When Betsy Laws moved back to Alaska in 2008, she had about $200 to her name and some property down Soldotna’s Sport Lake Road.
More importantly, she had her 12-year-old daughter Kiowa Richardson to take care of. Betsy, 55, left Normalville, Penn. after a messy divorce from an abusive husband, whisking Kiowa back to Alaska, to a dirty plot of land and a tiny, structurally questionable cabin with no plumbing.
“It was horribly filthy,” Betsy said, brandishing photos of the one-room cabin before she and Kiowa fixed it up. “People had been squatting here and had trashed the place. The whole yard was full of trash up to our thighs.”
The two spent three weeks cleaning; eight hours a day of hauling trash to the dump, buying new siding for their little home, staining the wood. The three outhouses on the property were bullet-riddled and overflowing.
“She never grumbled,” Betsy said of her daughter. “Not one complaint. Sometimes I was like, ‘This is just awful. How could people live like this?’ and her comment would be, ‘Well, we just have to do it one time, and then it’s done.’”
Betsy works as an oncology nurse at Central Peninsula Hospital and takes baby steps toward providing more for her daughter — a septic tank is next on the list, but more than anything she would like to give Kiowa her own bedroom, and indoor plumbing. Kiowa, now 15, unflinchingly adapts. When asked if the downsize and lifestyle change was frustrating, her only gripe was that her earphones — which she uses to keep from assaulting her unsuspecting mother with whatever music 15-year-olds listen to nowadays — are sometimes uncomfortable.
“It’s a really big adventure,” Kiowa said, “because I’m only going to do this once in my life. I’m going to eventually grow up. I’ll probably move to an apartment, and it’ll be ... normal. And I’ll miss this.”
For the first year, they had only a hotplate and a microwave for cooking. The first meal they had was prepared in a small pot on the hotplate: a mush of flavorless beans, corn and carrots. The only condiment they had was ranch dressing, so they ate the ranch-flavored mush while sitting on two tiny cots they had brought into the cabin.
They made Christmas cookies in a toaster oven. They bought a “holiday tree” — a one-foot tall, versatile structure that they decorate to fit every occasion. They decorated the cabin in a “sea cottage” theme, painting the interior blue and adorning the walls with ocean memorabilia, including a figurehead, and lining the doorways and windows with the thick rope reminiscent of that which is draped on pirate ships.
“These are memories that most people don’t have the opportunity to make,” Betsy said. “But here is an opportunity that has just been given to us. I guess we could sit and grumble about the things we don’t have, but we have so much. We had nothing, and now we have so much.”
Not that they don’t remember their old home fondly.
“Three bedrooms, two baths, a nice huge kitchen,” Betsy recalled, somewhat wistfully, of the house in Pennsylvania. Kiowa reminded her mom there was also a Jacuzzi, and skylights.
On the wall of their sea cottage, they taped a picture of their dream house. They often refer to it as “Snow White’s cottage.” It’s beautiful and cozy. But it’s a long way away.
“I went to the bank the first year and the interest rates were low,” Betsy said of taking out a loan to start work on the dream house. “But they wanted much more than I’m willing to pay. I want to be a fulltime mom and a part-time nurse, because time is too short. She’s going to graduate in just a few years. Lots of people call me nurse, but she’s the only one who calls me Mom.”
On Mother’s Day of this year, Betsy was in an accident. Outside of the cabin there is a double-door garden shed she and Kiowa converted into a bathhouse. A 20-gallon tub sits atop a camp stove fueled by a barbecue propane tank; it takes about 20 to 30 minutes to heat up. On Mother’s Day, there was an explosion.
Betsy fell out of the shed, her hands, face, and legs blistered and burned. Kiowa heard her mom scream and ran outside. She remembers seeing flesh hanging off Betsy’s hand and knee.
The ambulance arrived and carted Betsy off to the hospital, where she stayed for three days due to her first- and second-degree burns. When burns cover at least 20 percent of a person’s body, they are transported to Seattle. Betsy had burned 17 percent of her body.
“That night I said, ‘Kiowa, you did such a great job of holding it together,’” Betsy remembered.
“That was the best Mother’s Day gift that I got; that it was me and not her.
The hospital stay was great, they both agreed. Television, a private bathroom, room service. But now they are back to square one on the bathhouse front, as Betsy no longer feels safe with the current system. Back to showering in the hospital locker room or the Laundromats.
But, that’s life, according to Betsy. You adapt and make the best of every situation, and Betsy and Kiowa certainly do. Two days after Betsy got out of the hospital, they went to see the Blue Man Group perform in Anchorage for Kiowa’s birthday. They take trips to Seldovia to beach comb for more treasures to decorate the cottage with. In August, they will go to Phoenix so Kiowa can participate in the 2011 National Fine Arts festival, for which she wrote and illustrated a children’s book.
The list goes on. Last summer, Betsy signed Kiowa up for rock-climbing classes which were held every Tuesday and Thursday in Anchorage. So every Tuesday, they would drive up and camp outside of Anchorage until Thursday, when they would return to Soldotna in time for Betsy to work her night shifts at the hospital.
Every Saturday, the mother-daughter duo listens to National Public Radio’s “The Splendid Table,” a culinary and culture radio program. They eat a variety of crackers and cheeses while sipping green tea at a small round table, pretending they are gourmet food critics.
And then there are the mermaid spoons, the special occasion silverware used primarily to dig into their favorite treat: cherry amaretto ice cream.
“Everything that matters in life, we have it,” Betsy said.
“A house will come or it won’t; indoor plumbing will come or it won’t. Those things will come or go, but the things that you can’t buy, we have.”