Essays

National Public Radio ESSAYS

I started writing essays for NPR years ago. The first one I wrote aired locally in Anchorage, Alaska, on the public radio station there and was a surprise anniversary gift for my husband, Fred. It’s called From The Heart and it won a National Press Women’s award, and was later picked up by NPR Weekend-Edition Sunday, which launched my career with them. I love working with NPR. I’m not much of a photographer, and it’s one way of preserving small snaps of time and experience without being stuck behind a camera. My kids, as they grew, began to assert their own understandable desire for privacy, and didn’t want to see themselves splashed across the nation and in foreign countries in some piece I’d done. Although one of my kids awhile ago said, Why aren’t you writing for NPR anymore? I really miss that. But of course.

I’ve been busy doing other things lately, but I still might write for NPR again.

Here is one called Anniversary. I was asked to write a piece that would air on the 10th anniversary of We-Sun, and came up with this one:

Anniversary, copyright 1995 by Susan Arnout Smith, All Rights Reserved

On the wall of our living room in San Diego, hangs an American flag with 46 stars. The stars were sewn by hand, whip stitched at their centers. They curl permanently at the edges now, like a fragile field of Eidelwiess blooming under shadowbox glass. The flag was given to my grandfather in 1912, on the day he became an American citizen. For almost sixty years, until he died, he kept it folded and locked in a small tin box. Twice a year, he’d take it out and fly it high above the Alaskan cabin on the island they homesteaded: on the 4th of July, and on the anniversary of the day he was naturalized, the day he first belonged.

Next to the flag on the wall is a picture in heavy dark frame taken just a few years later. In it, my grandparents and my dad–who was about four at the time-stare at the camera with a look of intense pride and suffering.
From this flag and the picture hanging next to it, I reconstruct a life.

I hear again the scream of an Alaskan bald eagle diving toward its mark, the air whistling with the speed of its attack, leaving behind only tracks and a trace of blood. I feel my dad’s terror as he crawls on his belly through brush, next to his dad, and sees in the grey, predawn mist, poachers pulling their skiff noiselessly onto the island and carrying rifles. I see my youthful mother-not yet mine-navigating unsteadily in heels up the uneven path the first time she visits the island, an innocent, sent by her matchmaker brother. I feel the cold shock of water closing over my grandmother’s head as she jumps without a second’s thought into frigid Auke Bay, hands closing around a panicked, thrashing mountain goat, heaving it above the waterline to safety-only then remembering she couldn’t swim.

And I’m there in the bitter pain of the moment my grandparents knew once and for all their son, my dad, wasn’t coming back with his family, not to live, the day the island passed forever into the hands of strangers.
T.S. Eliot said that his idea of hell was a place where nothing connects. We look back-we mark birthdays, special moments, anniversaries-because they connect us, not only to the part of ourselves that is most eternal, but to all we’ve loved who have gone before.
Maybe the thing we really fear in life is not death so much-not the fear that we’ll be missing out on something that hasn’t happened yet-maybe what we’re most of afraid of losing is what we’ve already lived-what we’re most afraid of losing is our past.

So for a moment, we remember. We raise a glass, to ourselves, to this place, because after everything else, we are still here.

And when our turn comes, and we are no more than dust spinning down into a memory, there will still be left this:

Tracks. And a trace of blood.

If you’re interested, the island my grandparents homesteaded and where they lived with my dad is called Spuhn Island. It’s in southeast Alaska and lots are now being offered for sale. It’s incredibly beautiful, and I still miss it.

If you’re interested, the island my grandparents homesteaded and where they lived with my dad is called Spuhn Island. It’s in southeast Alaska and lots are now being offered for sale. It’s incredibly beautiful, and I still miss it.