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Tuesday, September 10, 2013


The other day in a used bookstore I came across Sheila Nickersons' Disappearance: A Map: A Meditation on Death & Loss in the High Latitudes, a book about people who have disappeared never to be seen again in Alaska. Having two members of my extended family who fall into this category (sort of) I bought the book. And have been basically disappointed.

Perhaps I shouldn't have read the blurb stating that Nickerson is a poet. Perhaps then I wouldn't have been so disappointed at how poorly her attempt to use the collage technique, which she apparently gleaned from Lady Sarashina's As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (eleventh-century Japan), worked with Nickerson's own feeble personal snippets. There is quite a bit of history here, worth reading the book if you just want to know about the losses of human life to natural elements in the history since western people have attempted to colonize Alaska (Nickerson is quite unworried about the losses of the native peoples, unless they concurred with the loss of westerners), but if you are looking for good writing and/or meaningful meditations, look elsewhere.

Maybe it is the lack of insight this book gave me on my family's own losses, from different sides of the family and a decade and half apart, that makes me bitter about this book. Maybe in that case I cannot be a good judge of this book. You be the judge:

My father's stepfather, the favored one in a string of stepfathers, disappeared in a boating accident in Alaska when my father was 14 years old. I don't know much about it because my father doesn't talk much about his childhood at all. I know Dewey worked on the Alaskan pipeline and that's why my father, his sisters, and his mother all moved up there with him. I know my dad and his mother both loved Dewey more than any of the other men that came and went. Somehow as a child I had the impression that Dewey drowned while building the pipeline, on the job, but later I was told this wasn't true. Dewey apparently died while fishing with friends. I also have the impression that my father witnessed Dewey's drowning, but I'm not sure that is true. I'm not even sure if Dewey's body was recovered, which would make it less of a disappearance than a death. As I said, we don't talk about it. Someone told me that Dewey and his friends had been drinking and that had something to do with the failure of a rescue, and since my father doesn't "believe" in alcohol, this may be why the story has never been explained to me in any kind of satisfactory detail. In our family, if we don't talk about something, it doesn't happen, didn't happen. It too disappears.

The other disappearance was my mother's brother, her only sibling, at age twenty-two, in what was at the time the worst mountain-climbing accident in US history. An inexperienced climber, with Mt. McKinley being his first big climb, my uncle is apparently cited, in at least one of the book-length exposés published in the aftermath, as one of the weaknesses contributing to the loss of seven of twelve members of the expedition, lost in what has been called the worst storm on record. I don't know much about this either, as we don't talk about it, and the books on the expedition, which sat on my grandparent's bookshelves all my life, always were off-limits to me, or so I perceived them to be. I'm not sure how much of the taboo comes from me myself: after I'd already left home one of my younger sisters apparently did a school project on the expedition, something that would have been unthinkable to me. Actually, I still haven't read either book, despite the fact that as an adult now I could go out and purchase copies without consulting or disturbing any member of my family. That's how deeply I feel the taboo, which began with the lack of talking about my uncle Stephen, except in whispers.

I do remember being told that my grandparents had cancelled a scholarship established at my uncle's alma mater in his name when the school's drama department staged a play based on the book that portrayed both my uncle and the leader of expedition in a poor light. I remember being asked to leave the room when the expedition leader unexpectedly dropped by my grandparents' home when I happened also to be visiting; he had been blamed in the media for inviting my inexperienced uncle on the trip and thereby endangering everyone, and he likewise blamed himself for that and more. At that time, my grandparents uncharacteristically spoke to me a little about the events; they said Joe came by periodically to apologize to them again; they also observed that his life had been ruined by the burden, the loss of seven climbers.

Perhaps the taboo on the subject of my uncle and the accident was further perpetuated by my lack of asking questions despite the silence. I am complicit in his disappearance in our family. I have written about it once. Only once. (Directly, only once. Indirectly, also once, changing him into a different relative in case my mother read my poem. But my mother never reads my poems.) But I dream about my uncle Stephen, though I was only two years old when he disappeared and don't remember him. He worked night shifts at the post office sorting mail during college, and for awhile lived with my newlywed parents. One of his chores was to feed me my nighttime bottle when he got home from the post office. He gave me a blue toy jeep as a present, and my sister Jennifer a green jeep. My mother kept those jeeps when I was a child but I don't know where they are now.

This is what I dream: I am at the bottom of a snow-covered mountain, and there is someone running down the mountain towards me, and it is him. My uncle has come back, and he is calling for me. In reality, his body has never been recovered. My grandparents used to take trips to Alaska regularly. They said it was a beautiful place. They said they felt close to their son there. I've never been. One of my younger sisters went to visit a college friend who was from there. My sister went to the Denali National Park offices, where she found that a memorial had been constructed, listing my uncle's name on it as one lost to the mountain. The park service never contacted our family to let us know they had done this. If my sister hadn't gone there, we still wouldn't know.

We still don't know.


Mari said...

"In our family, if we don't talk about something, it doesn't happen, didn't happen. It too disappears."

Maybe it's time to "un-disappear" these family figures through language. As adults, we can write about whatever we want. I'm all for taboo-busting! Keep me posted, and hope you enjoyed your summer travels.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Mari,

I had a really wonderful summer; hope you did too.

As for taboo-busting, one of my sisters read this post and let me know that a great-aunt had just lent her a new(er) book on the expedition which is apparently a fairer more balanced account of the mistakes made by both the climbers and the park service, along with the truly unfortunate storm that coincided with the climb. So, I'm going to get a copy of that book and start there....

Mari said...

Sounds good, Jessica. Some exploring and imagining ahead. As you know my work, you're likely also aware that I believe the disappeared and the silenced must be given life and a voice via art. It's our task.