The square of Lynn Cragholm's front window fills with light long before sunrise on Turquoise Street in the Dimond Estates Mobile Home Park. When you are old, she told me recently, you don't need so much sleep. Mrs. Cragholm rises at 4 a.m.
The trip that led me to her double-wide began with a letter. It arrived two weeks ago at my office, written in careful penmanship on five numbered pages. It had a graceful, formal tone that can only exist in old-fashioned letters, the kind written with pen on paper.
She wrote to express a civic concern: Why aren't there seat belts for children on school buses? And, she wanted to know, why was the bus at the mobile park so crowded? As the letter went on, her autobiography began to slip out between the lines. She is nearly blind, she wrote. She lives alone. Each morning of the school year, no matter the temperature, she appears in her driveway and sees all the neighborhood children off to school. She is 80 years old.
"Those children who come to this bus stop are beautiful, lovable, responsive youngsters," she wrote.
She invited me to visit. This is how I found myself on her porch just after 7:30 on Wednesday morning. The temperature hovered at about 7 degrees. Her peephole was covered with frost. She opened the door, wafting a blast of warmth, and shook my hand. Her hair was pulled into a silver Grecian-style bun encircled with a wreath of plastic leaves. She asked if I wanted a tour of her place.
The wood-paneled mobile home was a monument to neatness. Every item was in its place. The tools on hooks in the entry. The kitchen counters, spotless. Her pursuits, she told me, include journaling, letter-writing and making elaborate cross-stitch tapestries, which is impressive because she can't see. The tapestries hung on every wall; all had nature themes: wolves in the moonlight, an eagle at daybreak, foxes in the snow. I complimented her work.
"It keeps me out of the bars," she said with perfect deadpan.
Mrs. Cragholm showed me pictures of her three children and grandchildren. Her son lives across town in another mobile park. She sees him, his wife, her granddaughter and great-granddaughter at least once a month, she said. They are busy people, she said. They have their own lives. She opened a large, floor-to-ceiling closet. Inside were several hundred academic lectures on CDs, organized with a card catalog. She'd listened to many of them twice. Economics is her most recent interest. She also listens to three books a week from the Talking Book Library.
"I never got to go to college," she said.
It was more important for boys to go so her brother went. She became a secretary and worked most of her career typing theses and dissertations for graduate students at the University of Montana.
She and her husband came to Alaska on a cruise in 1997. Her son convinced her they should move closer to family. And so they did. She worked at Costco as a food demonstrator until her husband's health declined so much she had to care for him full time. And then, finally, she couldn't care for him anymore. He went into a long-term care facility. She traveled by bus to visit him four times a week for two years. He died in 2008.
He was her second husband, she told me. They were married 42 years. He was a lawyer and before that a colonel in the Army who served in World War II. His medals, framed, hang above a picture taken on their Alaska cruise.
About the time he passed, she said, she took notice of the children at the bus stop.
The kids were causing problems for her neighbor, Sherri, who is also a widow and is two years her senior. They were horsing around and messing with flower beds. Mrs. Cragholm decided she would wait with them to keep an eye on things. Some of the children were then in kindergarten at Klatt Elementary. Soon they will go to middle school.
The hour hand on her large watch neared 8 a.m. Mrs. Cragholm took her faux fur coat from its hanger, put on her boots, her beaver-skin mittens and three scarves: one for the neck and two to cover her hair. She stood in the front window and looked out on the icy street. Just behind her I noticed a portrait taken when she was young. She looks like a movie star, her skin smooth as milk. It was taken when she was 31, she told me.
"That's my glamour shot," she said. "Everyone needs a glamour shot."
Soon the first child trundled down the street. Mrs. Cragholm grabbed her cane and clicked out to her driveway. (Over time, the bus stop has migrated to a spot right in front of her home.) The little girl greeted her with a hug. The girl's aunt and the girl's cousin came next. Many of the children's parents don't speak English. Some speak Asian languages, others Spanish. Mrs. Cragholm knows three Spanish phrases: "How are you," "See you tomorrow," and "Very good."
"She is a very beautiful person," the aunt told me in Spanish, with her niece translating.
Soon there were 10 children in line, with 10 more coming. Mrs. Cragholm knew each of their names.
"What are you reading?" she asked. "Do you have your homework?"
She pulled hoods around cheeks, squeezed each one around the shoulders and guided them into a tidy line.
The bus arrived, all its windows covered with ice. The children filed on. Mrs. Cragholm stood in the street and waved her mitten-covered hand at the children until the bus disappeared around the corner.
We went back inside to warm up. She was recovering from walking pneumonia. Her breathing was rough. She hung her scarves on their hook. I asked her why she was still going out every morning.
Every child, she said, should feel that at least one adult cares about them. And it is good for her too.
"Who else do you know who gives and receives so many hugs in the morning?"
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.
In trailer court, schoolkids get extra hug