were four freezers in her house. All but one were stuffed with traditional foods: caribou, seal, whale, walrus, ducks, fish. I don’t think I ever saw the bottom of any freezer at Aaka’s. The small refrigerator-freezer that stood in her kitchen was filled with TV dinners, ice cream, seal oil, and berries. There was always something to eat. Guaranteed, you walk in that house at any time of day or night, and you find pilot bread, cookies, a plate of leftovers, and cold Lipton tea on the large, oval, Formica kitchen table that sat next to a double-paned, arctic-sealed window.
Aaka’s seat, stripped years ago of the orange “pleather” upholstery, was a prime location for watching the comings and goings of all the boats in the lagoon in the summer and the snowmobiles in the winter after the water froze over. She was the kind of woman who would notice a boat launching and immediately run to the telephone to find out who was going, where they were going, what they packed for food, and what time they would return.
She would mentally keep a log, and if they returned one minute late, she would be back on the phone calling all relatives concerned. I would sit close, assuring her that the departed would surely survive as she paced the length between the two windows in the living room to keep her eye on the clouds, the wind, and the large round clock. I hope that as I age, I can be an old lady like Aaka—who absolutely made it her business to be nosy.
Aaka’s house would never have made the Better Homes and Gardens magazine standard of a beautiful home, but to me, there was no other house quite as striking. Her furniture, bought in the ’70s and duct-taped together in the ’80s, had blankets or clothing draped over it in the ’90s, and officially qualified as “antique” after Y2K.
Her walls were covered with a summer-ale-brown wooden paneling. which peeked out beneath pictures, some framed and some curled from the dry air, plaques of appreciation, and at least five calendars, each with green bingo dabber ink that covered each day gone by.
After she died, lawyers in big city Anchorage transferred the legal guardianship of a half acre of land somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Alaska, to my father, Fenton Okomailak Rexford, an inheritance fully expected and accepted by his older sister. Everything within the house changed when it became his. Four decades worth of knick-knacks disappeared. The furniture wound up at the dump. The kitchen was remodeled, and the pictures were replaced with Jesus posters and cross-stitchings.
But if I think hard enough, I can still feel the floor creak underneath my socked feet, can still smell the sweet, hot bread rising in the kitchen, can feel the warmth of the exposed copper pipes running along the ceiling with boiling hot water. I can still see Aaka sitting, laughing and humming and working on her Fill-It-In crossword puzzles.
Cathy Tagnak Rexford is Inupiaq of Barrow and Kaktovi, AK. In 2001, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Native American Studies from Evergreen State College. She is currently a second-year student in the Creative Writing Program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Rexford is a playwright, essayist, indigenous activist, and an actor with Inupiat Theater, a company of Inupiaq storytellers and entertainers.
She thanks Gail Tremblay, Carol Minugh, Alan Parker, Jon Davis, Arthur Sze, Stanley Crawford, Robert Arellano, Deborah Earling, and Louise Erdrich for their wisdom, advice, and patience. Quyanqpak. She hopes to continue decolonizing the English language with authentic stories of northern Alaska and to practice unconventional ways of relating Inupiaq experiences into a collective consciousness.