Digest>Archives> September 2007

Keeper of the House: Memories of a Young Wife and Mother

By Chris Waugh


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After the antimacassars were finished and placed ...

By the time Alline was twenty-one she had a baby and was moving to a remote lighthouse island to join her husband. It was 1952. She had never been isolated or confined, or so far away from family and friends. But way up there - on tiny Guard Island, ten miles from Ketchikan, Alaska — her young family could be together.

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Aerial view of Guard Island, Alaska, courtesy of ...

Two steamer trunks, each weighing about seventy-five pounds, contained the things the family would need.

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Alline always tried to look presentable – she ...

Alline had to bring table linens and towels, and bedding with warm blankets. She brought her clothing, and personal things like hairpins and lipstick. She packed clothes for baby Christy, along with diapers, toys, books, and even a baby swing seat. The weather would be cold, so she brought plenty of little cotton handkerchiefs and a few basic medications. Finally, she tucked in homey and sentimental keepsakes — a few photographs and family mementos.

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Alline and Christy sit in the commissary and ...

Her husband Danny was stationed there in the Coast Guard where he was the engineer. His chief provided the opportunity for his wife and their baby to live there too, providing she agreed to cook dinner each day. The crew of four had been taking turns cooking, and none of them were good at it.

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Laundry day at the lighthouse.

The young family could save money by living in this remote place, too. Danny’s isolated duty pay was fifteen or twenty percent higher than normal pay. They would have no house payment, utilities or insurance, no car expenses or gasoline, and only baby food costs.

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The family arrived at Guard Island on a fifty ...

On this crisp March morning, Alline was on the fifty foot boat that would take her family from Ketchikan out to her new home. She wore a long wool coat and rubber boots, gloves and a wool bandanna over her head. Underneath she had a skirt and sweater on, and flat shoes. Seven month old Christy was bundled up in blankets.

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Danny, Christy, and Alline on Guard Island.

As they neared Guard Island, she could see a small row boat sliding down a railed ramp from the Island. It approached and came aside the boat she was on. She looked down at it. It looked tiny in the water way below her. One of the steamer trunks was lowered over the edge and onto the row boat. Carefully, the crewman navigated back to the ramp and was raised up into a boat house with the trunk. It returned and took the second trunk ashore.

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Alline wonders what to do with a large red ...

Soon it would be Alline’s turn to descend over the side of the boat with her baby and make the final leg of her journey to Guard Island. She was careful to keep her coat and skirt wrapped around her legs as she was lowered over the edge. After all, the crewman in the row boat was looking straight up at her. Finally she arrived in the boat house on the Island. She stepped outside and surveyed her new situation.

Most of her world would be confined within a hundred-foot circle that was thirty feet above the water. The house her family would call home was just twenty feet away. Another house for the crew was adjacent to it. A sidewalk ran from the boat house between the two houses and up a small incline to the lighthouse, where Danny worked twelve hour watch shifts each day. Beyond that grew a few scrubby trees. All around the buildings, the rocks pitched steeply down into the water of the Inland Passage.

She took the baby inside and unpacked the trunks. It didn’t take long. The house was furnished, and even had a crib upstairs in the south-facing bedroom. She carefully placed some photographs and knick-knacks on the furniture and headed for the kitchen.

She was eager to get to work. Alline had never cooked much, and certainly not for a crew of hungry sailors. She opened her brand new “American Woman’s Cookbook” and decided to make a them brunch of creamed eggs on toast. How much would they eat, she wondered? She didn’t want to make too little, so she made a big kettle full. The crew loved it. Finally, a good cook! They ate voraciously. When they were done, though, two-thirds of the egg gravy was still in the kettle. Then she found out what happened to leftovers when the crew cleaned up. She was shown the back door of the kitchen, where a stoop overlooked the water. Anything that wasn’t consumed was tossed out the back. What didn’t make it into the sea was quickly consumed by the seagulls.

She continued to familiarize herself with the house. She went down into the basement. There was an electric wringer washing machine near the utility tubs, and a few clotheslines across the ceiling. A ping pong table behind the laundry area waited to provide some recreational opportunity. On the other side of the basement was the “commissary.” Two walls were lined with shelves that held cases of canned and dry goods. Two big chest freezers lined the third wall. She looked inside and saw what looked like a duck with severe freezer burn. She made a mental note to clean out and defrost those freezers later.

Soon she settled into her new life as keeper of the house. Every morning she got up with Danny before he had to go to work at six o’clock. She would get Christy up, wash and dress her, and then dress herself for the day. She never went downstairs without her hair and makeup done. Her house had the only kitchen on the Island, so the crew used it. She always had to be appropriate and presentable in dresses or skirts and sweaters, and ladylike shoes.

When she went downstairs, she made breakfast for herself and the baby. Chief Jackson came in for his morning coffee break and doted over Christy. He grew to love his “little angel” and became her private tutor, teaching her words, numbers, and the alphabet. Over the next twenty months, he helped her learn to walk and ride the tricycle she got for Christmas. He rewarded her with the candy cigarettes he carried in the breast pocket of his khaki’s. Meanwhile, Alline used this time to plan the evening’s dinner.

She always kept a pot of coffee warming on the stove-top for the crew. The wood burning stove in the kitchen had been converted to burn oil, but it was still an old stove. She learned to rearrange things in the oven during the cooking process to keep them from burning and get them to brown evenly. She learned to make great pies, cakes, bread and cookies. She had the seamen write to their mothers and ask for their favorite recipes from home, so she could make them.

She loved spending time with Christy. She kept the house clean and comfortable, and ready for the dreaded inspection of a Coast Guard officer. Doing laundry was a day long job with the wringer washer downstairs. She liked to hang the clothes outside to dry, but the weather only permitted that on rare occasions. Most of the time, laundry dried on the lines in the basement. It took at least two days for it to dry completely.

Alline voted by mail for her first time on Guard Island, with her husband and the chief looking over her shoulders to make sure she voted “right.” She crocheted intricate and frilly doilies, and antimacassars to protect the overstuffed furnishings. She read books and magazines that were stockpiled on bookshelves or came in the mail, and she read children’s stories to Christy.

Each week the fifty foot supply boat came by the Island with mail and supplies. When the water was calm, the Island row boat could rendezvous with the bigger boat and bring the packages back on shore. Often, the waves were too rough, and everyone would have to wait another week for letters from home, food supplements, and mail order deliveries. When the big boat neared the Island, it was always an occasion. Everyone went down by the ramp and watched.

The day before was always Alline’s letter writing day. Since she had no other way to communicate with the outside world, especially adult females, she learned to write long descriptive letters. She mailed them to her family, the in-laws, and other friends. She would describe the house, the crew, the events on the Island, the weather, the wildlife, and of course, the baby. The more letters she wrote, the more letters she received.

And she learned to get pretty good at ping pong. The rule of the house was to play three games. Whoever lost two out of three had to go get coffee for everyone else. At first, she fetched all the coffee. But soon, she learned to play defensively enough that the coffee was occasionally served to her.

Life as the only adult female was a little lonely and sometimes uncomfortable. She always maintained proper decorum, leaving the room at any hint of an unsavory joke. The crew was always respectful of her, though.

Time passed. Before long, Christy was over two years old, walking and talking. And Alline was packing her household up again to move the family back to civilization.

This story appeared in the September 2007 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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