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

Oma’s Apron

November 8th, 2012 by

On a bright sunny day at the Saturday market in Vancouver, Washington last year, I bought a tiny apron for my one-year-old granddaughter, Aurora. My mother was with me at the time and generously bought me an apron to match.  Mom came to visit here in Alaska recently and we got to talking about those aprons. Our conversation reminded me of my Oma, my mother’s mother, and the warmth of her German kitchen. Her apron was the kind that came up and over her shoulders, tying at her waist and buttoning around her neck. She wore one nearly all the time, taking it off only when she left their small apartment to walk to the outdoor market where she bought fresh produce and meat from the Metzger.  On arriving home, she donned her apron again. I remember wrapping my arms around her stocky frame, pressing my cheek against her apron-clad waist, and breathing in the scent of a sweet woman and soup simmering on the stove.  Her hugs were comfort food for the soul.

The first thing I learned to sew was an apron. It was a project in a 4-H Club that I joined around age 11.  My earlier membership in Campfire Girls did not pan out quite as I’d hoped. There was neither a camp nor a campfire. We did not take one hike or roast one marshmallow as the photos on the brochures had promised. Instead we earned beads to sew on our vests, played some games, and ate “ants on a log” – celery sticks stuffed with peanut butter and topped with raisins. More interested in the outdoors and a farm-girl wannabe, I decided to change my membership to 4-H hoping to learn how to raise livestock.  I didn’t realize that to learn these things you had to have your own horses and cows. (Who knew?) So my 4-H group instead turned out to be a homemaking club where we learned to sew, set a proper table, and cook.

Our 4-H leader was a taskmaster.  She set up a bank of sewing machines at our meetings and had us ripping out seams as quickly as we could sew them. They were to be straight, not crooked seams. Hand-hemmed stitching was to be uniform and pleasing to the eye.  Finally, after no small amount of anguish, I eventually produced a straight-seamed apron with a front pocket.  The fabric I chose was blue denim that now I realize may have been a subversive gesture – like choosing farm jeans for the kitchen.  This piece of clothing also marked the apex of my sewing career.

Aprons are in a sense, domestic coveralls – a practical protection of clothing from spatters and stains.  Yet they can be so much more than pragmatic.

The aprons of my Oma, my mother, my daughter-in-law and now my granddaughter are a thread that binds our five generations with a sense of heritage. Aprons wipe sweat from a weary brow and tears from a heavy heart. They gather the harvest of gardens and collect the laughter of children. They may be old fashioned, but aprons are a reminder of the ways we nourish each other in body and spirit through food and fellowship.

My granddaughter, Aurora, is not yet two years old. During my mother’s visit, we took a four-generation photo of aprons at work in my daughter-in-law, Ashlee’s, kitchen.  Ashlee too has fond memories as a little girl baking with her grandmother, who sewed her a special apron that she cherishes to this day. Her boys, ages five and seven, insisted on getting in on the action. Why not?  With or without aprons, some of my sweetest memories over the years were making and decorating cookies with my sons at our kitchen counter.

These colder days usher in the season for a warm hearth, hearty hot-dishes, and the scent of cinnamon wafting from our kitchens.  As I remember with thanks my Oma and mother’s aprons over the years, I’m grateful for grandchildren whose waist-high hugs are a treasured gift.  Some things don’t change all that much from one generation to the next.

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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.

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