25 March 2008

Gold dust

"Wait," the son bellowed last night. "You're going where? When? How many times?"

The truth is that he knew. My travel plans are never a secret, especially not when the whole family can hear me laughing on the phone at 6 am with friends. But the son conveniently forgets anything in my world that does not revolve around him.

"She's running out the dooooooooooooooorrrrrr..." the spouse sang.

"Shut up," I told him.

It does all seem more immediate, of course, as I am preparing to run out the door a number of times over the next two months.

"Just as long as you come back," the spouse said primly.

"How many times have I done this?" I huffed. "There's never been any question of not returning."

Well, except for that one time in 2004 when I fell asleep in the departure lounge in Toronto. Fortunately, one of the boarding calls finally woke me up.

"Why?" asked the son, growing increasingly red-faced. "Why do you do this?"

"Just be glad she's not leaving to go cook in the Klondike," the spouse told him philosophically.

"What?" the son and daughter shrieked in unison.

As the story goes, near the end of the 1890s, my great-grandmother packed up her youngest child--my grandfather--and took off for the Klondike. I'm not sure exactly where she ended up--I've heard Alaska, too--but she hired herself out as a cook during the gold rush. With a little boy in tow.

That takes some nerve.

But she'd already shown nerve. She packed in her life in New England--she was from an old and respected family--and moved to the Dakota Territory. Then she left her home in the Black Hills, left her husband, left her eldest daughter, a girl of about 17, in charge of the housekeeping. Visiting the Black Hills a few years ago, I had to wonder about why she did it.

I'll bet she was bored. I'll bet she was ready to see some more of the world, to see how things worked and what they looked like. Perhaps she wanted to seek her fortune in a very literal sense.

Then again, she had nine kids. Two is sometimes enough to send me to the Klondike.

She would have been just a few years older than I am now when she set out to have an adventure 110 years ago.

We know she came back, too. She died in South Dakota in her early 60s. In my great-grandfather's biography--he was a political mover and shaker--she doesn't warrant much mention. Her name, that she was from a prominent family, dates of marriage, her death, the children she bore him.

I know that I would be irked if my life were reduced to an honorable mention.

"What about the one in the picture?" the spouse asked. "The one next to the campfire?"

"Oh, my grandmother," I told him.

"You should see this picture. If it weren't for the clothes, I'd have thought it was your mother," the spouse told the son and daughter. He turned to me, "she was married to...?"

"The grandfather who went to the Klondike."

"Of course."

"She got kicked out of nursing school," I told them. "For bobbing her hair. And possibly for smoking. Maybe for carousing with my grandfather."

"We're doomed," murmured the son.

"Then there's the other side of your mother's family...," said the spouse.

"Ssssh!" I told him.

"I just hope I got some of it, too," the son said.

Go listen to some good music: "Gold Dust" from the album Scarlet's Walk by Tori Amos.

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