We Alaskans

Sad and grateful to celebrate a Haines icon's 90th year

HAINES — I had already given my regrets over not attending Helen Tengs' 90th birthday party, since it was in the middle of a Saturday afternoon in the middle of moose season, but then the hunt ended in record time, after just eight days, since 26 bulls were taken and the management goal was 25. So I was able to go.

Everyone agreed it was a weird season. Storms and rain made the river higher than any old-timers could recall. Leaves were still on the cottonwoods, and we wore head nets in the tree stand because the mosquitoes were so bad. It felt like we were hunting too early, as if the calendar was off by a month.

I'd ask Helen, who has seen more Haines autumns than I've celebrated birthdays, if she's noticed the changes, too, but her memory is failing. Her daughter Christy half-joked that it was easy to make the birthday party a surprise, because just about everything is a pleasant surprise to Helen these days.

'You Are My Sunshine'

Christy hosted the bash in the Pioneer Bar, which has been in their family 63 years. Her parents ran it 40 years before Christy and her husband took over, but now they don't want their almost-grown sons to follow in their footsteps. The other reason the bar is for sale is because Christy, Haines' most popular poet, wants to write country songs — something she's dreamed of since attending Boston's Berklee College of Music a lifetime ago.

But that's not why she teared up when her sweet, tiny mother, sporting a red-sequined baseball cap, hopped up and led the crowd of old friends and new (even a few bouncing babies) in singing "You Are My Sunshine." Tom from the bookstore and Russ from the radio station accompanied her on their guitars.

"Mom doesn't always know who we are," Christy said. "But this is the cool thing: She remembers the words to every song."

Christy's brother Tony is working in Cordova for three months, but you don't delay a 90th birthday party, do you? So he sent an audio post card, and sang a song he wrote for his mother. In it, he thanked her for teaching him to sing "You Are My Sunshine," and that was so perfect after Helen's earlier effort, it made me cry.

Beer and cake may have contributed to my seesaw emotions. I'm not used to the combination, especially in the afternoon.

Helen sat in a red vinyl booth with a clutch of dear friends, and one very, very old friend. Hazel Englund just celebrated her 100th birthday a few weeks ago. Someone at the bar said she heard Helen say, "Look at the those little old ladies. Oh my, someday that will be us," and then Hazel replied, "Helen, that is us. It's a mirror."

Familiar pop recordings from back in the day made up the soundtrack of a slideshow, beginning with young Helen on a farm in Wisconsin, arriving in Haines to teach school, marrying Marty Tengs, the births of their two children, and the family in the snow, lots of snow, and views of the old unpaved streets, the rickety bar before it received its coat of red paint, Helen standing next to Marty's old fat-tire plane wearing a fur-trimmed parka. There were cocktail parties, can-can dancers (one was Helen) and picnics.

Marty himself even showed up again — Helen has outlived him for years now — in that metal halo he had bolted to his head after he fell and broke his neck. (He got better.)

It was like watching an entire lifetime pass by in a few well-chosen pictures.

Music endures

Yet what endures, what Helen recalls, is not those faces or scenes, but rather the music — and only the music, those tunes she sang and danced and rocked her children and grandchildren to.

"I'm not sure I have the words for how wonderful it was to see her singing. It was like my mom came back for a few hours," Christy said.

I don't think I know the words either for what all this means, and why it makes me feel sad and grateful at the same time, but I do hear a poem in the making, don't you? Or maybe even a good country song.

Haines author Heather Lende's third book is "Find the Good." Check her blog (heatherlende.com) or Facebook page (facebook.com/heatherlende).

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