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

Leaving Room for Holiday Surprises

December 1st, 2013 by

Snow is falling outside my window. Gentle flakes stack lightly on each other, so that by noon I’m guessing the dogs will be romping in knee-deep powder.  Thepic26 scent of baking wafts from the kitchen and I cannot help but remember holidays from the past, days when my children were small and the season’s magic sparkled in their eyes.

 Their anticipation always made the days a little sweeter. The traditions we shared – lefse-making, cut-out cookies, the hunt for the family Christmas tree – all made the season a time to remember.  One year, when the hectic pace of the holidays seemed a bit much, I announced that we would forgo our usual cut-out cookies. My son’s face fell, his shoulders slouched and his chin sunk to his chest. “Well,” Mark said, utterly dejected. “There goes Christmas.”

Needless to say, we did make cut-out cookies that year and many years thereafter. Along with the traditions are the accumulated family stories, and “There goes Christmas” has become one of them.

My mother has been a tradition keeper in our family. She cherishes the joys of the Advent season and brings many beautiful German customs to our celebrations.  One custom was to turn out all the lights and sing “Silent Night” in English and then in German while real candles burn on a live Christmas tree. My father stood by with a fire extinguisher at the ready –  always happy to have that part of the evening over with.

As I grew up, my father didn’t often involve himself in the bustle of the season; he left the preparations and gift buying to Mom.  On the occasions that Dad did insert himself into the picture, however, we were in for some surprises.

White snowy chapel on the hillI was five years old, standing with my younger sister in the narthex of a little country church in Belfield, North Dakota. The church had an old-fashioned steeple that rose like a spire above the windswept prairie.  In the steeple hung a solitary bell that tolled, peal after peal into the night sky. The Christmas Eve service had just ended and my sister and I shivered in cold excitement as we waited for my parents to get their coats. We could hardly wait to get home to open our gifts.

Dad had a twinkle in his eye as he placed his large, heavy hand on each of our shoulders.

“We better get home,” he said. “Your Christmas present is loose and running around the house.”

Startled, my five-year-old literal mind imagined a wrapped package that had somehow sprouted legs and was creepily walking around our living room. A questioning glance at my mother garnered only a smile and a sigh. (I knew then, that this had been Dad’s idea.)

When we got home, Dad encouraged us to look around. As we tiptoed around the house, my heart hammered in my chest. It was like looking for the monster you know is lurking in the closet.  It was not in the kitchen.  It was not in the living room. I cautiously lifted the bedspread in my parent’s bedroom and came nose-to-cold-wet-nose with a frightened flop-eared puppy. I’m not sure who yelped louder, me or the dog. I sat down with a thud, my hand over my open mouth. A real live puppy?  It was a little girl’s dream come true. When I peeked again, there he was – a living breathing creature who was as completely confused at this Christmas surprise as I had been.

My sons are grown now and enjoying their own holiday traditions, some of which they’ve adopted from their childhoods. My grandchildren’s eyes sparkle with anticipation and I am struck by the rhythm of the days and the passing of the years. One thing never changes and that is the wish for peace and joy in the lives of those we love.

This year, I’ll spend Christmas with my parents and we’ll enjoy adding some new memories while telling stories from Christmases past.  This year and in Christmas puppythe years ahead, my hope is that along with old traditions, all of us will leave room for a few surprises.


1 Comment

One response to “Leaving Room for Holiday Surprises”

  1. Reckless says:

    Love it! A dog is the best gift you could ever receive!

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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.