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A chance meeting in the street, an Anchorage homeowner’s brush with history

  • Author: Thomas Pease
    | Opinion
  • Updated: April 7, 2018
  • Published April 7, 2018

It's common to see birders with giant binoculars peering into the two spruce trees marking the corners of our lot on Government Hill. So when I walked around the side of the house one summer day in 2015 to discover an elderly woman standing in the middle of the street with a camera aimed at my house, I wasn't surprised. Except she was clearly photographing the house, not the white crowned sparrows or juncos.

"I grew up in that house," she said. "My dad planted those white spruce trees."

She introduced herself: Faye Robb. Gray-haired, spry, and 75 at the time. Her brother, Ken, two years younger, hobbled out of the car on a bad knee to join his sister.

Faye Hansen as a young woman outside her childhood home. (Courtesy Faye Hansen Robb)

I was always taking credit for my brother-in-law's eye for design. He's an architect who transformed our 1957 Sears and Roebuck mail-order home into a glass and timber facade with curbside appeal.

"I'll give you a tour," I said. "We've changed the layout."

I regretted the wording of my invitation almost immediately. I considered the house I grew up in, where my most formative years unfolded, and where my parents age in place. Someday, it will be occupied by strangers, or worse, razed and replaced by a sprawling new structure.

People's taste in fixtures, furniture and artwork seldom coincide, but Faye and Ken withheld judgment. They admired the arctic entry addition, the expanded kitchen that opened into the living room, the bedroom converted to a library. Each room we entered unearthed a story. Looking out my bedroom window into the backyard, Faye and her brother took turns recalling the Quonset hut that once stood on the lot.

"Most of Government Hill was Quonsets," said Faye. "We purchased ours through a federal auction but had to build a permanent structure within five years."

"The Quonsets sat on the backs of the lots. That's why houses were built toward the front," her brother said.

"Once we got the house up, we tore down the Quonset," Faye said.

"As was required," Ken said. He pointed across the alley at a scofflaw Quonset, painted a muted blue with dormer windows cut into the steel siding. It still houses families decades later.

I pointed to the expansive currant bush.

"It's still there," Faye said quietly.

Their mother, Anna Hansen, planted it 60 years earlier, she said.

We moved in at harvest time, I told them. We filled a cooler with berries. The best housewarming gift ever.

Homer and Anna Hansen built the author’s home in Government Hill. (Courtesy Faye Hansen Robb)

We stepped on to the back deck, where I noted primrose, golden globe and trollius, all from Anna's original stock.

"Those maidenhead ferns dad dug up in Curry, where he worked for the railroad," Ken said.

Back inside, they described the original bathrooms, both of them now remodeled, in more detail than I could remember.

"The peach-colored tub ran in this direction," Ken said. "I know, because I was in it when the earthquake hit. I think waves broke over the tub. A fire extinguisher fell from the wall and discharged as I came out of the bathroom. It was the only real damage."

I led them into what I call the gear room, a large, unheated storage room in the basement. In it, we keep a freezer, tools and skis. One wall is lined with stout 2-foot-by-12-foot shelves their father, Homer Hansen, installed. I noted the how stout they were. The brother and sister exchanged a smile.

"Dad over-engineered everything," said Faye.

To the left of the shelves sits our new, energy-efficient chest freezer full of berries, salmon, moose and ice cream. I regretted that the original Coldspot chest freezer with the hinged chrome handle had conked out the year before. Faye remembered that freezer outside their Quonset hut. It was so large, I often wondered if the Hansens had built the house around it.

Off the gear room is my favorite nook — a root cellar where we store jellies and jams, canned salmon and homebrew. A free-standing thermometer that came with the house monitors the storage environment. The door sticks slightly, but swings with the satisfying feel of substantial, solid-core values of the past. Crayon scribbles covered the outside of the door. I'd never examined the writing closely, but Faye recognized it as her daughter's name.

"I can't believe it," Faye said. "You know, we lived in my parents' basement for five years after I married."

The adjacent kitchenette was where Faye's growing young family cooked and ate. It remains unaltered. The circular fluorescent light hummed overhead. The counters are practical, varnished plywood, trimmed with metal edging. The original enamel sink and white metal cabinets remain. I apologized for the defaced fridge. I'd used a hole saw to convert it to a kegorator. Three beer taps protruded from its door. I watched for a pained expression, but my visitors nodded approvingly.

Back upstairs, I dug out a relic from my great-grandmother's pie cupboard and placed it in Faye's hand: a denture fragment with concrete still attached. Ken leaned in.

"Yup, those were dad's chompers. Somehow, they popped out when we were pouring the steps."

"A bit morbid, I know, but I kept them," I said.

They laughed.

"It was the right thing to do," Faye assured me. "Homer belongs with the house."

We stepped down into the entryway. Faye and Ken gazed up at the Douglas fir timbers and stained glass.

I asked them to wait, ran downstairs to the root cellar and retrieved two jars of jelly.

"From Anna's currant bush," I said.

Sunshine illuminated the translucent red preserves as I set the jars in Faye's outstretched hands.

Thomas Pease teaches language arts in the Anchorage School District. He's lived in the Hansen house on Government Hill for the last 24 years. This essay was written as part of a collaboration between the Anchorage Daily News and 49 Writers.