Kaylene Johnson: Writer and Photojournalist

Our Perfect Wild

An unlikely couple—a wild boy and a good girl—Ray and Barbara Bane, both teachers, set off from the sooty landscape of West Virginia into the snowy panoramas of Alaska. There they make another unlikely commitment: to learn the Old Ways of the land they come to adopt—and defend. With her characteristic poise and bravery, distinguished Alaskan journalist Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan chronicles the Banes’ story of environmental gumption in the wilderness.

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--Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Paradise, Piece By Piece.

A Tender Distance
Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska

Graduation and the Keeping of A Tender Distance

May 30th, 2013 by

It’s been a several years since the release of A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska. I was recently sitting around a table with three other women whom I’d just met, and they asked me what the book was about. I explained that I wrote the book when my two sons were nearing their high school graduations and were about to depart for college. While the word “adventure” is in the subtitle of the book, the most challenging journey was about our leave-taking from each other.  As I reflected on my sons’ departures, I wrote about how they had expanded my heart immeasurably and how, over the years, the wilderness of Alaska had shaped us all.Erik grad1

One of the women at the table related the story of how she had made a grand plan for the weekend she took her son to college. She’d driven to Fairbanks, reserved a nice room, and looked forward to having a special dinner where she could convey her gratitude for this child of hers, and maybe even impart a word or two of wisdom. When she and her son arrived on campus, he jumped out of the car, grabbed his bags and said “See ya later, Mom.” Then he disappeared into the dorm where his friends awaited.

She laughs now about this experience. “I had an agenda!” she said. “But it wasn’t his agenda.”

Another woman, whose child just finished his kindergarten year, talked about how hard it was to leave her son that first day of school. “They had coffee and Kleenex for the kindergarten parents that day,” she said.

“That’s the beginning,” I thought to myself. “It’s the beginning of all the leave-taking yet to come.”

And the third woman, with eyes glistening, said, “You know what the kids remember in the end? They remember their Dads. I can tell you, as a kid I remember my friend’s fathers but very few of their mothers. The moms were in the background, making meals, driving carpools, checking homework. The Dads were the ones who took them to ball games and camping trips and dinners out. The fun stuff.”

Connected by the bond of motherhood, four professionals who had barely met poured our hearts onto the conference room table. What connected us most was the deep ache of letting our children go. Being eventually relegated to a place in the background of our children’s lives is, of course, as it should be. But still, there is the longing to be significant in the lives of the people we have arguable loved the most in this world. We want to matter in their lives, whatever their age.

At the very least, we hope that we’ve instilled values that will bear lifelong fruit. We hope that our children will grow up to be respectful, healthy and compassionate human beings.

I’m often struck, when a young man commits a crime, how the media first wants to learn about his family. Where did this young man come from? How did his family contribute to the development of a criminal? Was there some incident in his formative years that changed the trajectory of his life? Whether these questions are fair or not, the family is still, in our culture, the primary domain of the mother. So the underlying message of these hard questions is quite blunt: “How did Mom screw up?”

There’s far too much press about sad and aberrant men; the violent and the deranged – those who open fire on children, detonate home-made bombs in crowds, and kidnap young girls to hold as hostages. Yet for every young man who has taken a tragic turn in his life, there are thousands more who are making strong, life-affirming choices. We don’t hear much about them because they are busy leading their lives with energy and optimism. And behind them are families (including mothers) who are lending their love and support.

I would like to start a conversation about how mothers do this well. When we send our sons and daughters into the world at graduation, we as mothers are marking a milestone too. It is a time to take stock and reflect. What did we do well these past 18 years? What could we have done better? How do we continue to support our children’s journey toward a soulful and responsible adulthood?

Whether we talk about this around the conference room or at our kitchen tables, we need an honest dialog not only to support our children, but to support each other in this amazing journey of parenthood.

Please join me in the dialog on my new blog: A Tender Distance: Letters from Mothers to Our Sons at www.kaylene.us/blog

And to the woman who had hoped for that going-away dinner with her son, please tell us – what would you have told him in that conversation?

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  • About Kaylene

    Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is a long-time Alaskan who makes her home in Palmer. She has found adventure on Denali, the Chugach Mountains, and as a wrangler and cook in the Brooks Range. Her award-winning articles have appeared in Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Louisville Review and other publications. Her books include Our Perfect Wild: Ray and Barbara Bane's Journeys and the Fate of the Far North; Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith; A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska; Trails Across Time: History of An Alaska Mountain Corridor; and Portrait of the Alaska Railroad.

    She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.