KidsTheseDays.org is pleased to present this weekly serial from writer, Shirley Kurth Schneider. Shirley and her husband moved to Alaska in 1962 and in 1965 they broke ground on a rustic two-story cabin, located off the grid just outside Fairbanks. It was the same year that they decided to adopt a baby. Adoption: Alaska-style is Shirley's story about becoming a mother in rural 1960's Alaska, excerpted from her memoir-in-progress and presented here in five parts. Read Part 1, Read Part 2
On October 31, 1965, we moved into a 25-by-30-foot empty log enclosure. I had done everything possible to create a safe home for Christopher. Although we had no plumbing, a one-seater outhouse served as our toilet, and friends offered use of their bathing facilities. Christopher had his potty chair and portable plastic bathtub.
Heat was provided by a very efficient double-barrel wood stove, constructed from two fifty-gallon oil drums and backed up by an oil space heater.
Everything in our home was secondhand. Because we lacked electricity, the refrigerator served as a storage unit for my cook wear and numerous other items I could not find room for. The top of our small china cupboard held our dishes and glassware, the drawer held our everyday silverware and other cooking appliances, and the bottom shelf kept our dry goods behind closed doors, safe from shrews that occasionally found a way in.
Two sinks on the kitchen were covered with a removable panel, so I could use the top to prepare food. A propane lantern hung above the large kitchen table covered with oilcloth.
In one corner, the frame Larry had built for Christopher’s bassinette now held the water pail and hand-washing pan. A layer of black roofing paper covered with layers of army blankets and a braided rug defined Christopher’s play area. Christopher’s crib, our dresser, and the bed designated our bedroom area. The ceiling was covered with bright, tinfoil-backed strips of Owens Corning insulation stapled onto the supporting two-by-tens. The rocky surface of the kitchen floor was covered with linoleum. The rest of the floor was naked cement.
Although humble, it was our home, and there was much in my world that was satisfying. Christopher and I were awakened in the morning by sunlight shining through the big window in the kitchen rather than the jarring sound of an alarm clock. The smell of dinner permeating the house in the evening didn’t have to compete with noxious odors of a city subdivision.
Because the driveway was often too difficult for the station wagon to maneuver, we parked the car on Steele Creek Road and carried our son, groceries, our ten-gallon-a-day water supply, laundry, the hundred-pound propane tank, and oil for the space heater to the house on a trail through the woods. It was grueling, but I grew to love this walk. Frost-covered trees and a heaven full of gently flowing northern lights could erase the annoyance of a misstep that sent one tumbling or grocery bags that broke halfway up the trail.
Evenings accented our tranquility as Larry and I each hugged an end of the couch, leaning forward as we read by lamplight, the assuring click, click, click of the fire pot warming up in the space.
Thanksgiving was approaching, and I was preparing to travel to Wisconsin to introduce Larry’s folks and my mother to their new grandson. I’d spent the morning running errands in Fairbanks in preparation for the trip, stopping at the post office to retrieve a registered letter. Christopher and I had eaten lunch at home, and while he took his afternoon nap, I settled myself on the couch to go through the mail. When signing for the letter, I hadn’t examined the address. Now, I saw it had been sent by State Social Services.
As I read through the sentences, shivers of fear swept down my spine. Social Services had been trying to contact us. Unable to find a current telephone listing, they had sent the registered letter. We were to contact the local Social Service office as soon as possible. A State social worker had to inspect Christopher’s living environment and his development. Only after receiving that report would the court be able to rule on permanent adoption.
Looking around the 25-by-30-foot rectangle, my handiwork lost a lot of its appeal. Now I wished I had cleaned the walls. Really cleaned them, not just removed the surface dirt with a Spic and Span solution. Above me, the purposely inflicted holes in the foil-covered padding, made to keep pockets of snowmelt from tearing the sheets of insulation, seemed to have multiplied. The linoleum looked dirty, although I scrubbed it daily.
There was no doubt in my mind our living conditions could have a negative effect on the adoption. I could not face the possibility of losing Christopher. I would die if they took this child away from me, my son, whom I had mothered for nearly eight months.
Rising from the couch, I walked over to his crib. I picked up my slumbering son and cuddled him to my chest. I situated him carefully upon the bed and reached down for the folded blanket. Huddled beneath its warmth, Christopher, unaware of my terror, slept in my arms as I listened to his peaceful breathing. His sweet baby bouquet filled my nostrils.
Though we did not meet the minimal standards set down in that pamphlet tucked inside that church bulletin, I did not believe our outmoded living conditions negatively affected Christopher. According to my Dr. Spock advice manual, he met the measured stages of infant development. He was adored, at home and by our friends. He was a healthy child, escaping the ear infections and colds so typical of many small children. He hadn’t suffered a major illness since the case of measles he had contracted when we lived in town under modern conditions. But Social Services wouldn’t give a damn about that. They cared about separate bedrooms, a domestic water supply, flushing toilets, and electricity. All the physical trappings of civilization Larry thought we had time to acquire.