As is the custom in our small town, we gathered tonight at the community hall to say goodbye to two of our own. One of the volunteer firefighters pulled the fire engine from its bay to make room for six long tables to bear the pot latch food—the pasta casseroles, meatballs, chicken, vegetables, roast salmon, sliced pork and beef, spinach salads, and crudités trays.
In the adjoining hall more than a hundred of us gathered, seeing folks we seldom see because our town is spread out over thirty miles of highway. Outside, the storm that had battered us for two days with sloppy and then freezing snow had diminished to a peaceful snowfall. Most of us had spent the day digging ourselves out, shoveling the decks, and plowing the driveways.
Still more people arrived bearing still more casseroles, blueberry muffins, breads, and gelatin salads. Children eyed the dessert end of the tables with the brownies, chocolate chip cookies, cinnamon rolls, and sugar cookies.
First, though, first we wanted to tell a few stories of Whip and Judy who had passed away last week, leaving grief in our hearts and holes in our small community. We wanted to share with the surviving relatives how much they had mattered to us, and how much we will miss them. They had moved here twelve years ago from Fairbanks. Whip, according to one of the stories, had bought a house and shop here. In a great leap of faith, he did so before Judy saw the property. On the long drive from Fairbanks, Whip was beside himself with anxiety, hoping that Judy would like their new home.
They pulled in late at night after a long day. Judy said nothing. They went to bed. Judy said nothing. Whip stayed awake most of the night, then finally fell into an exhausted sleep. When he awoke the next day, he found his wife sitting in the kitchen, holding a cup of coffee in her hands and crying. Heart in throat, he asked why she was crying.
“Whip,” she said, “this is the most beautiful place in the world.”
It wasn’t the house so much as the place. The house is unique, as old houses tend to be in Alaska. It would never fit in a modern subdivision, would never pass covenants in an urban area. What it did have was charm, and history, and peace. Over the years, several additions had been made to the original cabin, adding to its quaintness. There was a shop area for Whip to set up his welding and blacksmith shop, and a gift shop to sell his creations.
But the place—the stupendous Kenai Peninsula, turquoise Kenai Lake, the nearby salt water port of Seward, the Kenai and Chugach mountains, the rural areas of Alaska where people live because they love the country and the community.
The two of them became a large part of our community. They leave an even larger void with their passing. As for me, I will forever remember, and forever miss, Whip’s traditional greeting to me when we chanced to meet. First, a big hug, and then “…if you ever need anything….”