Among their other shortcomings as parents, Mildred and my father shared an astounding inability to manage their personal finances in anything resembling a reasonable way. Although Dad always kept steady civil service employment, there was never any household budget, or savings, or debt avoidance, or tax planning. Mildred always blamed her husband for over-borrowing and running the family into debt, yet exhibited classic passive-aggressive behavior by refusing to participate in planning or decision-making, placing my father in the impossible position of having to make important financial choices without her input, all the while knowing she would forever throw them back in his face.
The first phase of the Homestead subdivision occurred around 1980, resulting in about 40 acres being sold off in 5-acre parcels. The decision to let a single square foot of land be sold must have been a terrible blow to Mildred’s still-cherished dream that the LAND would somehow survive to be the magnet that would draw our family close at last, and she resisted furiously what she characterized as my father’s wish to deprive us of our collective birthright by subdividing any more of the Homestead property.
Within a few years, though, rising property taxes coupled with the financial strain of maintaining two households, paying rent on storage lockers scattered around the country, and servicing the debt that had steadily grown as Dad pledged the land as collateral for a growing collection of credit union loans made selling some more land a necessity. The second subdivision phase was completed in 1984-85 but by then Alaska was entering what would become a severe post-Pipeline recession that caused values for all types of real estate to plunge. The remaining lots sold slowly, and for much less than comparable ones had realized just a few short years earlier.
By the time my father suffered a brain tumor and stroke in late 1990—a malady which permanently and dramatically affected his memory and personality—my parents’ collective financial situation was precarious. As part of the 1985 subdivision, Dad had created two large parcels of the remaining Homestead land (roughly 60 acres each) which were divided into “his and hers” parcels as part of the property settlement surrounding their 1986 divorce. There was a first and second mortgage on each parcel, the proceeds of which had been used to finance road construction costs that spiraled upward between the 1980 and 1985 subdivision phases.
My father’s illness left him blissfully unaware of the mess, and Mildred increasingly anxious and financially strained, since her sole source of income was alimony from my father, whose income had dropped dramatically once his 12-plus months of accrued sick pay ran out. I inherited the unenviable task of managing my father’s business affairs, which put me square in the role I had managed to escape when I left Mildred in 1984—the role of managing not just Dad’s deteriorating finances, but by extension my mother’s as well.
I solicited advice—and ultimately permission—from all three of my sisters to make the only viable decision that could be made. (My two brothers were left out of the decision for reasons that don’t concern us here.) With extremely heavy hearts, the four of us came to the realization that there was no way to “hang on to the Homestead” any longer, and the two large parcels were sold at fire-sale prices for just enough to pay off the outstanding mortgages.
As my father’s court-appointed conservator (rather like an executor, but for someone still living although mentally incapacitated) I signed the transfer documents in 1994. After all the formal arrangement had been made, I sat across the desk at a local title company, signing the dozens of papers needed to pay off loans, transfer deeds, and so on. I was very businesslike about it, and intellectually I knew it was the only possible choice we could make.
When I left the closing appointment and sat down in my car to leave, a wave of overwhelming sadness hit me with a ferocity I can’t describe. From out of nowhere, every muscle in my body began to tremble and a torrent of sobs broke loose that felt like they came from the depths of my soul. I leaned my head on the steering wheel and wept like my heart was breaking. I was 29 years old, and I knew that everything my parents had worked for, every sacrifice they had chosen to make—and compelled their children to make—had been completely and utterly for nothing! The Homestead had been the Holy Grail of our familial consciousness since before I was born, and it was gone.
June 4, 2009
2 thoughts on “**SELLING THE HOMESTEAD”
I know I saw the Valley when I was two, but do not remember it. I wish to see it as an adult sometime, even though it will not look like it did when it was such an important part of my family’s history.
You would have been a very young boy in 1970 when I received a letter from mother that told me they were going to sell the homestead. It evidently took many years before they actually began that process. I remember laying on my bunk bed in my Navy barracks shortly after my transfer to Newport, RI and reading her words. I felt fundamentally betrayed. All of our lives we had been PROMISED that nobody would ever sell the homestead. I have never cried so hard in my life. I know what you mean. It brings very near to those tears just reading your post. (And I want to thank you for doing that hard job for Dad, and for us.)
I of course have no way of knowing what others have felt when forced to part with the land they love — under any circumstances. I don’t know if it was just a part of our difficult family’s psyche that made that place, that piece of land into something more than it would have been had we not been such a traumatized family.
I have always considered the opportunity to be so in love with this place on earth — in love with the land and every single thing that grew and moved on it and over it, the sounds of it, the smell of it — as being a most precious gift. I suspect, also, that because I could not form a stable attachment to my parents that the land itself became my parent.
I don’t know if you ever considered the top left peak of the mountains across the valley from us as looking during all seasons like an angel. She WAS my angel as a child. I never thought about God, but I did talk to that angel. The more sorrowful, troubled, lost, hurting and sad I was, the more I talked to her. I watched her wings and her flowing skirt, even her face and her halo change with snow melt and snow fall. I LOVED her as much as I loved the land my body seemed to be a part of as I connected my heart to them both.
My experience during what I refer to as my vision was a real, physical participation in and with this kind of love. (*MY ‘VISON’: ALONE NAKED IN THE WOODS SINGING). This precious love was MINE. It could not be tampered with, infected by or stolen from me by my mother. This love, and the ME-Linda that loved that land was one my mother never knew anything about, and was one that grew in spite of her best efforts to destroy ME as a self.
The place itself, that spot on earth within its pristine context, held our family ‘in the palm of its hand’. It nourished us with beauty. It fed us life. It gave us protection against the destructive powers within mother’s mind. It even had the power to touch HER in some undamaged place within her.
I lost the land when I left it behind as I grew up and inevitably had to go away, though I still held to the promise that each of us would receive title to five acres. During my entire childhood from the time I was old enough to read the book, ‘Heidi’, I knew it was a mirror of my own soul. I knew I was as sad as she when I left that mountain every time we moved away from it. All I could think about when I was away was about going back again. I knew that I, like Heidi, would sicken unto death itself if I could not return to that mountain. It was the only life support system I had.
Researchers say that our ability to attach is innately hardwired into us before we are born. I believe that my attachment to that place exercised my innate attachment system enough that I could stay alive, and build from that strong attachment some kinds of attachments to others and to this world after I grew up. While my attachment to that land could not replace the love of parents, it was enough.
In the end we were destined to lose that place no matter what our family might have been able to accomplish to keep it. Civilization found it, ate it up and destroyed it. Civilization came like an encroaching cancer and chased away much of the life and life force that used to thrive there. Yes, we were ourselves a part of that cancer but it did not stop with us.
There is a piece in one of mother’s letters where she describes an almost time warp experience of first coming into that valley when it was still pure, and at the same time being suddenly transported into the future as time changed at a certain spot on the jeep road. She SAW what was going to happen there, and what it was going to be like after the ‘others’ came and changed it.
It would have broken my heart, anyway, to have been there and watched those changes happen. It would have broken my heart to be powerless to stop them.