Remembering Isabella: 1924 – 2012

19 04 2012

Longtime Hooked friends may recognize Isabella Brady’s name from last summer’s story of a traditional foods dinner. Leaning on a walker, dishing slabs of moose alongside venison stew, the Alaska Native Sisterhood president commanded as much attention as the chewy texture of whale between my teeth.

I’d hesitated to post that story without Isabella’s blessing. Before we left town on a fishing trip, I printed a copy at the library and dropped it into the mail, feeling more vulnerable than I had in a long time.

When we returned to town a week later, a gravel-voiced message awaited me. Isabella told me to call her. Exasperated with my nervousness, Joel asked, “What’s the worst she can say?”

Um… Don’t write about her, don’t post her photo – oh, and my writing’s a terrible bunch of cultural exploitation?

When Isabella answered, I stumbled through my introduction. She interrupted me. “I thought your article was outstanding.” Anxiety gave way to embarrassment, as she shared overly generous praise. This single sentence would have been enough: “I was having a real bad day when I got it, and it made me feel real good.”

*****

Our interactions developed around a directive: “Come to my house and have something to eat with me.” More commandment than invitation. Isabella liked to talk, and I was an eager audience.

She instructed me in making clam chowder, while describing the sharp contrast between her Sitka childhood and the North Dakota Presbyterian college she attended on $100/month scholarship. “Bring me the flour tin and a fork. College was like being a celebrity. Home was like being in the Deep South, for all the prejudice against my skin, but at college, it made me special. Are those potatoes gonna boil over? Mostly my classmates were disappointed I wasn’t an Eskimo.”

A woman of ferocious faith, Isabella began every meal with a thorough blessing. On our third visit, she asked if I was affiliated with a church. My response didn’t please her.

When I brought salmon heads from our final trip last summer, she recalled her boat-building grandfather, Peter Simpson, and her own fishing childhood. “We had a scow, used to buy fish from other boats at Lazaria and Shelikof. We’d collect sea gull eggs at Sea Lion Rocks, had to time getting out of the boat with the waves. I hated it – I got so seasick. My brothers teased me, they told me to eat bacon.”

She asked if I knew how to work a video recorder, still wrapped in plastic. “My friend sent it; she said I should record my stories.” We talked about the challenge of telling your own story, for all of the places that it intersects with other people’s. She spoke of her reluctance to intrude on others’ privacy, then shrugged. “They’re mostly all dead now, anyway.”

*****

On Tuesday, my feet bounced lightly down Sitka’s main drag, my backpack laden with a Tupperware of marinated black cod tips. After the meals she’d shared with me, I felt shyly eager to bring Isabella a gift of food I’d harvested.

A few minutes away, I pulled out my phone to make sure it was a good time to visit. A male voice answered on the second ring. I didn’t think anything of it. Isabella’s home was a hive: a constant flow of children, grandchildren, friends buzzing in and out.

“Hi, is Isabella there?” I chirped.

“No… She’s not here right now.”

I glanced at the afternoon sunshine and thought of the black cod in my pack. “Well, will you be there for a minute? I’ve got some fish for her that I could drop off.”

“Who is this?” the man asked.

I hesitated. “Friend” assumed too much; “smitten admirer” would be more honest. “My name’s Tele… I visit with Isabella sometimes.”

His quiet words hit my ear like small pebbles dropped down a well, as he explained that Isabella had fallen the day before. “She was Medevaced to Anchorage… We don’t think she’s coming home.”

*****

I saw Isabella once this spring, shortly after we returned to Sitka. She told me to make us some pancakes, supervising every step from her seat at the kitchen table, murmuring along with the stereo. That saved a wretch like me. She said how blessed she was, reflecting on the love and generosity that people had shared during her winter hospitalizations. She said that she wasn’t afraid of death.

Penny piles lined her coffee table, copper flashes amidst the endless papers of a lifelong leader still organizing from her living room couch. When she grumbled about needing penny rolls, I volunteered to pick some up at the bank. They’re still in my backpack, a rubber-banded stack heavy with accusation. Why didn’t I take them straight to her, right after leaving the bank?

Isabella sent me out the door with a small jar of sourdough starter. She promised, “Once you make your pancakes from sourdough, you’ll wonder why you never did before.” It’s in the Nerka’s dorm-sized refrigerator now. I don’t know anything about keeping starter alive, but I’ll learn. It’s what remains.

*****

Some people seem too powerful to die. Whether by the confidence with which they move through the world, the magnitude of their service, or the depth of what they’ve survived, they seem invincible. As if they glow so bright that they’d scorch Death’s grasping hand. Maybe part of me imagined that would be true of Isabella. When I saw Raven Radio’s Wednesday headline – “Native leader, activist Isabella Brady dies at 88 – I didn’t want to believe.

As a non-Native, I’ll never know the strength, courage, and hope that she provided to so many. The community is reeling, grief shrouding the Brady family, the Kik.sadi clan, and Native people throughout the region. I’ll never know the taste of their loss. I was blessed to spend a mere speck of time in Isabella’s company, a few afternoons far more significant to me than they would have been to her. And though I fear some may hear this story as self-absorbed, my experience is the only authentic place I can speak from, the only language I have to honor Isabella’s tremendous legacy.

In several grace-filled sentences, Mike Schinke said what I’ve spent pages struggling to convey. I’m thankful for his permission to re-post them here.

“A prayer of solace for the Brady family. A prayer for the health of remaining elders. A prayer for the perpetuation of Tlingit language and culture.

Let Isabella Brady’s life be a testament that one person can make a difference in the world. May her accomplishments inspire many to also make the world a better place in their own ways. She will be missed by many and her absence will be felt far and wide for a long time.”

Amen. Rest in peace, Isabella. My deep sympathy to all who are mourning.

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