By Leah Barr
Chukchi News and Information Service
BUCKLAND — I figured it would be an emotional trip; after all, she is my biological grandmother. She was also suffering from cancer, and we had never met. This trip was also my first outside Alaska and to the Lower 48. My mom and Todd, my biological father, had split up long ago, even before I was born, resulting in a loss of communication between the two sides of my family. I live in Buckland, an Inupiat Eskimo village of about 400 residents in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough. This visit to Portland, Oregon, was to last six days. The visit with my grandmother was four hours total. The goal for all this was for me to spend time with my grandmother.
Every flight for me while sitting next to family members contains the usual drama. The conversation with siblings typically goes like this: “I was playing with that! Mom! Brother won’t share the Nintendo DS.” But none of that happened on this three-and-a-half-hour flight from Alaska to Oregon. This journey felt more like a business trip, but with emotions written all over it. At 25,000 feet above the earth, I started to get confused. Should I feel excited or nervous to finally meet my grandmother after 17 years? In addition, my biological father, Todd, was scheduled to meet us in Portland.
Portland lies at the northern end of Oregon's most populated region, the Willamette Valley. It has been referred to as the most environmentally friendly or "green" city in the United States, and the second most in the world. Portland, as Oregon's most populous city, as of July 2009 had an estimated population of 582,130, making it the 29th biggest American city. The most common nickname for Portland is The City of Roses, an official nickname since 2003.
My parents and I had a lot planned for this trip, but our first priority was for me to meet my grandmother. We also planned to go shopping and site seeing, but best of all, we were planning to attend an NBA game between the Miami Heat and the Portland Trailblazers.
Unfortunately, I had the flu and so couldn't meet my grandmother right away. I also couldn't leave the hotel. While my parents toured Portland, I worked on homework and completed a photo album for my grandmother. The album already had required considerable time and effort, including searching our house in Alaska for photos of me growing up and making copies of ones I liked. I also found the perfect album. This photo project made me realize how precious life is. Too bad we cannot remember every breath we ever took.
After two days I felt strong enough to go outside but still not healthy enough to meet my grandmother. My parents and I went out to eat and shop. Later that night, we watched our first professional basketball game at Portland's massive Rose Garden with almost 17,000 noisy sports fans. As it happened, though, even that excitement didn't allow me to forget about my grandmother.
Finally the time arrived to meet my grandmother, Naoma, and my auntie Elysa. Immediately I noticed how dominant family genes can be. I look like my mom, but I look even more like Auntie Elysa. I also share many physical features with my grandmother, such as short stature and small fingers. Naoma suffers from cancer, so she tires easily and would soon expire without the assistance of her oxygen tank.
After we settled in, I presented the photo album to Naoma, the one I had created just for her. They were all photos of me growing up, from my first steps as a baby to all dressed up as a young lady for prom. Her eyes brightened and moistened as she held the album in her lap, eagerly turning each page with a huge smile on her face. Then my grandma brought out some of her own pictures, including photos of my biological dad Todd and his sister Elysa when they were young, as well as some cherished photos of my half brother, who looks just like Todd. My grandmother and I talked for a couple hours before exchanging goodnight hugs.
The next morning, my mom and I returned to Naoma's house to spend more time with her, and I would hear something I will never forget.
"Leah, I'm sorry that I, we, never had the time to meet you," Naoma said.
Those words made my eyes water, especially because Todd and Elysa agreed with her. Since I’m a shy girl, most of the time my mother was doing the talking. When I meet people, I am always shy and not talkative at first. But once we get to know each other, I become more outgoing. Perhaps if I had met Todd's side of the family sooner, I would have not been so shy.
Leah Barr is valedictorian at Buckland High School this year and plans to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage this fall to study business or engineering. This story is distributed by Chukchi News and Information Service, a cultural journalism project of Chukchi College, the Kotzebue branch of the University of Alaska. The project is slated to publish its second anthology, “Purely Alaska: Authentic Voices From the Far North,” in June.