The women in my family never cared for cooking. My mother, feeding a family of seven, preferred the simmer and stew of one-pot meals where she measured ingredients in pinches and handfuls. Adhering to the basic recommended food groups, simplicity was key and evolved from a sense of necessity, keeping the troops’ bellies full, rather than a desire to artfully create a four-course meal.
Years later then, it was only natural my mother take to fresh red salmon caught and harvested in one fell swoop, in a most enthusiastic way.
On her last visit to Alaska, we sat dreamy eyed around a campfire on the Copper River, watching our fish wheel make languid sweeps in the sludge-brown current. The wheel’s baskets, waiting to be filled by hefty salmon charging upstream to their spawning grounds, gently scraped the river bottom. Squawking gulls circled overhead, waiting for fish to be caught and harvested. We sat on birch stumps roasting marshmallows and talked late into the light-filled night.
Then a loud thumping sound brought us to our feet. The first red salmon slid into the wheelbox, followed by another, and then a deeper sound, a king salmon followed in quick succession. We jumped up and rushed down the silty bank to retrieve our bounty.
“Lazy man’s way to fish,” my mother said, shaking her head in both disgust and delight. Such heady abundance, and all without lifting a finger.
But the harvesting was work, and my mother eagerly pitched in. With the sun on our backs, she helped clean and fillet the fish on a makeshift table at the river’s edge. A slanted board from the tabletop sent guts sliding down into the river where they were instantly fetched by a flock of gulls, the birds wheeling around our heads. Fresh from fish wheel to campfire, we fried chunks of meat with onions in an oversized iron skillet for a late night dinner. Tired and sated, my mother never tasted fish so good.
In my youth, our weekly allotment of fish was served every Friday night, as dictated by our Catholic faith, the one meatless meal per week. My mother fetched battered fish from the freezer, and served it with yellow potatoes and canned peas. Every Sunday we attended Mass, she being a dedicated church-goer in step with my father’s side of the family; but I’d always sensed she’d felt caged and yearned for a deeper connection to a more earthly spiritual god; something deemed holy yet outside of rules and ritual. Maybe I was projecting my nature-led spirituality onto her, or maybe she had, all along, been feeding me with her otherworldly thoughts and desires.
She spoke of returning for next year’s fishing season, that is, if she were still around. I knew this meant if she were still alive, although she was not in poor health at age seventy-six. Yet she‘d always had a sixth sense about matters of the heart. I remember one day when I was ten, we were sitting on the front porch admiring my newborn baby sister, the last of five siblings, when my mother, with a faraway look in her eyes said, I wish someday one of my kids would move to Alaska; so I could go there too. Then she sighed, got up from her chair and began collecting 4-o’clock seeds in her cupped apron. She shook each plant with resolve akin to a clearly focused attention that paralleled how she took care of her family…with unwavering commitment and dedication.
My mother died the following spring. My four siblings and I split up all of her belongings, one by one. We sat on the living room floor of her apartment and as each object was passed around, a story was told or a memory reflected. After the last piece of furniture was hauled away, we scanned the empty rooms and readied to leave. As I shut the door behind me, my sister turned and clutched my arm.
“Wait, where’s mother?” she said.
“She’s in my purse,” I said innocently. Laughter burst forth like popping balloons. In my purse, my mother was ashes in a box, she was in my purse, and we were laughing. It felt natural and so perfect.
Back home, I picked wildflowers and scouted a sacred spot on the river for her, protected from human activity. Her beliefs in life were not solely attached to religion, but inclusive of a wider worldview, to that perhaps of indigenous people whereas the world assumes a fixed quantity of energy that flows between all creatures. Every birth engenders a death, and every death brings forth another birth and in this way, the energy of the world remains complete. Nothing is wasted. She once told me she did not expect to meet loved ones in a “heaven” but would simply fold back into the earth, naturally.
We scattered her ashes in June near my home, when the Eagle River ran slow and shallow. The rivers source, a glacier fourteen miles from where we stood, emblazoned its reflection on the water’s glassy surface. It is a place where salmon spawn and die, where horsetail and loosestrife thrive as summer weeds. I recited a poem by Jim Harrison (author of “Legends of the Fall” and a native of our homestate, Michigan):
I’ve decided to make up my mind about nothing,
to assume the water mask,
to finish my life disguised as a creek, an eddy,
joining at night the full sweet flow,
to absorb the sky, to swallow the heat and cold,
the moon and stars,
to swallow myself in a ceaseless flow.
Near the end of last year’s season, the water of the Copper reached its highest level in recent memory. During break-up, the river spread its icy fingers inland and took out the cut bank that housed the fish wheel. The wheel catapulted downriver, wrenched away in the churning silt, along with the old birch stumps circling the fire pit, and the weathered fish table where we filleted salmon into the long bright nights of summer.
This year’s wheel, bigger and sturdier than last, stands erect on a new site, hopefully free from unexpected flooding. Like a giant clock the wheel clicks forward with a steady rhythm, waiting to be filled and emptied. As I run cold water over a freshly harvested red, kneading the meat with my thumbs, I think of my mother. “Catching fish the lazy man’s way,” she’d said.
I know she would have cooked it simply.
Monica Devine is the author of four children’s books, among them Iditarod: The Greatest Win Ever, a former nominee for the celebrated Golden Kite Award. Her adult nonfiction piece,
On The Edge of Ice, won First Place in Creative Nonfiction with the New Letters literary journal. She currently writes memoir and fiction from her home in Eagle River, Alaska, and pens a weekly blog: monicadevine.blogspot.com.