Photo by Dennis Cowals

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Prodigal Daughters

Anchored in remote Ford Arm, a half day’s run north of Sitka, Alaska, I’m stuck doing chores around the boat—mending small holes in our seine net, changing oil in the main, and scrubbing the flat-top diesel stove until it shines. The five of us on board have several days of this before the Alaska Department of Fish and Game grants another opening to harvest pink salmon. Luckily, we’re not alone. Another three boats have rafted up with us, tying rub rail–to–rub rail, so that we all hang on one anchor and can socialize freely, stepping from boat to boat. Though it’s an acquired taste, I love the independence and beauty this life offers: when I overheat the skiff and burn out the impeller, my dad, the captain, looks me in the eye and says, “Fix it”; when I run out of butter in the galley, I learn to make biscuits with mayonnaise; and when the sun finally sets in the summer, the stars burn fierce and white through unpolluted darkness. There is an exaggerated simplicity to such a life: broken and fixed, make it work and working, and not a lot in between.

With one glance from Scottish Paul, though, I begin to see that the world is made of layers and shades, subtleties that we often ignore in ourselves. Paul works on the Sea Gem, a seine boat I recognize from a mile away for its crisp white lines and sky-blue stripe. Right now, they are tied up next to us and their windows overlook our galley. Paul tells me through an open porthole that he went to music school back home in Scotland and demonstrates his drumming with wooden spoons. He makes eye contact, but it burns and we both look away. When Paul isn’t sure what to say next, I’m surprised to find that I don’t talk about fishing; instead, I pull the Joy of Cooking from the drawer that’s always safety latched for bad weather and invite him over for pecan pie and coffee.

In a region known mostly for its rain, snowboarders, and grunge music, my mother raised me on fried chicken and collard greens, building our home on Southern hospitality. Her drawl hibernated occasionally, but it always came back. She wore pearls and skirts to the grocery store, pressed my father’s flannel shirts, and set our holiday tables with family silver and a white tablecloth. Guests were treated to homemade spoon bread, barbecue, and pecan pies—of several varieties. Though being Southern is not a list of foods to cook and clothes to wear, it’s hard to describe the deeper emotional and cultural mores that course through a Southerner, especially if that person has left the South. My own ties to the South are vicarious and brief, but they force me to ask, Who am I? And thus, who is my mother? What does it mean to be Southern? To be a transplant? 

After growing up in Tryon, North Carolina, my mother, with a degree in fashion design, worked as a buyer for Ivy’s department store, trimming Christmas trees, selling cotillion dresses, and catering to the new money of an up-and-coming Southern city. Sharon, a friend from college, invited her to visit Ketchikan, Alaska, for a two-week vacation in a town where logging and fishing industries fueled a boom-and-bust atmosphere and tipped the gender ratio heavily toward the male. Once there, my mother, though she hadn’t had a date in Charlotte for over a year, was flooded with invitations to potlucks, fishing trips, and camping adventures. When she returned to her job at Ivy’s, Ketchikan, that tiny, blue-collar town on an island with just 40 miles of road and just over 140 annual inches of rain, haunted her. It was the city of men and the city of a salty, gritty adventure she couldn’t resist, so six months after returning home from Ketchikan, my mother packed her navy blue Fiat sedan with everything she owned and moved to Alaska.

She learned about boating, fishing, and hunting. One day, a coiled line in her hand, she stood on the bow of a small wooden seiner, waiting for the exact moment to toss the rope to the man waiting on the dock. When she finally threw the line, it fell in a smooth arc to the man’s feet. He looked up and shared a smile with the dark-haired woman he’d never met and then wrapped the loop-end of the line in a figure eight around the cleat at his feet, drawing the boat snuggly into its berth.

Eight years later, she married the North Dakota cowboy–turned–Alaskan fisherman who greeted her at the dock. Today, they live at the foot of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State, where she raised my brother and me, forty-five minutes from the nearest movie theater, mall, dance class, or soccer game and a thousand miles from where my father fishes nine months out of the year. After Alaska, after learning to bead moccasins, hunt mountain goats, and cross-country ski in the all-day dark of a northern winter, this felt like a step toward contemporary urban, and perhaps Southern, culture. Instead, she found a rural community bent against outsiders, and she struggled to find an identity that was natural to her and to which others could relate. I remember her chaperoning an elementary school field trip and insisting that her nametag include “Mrs.” instead of just her first name. The only adults my friends had ever called “Mrs.” or “Mr.” were teachers, and many of them went by first names in the classroom. That didn’t matter much to my mother. While the teacher hovered next to her, she used permanent black ink to pen M-R-S-.-G-O-L-D-E-N on a tiny rectangular nametag.

My mother always fought for these infinitesimal cultural differences, but as a kid I mostly ignored them and tucked myself comfortably into the norms around me. By the middle of college, I’m hooked on summers commercial fishing with my father in Southeast Alaska. The first couple years, I’m overwhelmed and exhausted by piling gear and shoveling fish, but I’m also too stubborn to say it, so there is nothing but surviving, day after day. I don’t think much about who I am, just wait to see who ends up on the other side of the summer. This is a gift, how the world holds me up and barrels on at the same time. One year, I wake from the reverie-like state of continuous work while flying from the boat to Ketchikan on a floatplane. I take stock of my body, knees pulled almost to my chin in the cramped passenger space. My arms and shoulders bulge a little with muscle, and my forearms are firm. My hands have always looked like a little boy’s, but now the fingers are callused, swollen from all the grip and release of working with a net. For the first time, my hands feel useful, important. Like the girl with slender piano fingers and red-hot nail polish, I want people to see them, or even startle a little at the heavy grip of my handshake. The last thing I do before returning to college on a commercial airliner is to sit on one of downtown’s ramshackle wooden steps and stare, for the first time in weeks, at a patch of grass: these green sprouty things so verdant, ardently growing out of the cracked sidewalk.

For now, it’s easy to be a fisherman. I lean into it, disappearing in the work, and in the couple moments I have for myself each summer, I make a peach pie or paint my toenails a brilliant coral pink. In the winters, I finish my undergraduate degree, and at twenty-three, I’m accepted to the MFA in Creative Writing program at North Carolina State University. Suddenly, I’m retracing, in reverse, my mother’s cross-country path. From the fishing boat in Alaska, I move to Raleigh. Before I leave, my mother and I fight. Shopping for a reasonable car to drive across the country, I want cheap. She wants practical, reliable. The silver VW Rabbit that I pick out feels like a compromise, so I spend twice as much as I was planning and stuff it full of linens and books. When I’m finally behind the wheel of the car, I say goodbye to my mother on the phone. With both kids out of the house, she can finally travel, renting a studio apartment near the harbor where my father fishes for squid in the winter. Arriving in Raleigh in August, I take an immediate crash course in sweet tea, air conditioning, and deodorant, and when a classmate invites me over for back porch cocktails, I bring salmon dip and chips to the get-together—as any good Northwest guest would. The hostess gives me an odd look at the door, as if I’ve just told her she’s a terrible cook.

Strangely, there is also a shadow of myself that feels incredibly at ease in Raleigh. One afternoon, I buy a fifteen-pound box of bruised peaches at the farmers market and spend several hours slicing up the good pieces to freeze and make pie. Things I’ve learned from my mother and often scoffed at—like how to cook grits and when to wear pantyhose—are suddenly in their proper contexts. Eventually, she sends me the pots and pans she’s had stashed for years, hoping I’d be able to use them when I moved out. The handle breaks off the biggest one as soon as I get it into my white brick apartment, but I use it for years anyway, cooking oatmeal in the morning while I trace the sudden blossoms on a dogwood tree outside the window.

My second fall in Raleigh, just after returning from Alaska, I go for a run with my neighbor. He’s startled the first time he sees me: “What have you been doing?!” At the tip and base of each finger I have a small callus; tough in the summer, they are softening, turning white, and falling off. My nails are short and my fingers are puffy, the cuticles so dry and hard it hurts to hold a pen. I remember their stiffness in the morning when we fished, the way I tried to sleep with them lying straight at my sides, so they wouldn’t curl and cramp in the night, eventually causing carpal tunnel. And then, I remember my dad’s big sausage fingers, the way they make his wedding band too snug to take off. The way my childhood palm gripped his and two or three of my fingers would equal one of his. I tell my neighbor, “I’ve been fishing . . .” and then try to explain what that means. When I see other friends, I tuck my hands into the pockets on my shorts, so I won’t have to explain. In a few weeks the calluses are gone; I have a new manicure, and I stop looking for reasons to keep my hands behind my back. Losing the calluses is a relief, but also a small, deep sorrow, like learning an acquaintance has passed away. The person I wanted to know, to learn to love, disappears, and I melt into my Raleigh life.

Some days I’m Southern. Some days I’m not. Some days I’m more like the pie I made Paul so many summers ago. It came out syrupy, and we ate it slowly, straining nutmeats from the sugary, brown goo, nibbling at the homemade crust, shrunk awkwardly in the pan, its buttery sides golden and twisted in on themselves. A similar mess, I piece myself together, making a million almost-invisible decisions every day about who I am. We are all built of shadows, so I wonder, too, how many selves my mother has dismissed, if she mourns an alternate person every day she lives away from the South. If, like me, she feels at home everywhere and nowhere at once. This is our story: two prodigal daughters of the South, we live within and beyond two sets of cultural norms. She fights to be herself wherever she is, and I keep writing and rewriting myself, as if someday my character might unfold, clear and easy to read as a map.