( Some months ago I read a memoir by a woman who wrote obituaries for a small town newspaper in Alaska. In it , she described how she went beyond the cold hard facts — born/ married/ career highlights/died/survived by — and tried to find the little things which truly defined the deceased. There was one life in particular that she wrote about which created a deep impression on me. It is the subject of this post. Unfortunately, I did not make a note of either the author’s name or the title of the book and have been unable to find it again at the library. What follows is from memory and ,thus, a little skimpy in detail but it doesn’t really matter.)
Her name was Hannah. I don’t know her last name but it’s unimportant. As a young girl, Hannah emigrated from Sweden sometime in the years before World War II. She was not much educated and didn’t know anyone in America but she was young and willing to work hard. She found work in the Swedish embassy in Washington D.C.as a cook and general purpose worker. She worked there for several years, built a good reputation and ,somewhere along the way, she married a partially disabled man named Carl. She was well liked at the embassy and , in the aftermath of the war, she was told of an opportunity in Alaska where an abandoned military property was on sale, cheap. Scraping together her savings, and with the help of friends, she bought the property with the idea of converting it into a hotel. She, and Carl, then moved to Alaska.
Those first few years were hard as Hannah and Carl toiled from dawn to dusk to keep their heads above water. Money was scarce and they had to do everything themselves. They fixed things, they painted, they cooked , they cleaned without stop. There was never any spare time but Hannah somehow found the time to plant a vegetable garden which supplied them with many of their needs. She also planted beds of flowers which transformed the building and gave it a welcoming look. Hannah had always been a good cook and the simple but abundant fare that she laid out began to attract the attention of travelers. Tourists began to stop over, at first for the food but then for overnight stays. At times, as many as sixty famished guests would turn up for breakfast and Hannah would serve them all with the help of only one girl who worked part time.
Things got better but Hannah and Carl continued their frugal, hard working ways. In order to rent out every last room, they themselves slept on cots in a cramped cubbyhole just off the kitchen. Work consumed their days; there was no time for much else. They never took vacations or went on cruises. They never had time for hobbies but Hannah had fun when she could. She had been a good skier during her childhood in Sweden and, whenever the hotel ran short of supplies, she would strap on her skis and ski over the frozen roads to the grocery store in town.
Hannah and Carl had only one indulgence. Occasionally, business was slow and rooms were vacant, they would commandeer the best room in the hotel and make the beds with fresh linens. Then , after long hot showers, they would collapse onto the soft beds, so different from their usual cots, and sleep the deep, dreamless sleep of the weary. This one detail vividly paints a picture of them, makes them come alive in ways nothing else could.
Thus, they passed their days. Carl passed away when he was in his early seventies. Hannah sold the hotel shortly thereafter and retired, living into her late eighties. And that is their story. I did tell you Hannah was an ordinary woman. Alone in a new country, without much education, she made the most of the limited opportunities she had. As the adage goes, when life gives you a lemon, make lemonade. Her accomplishments may not seem like much, but how much more admirable is her life than those of the celebrities or the sports heroes we read about. Celebrities become famous for being notorious ( think Kim Kardashian) and sports greats are very often duds off the sports field. Hannah, on the other hand, lived an exemplary life worth emulating by all of us. Honest, genuine, industrious, simple, she achieved the modest goals she set herself.
Yes, Hannah was an ordinary woman but she lived an extra-ordinary life.