Can we know our mothers as people, or do we only see them in that role?
Author Cheryle Coapstick heard humorous and adventurous stories about her mother’s childhood in the Territory of Alaska. But it wasn’t until she was an adult that she discovered how her mother, Firy Oskolkoff, had suffered.
How can we know what our mothers were like as children? Were they seen? Heard? Cherished? Tolerated? How did their family dynamics operate? How did their personalities and characters form, and how did external and internal influences shape them? What was their relationship with their own mothers? Can we ever know how they felt as children, teenagers, wives, and mothers?
The author thought her mother was rigid, overly strict, and unemotional.
She fought against that parental control. She misunderstood her mother’s actions and feelings. A common theme among mothers and daughters. Although the author had a quintessential 1950s upbringing, she struggled in her relationship with her mother, never achieving the closeness they both desired.
When Coapstick was in her late forties, married, and with children of her own, her mother had an encounter with Jesus. Shortly after that, Firy revealed a little about her childhood. Besides the Great Depression and the Second World War, her family was trapped in poverty, alcoholism, abuse, and racial discrimination. The murder of the person she loved the most crushed her with a deep grief she couldn’t understand or process. After that conversation, she never spoke of her past again.
Years later, after Firy Oskolkoff’s funeral, several relatives shared the details of her childhood. She was surrounded by people who loved her but couldn’t receive it.
The fog of grief and trauma hid the good memories from her view.
When an author friend challenged Coapstick to write her mother’s story, she knew it was time. As she wrote what she remembered of the little her mother shared and the lot her relatives revealed, Coapstick discovered that her mother was shaped more by how she responded than the events themselves. Coapstick came to admire her mother’s strength, perseverance, and determination to survive. She had grit.
As Coapstick researched and wrote her mother’s story, she began understanding life during the Great Depression and WWII. Still, she couldn’t imagine her mother enduring the abuse and the consuming emotional pain after the murder. Firy carried grief and anxiety through her childhood, and as a teenager, she looked over the horizon and wondered when the Japanese would attack Sitka. They were already in the Aleutians. Fear became a constant companion. Firy vowed she would protect her sisters and keep everyone safe.
Controlling her life and the life of those she loved became an obsession.
What Coapstick saw as rigid and controlling, her mother meant as protection. Through telling her mother’s story, Coapstick saw her own. She came to understand, admire, and love the woman who had been through so much and wanted to keep her children safe. Coapstick’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren needed to know about Firy Oskolkoff’s life and times. It was a story of universal truths, the inner emotional and spiritual journey we all take. A story of being wounded to the point of hopelessness but persevering anyway, praying that healing would eventually come. It wasn’t easy and took decades, but the Lord was there for her when she finally asked for His help.
Firy Oskolkoff lived through more childhood ordeals than many. Her suffering was great but may have strengthened her instead of destroying her.
Alaska’s Firy is her story.