The Loss of a Matriarch

My tiny home town lost a matriarch this week. Although Gustavus has grown to a year-round population of nearly 500 people, when I was very young, there were less than 100 people in its entirety. Sally Lesh was one of those people, and she was one of those people until Monday night when she died quietly in her sleep at her home. She was nearly 91 years old.

Sally taught me to milk a cow and she helped teach me to read. She taught me that no matter your age, you can always have fun. And she helped teach me what it means to be part of a community. As an adult when I would see Sally, she would beam at me with her beautiful smile and say “Oh, Jorden! Wonderful! How are you?” We’d share a hug and catch up. I don’t get to make it to Gustavus as much as I’d like anymore, so I didn’t see Sally often in these past years, but every time I did, I felt such a deep connection to her.

For those of us who grew up in Gustavus back then, Sally and a few other women – including Ritabelle, who we lost less than a year ago – have become a part of our fiber. A part of our heritage, even though we were not related by blood. These were tough women. Smart women. Capable and caring women. They were women who believed in community, helping your neighbor and not mincing words. I cannot imagine that I will ever be as strong of a woman as these women were, but I can say that they have profoundly influenced my life.

Several years ago, after Sally completed her last book, she had a signing here in Juneau. I went out to see her, congratulate her, and get her new book. She signed it for me and as I was walking out of the store, I opened the book and Sally had written “I remember the day and minute you learned to read. What a discovery!” I cried.

There are many gifts that I know came into my life simply because I had the good fortune to be raised in Gustavus. Sitting on Sally Lesh’s lap, learning to read in her little house by the river, was one of those gifts. Thank you, Sally. We will miss you.

Originally posted October 10, 2011

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