I'm not sure when I first met Rosie Drew but I do know that shortly afterwards she married Billy Spires. Billy and Rosie teamed up to have the biggest garden by far on the north road. Rosie would start all her cabbage, tomato, broccoli, and cauliflower plants in her home under growing lights each spring. Their home looked like a commercial greenhouse, she also had a deck full of beautiful flowers.
My family and I helped them each year with the tilling, planting and weeding of their massive garden. Each year they harvested and canned a lot of the food but gave away perhaps way more than they used. Potatoes were hauled to the root cellar under their home. Rhubarb was either canned or frozen but for the amount they grew you could have filled a semi truck full each year!
The crops they grew were unbelievable, basketball size rutabagas, turnips, and huge heads of cabbage. I once dug 30 potatoes out from under one plant, all bigger then a baseball! In one hour of digging potatoes with Jim Von Haden we filled 16-5 gallon buckets of potatoes!
I bought a small greenhouse from Marcella Bremond and hauled it up to their home several years ago. Billy and Ed Cantrell put new greenhouse plastic on it and Rosie did the rest! There was not a 6-inch square in the little greenhouse that wasn't growing something. I watched her many days out watering plants in there and shuffling pots around so she could move in just one more plant of some kind. I once commented to Billy how I would like to find another small greenhouse for her and he grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me to him and said "Don't you dare as I would never see my wife, she spend 6 hours a day in there now!"
If Rosie wasn't working with her plants you could bet she was canning, cooking, baking, or crocheting, she was always busy doing something. I still have the beautiful blanket she made for my family and I. One of her favorites she liked to bake was a pineapple upside down cake and when Rosie cut you a piece of cake you knew it was going to be good and by the size of it you were not going to leave hungry either.
Last spring Rosie was recovering from open-heart surgery so I agreed to start her plants in my sunroom. Despite having an excellent place to start plants they just did not do as good as when Rosie planted them under the growlights in her home. Some I replanted but they just were not the strong healthy plants that Rosie always provided us with each spring. We set them out, watered them and fertilized them only to have a hard frost that evening that killed most of them off.
Billy then bought several hundred new plants from the local greenhouses but they just didn't grow either. For some reason the garden that had produced the most unbelievable crops year after year just did not grow. I think we over fertilized a little each year and it finally caught up with us, however there is a another theory too. Perhaps Rosie not being able to be a part of our team last year was the biggest reason things did not grow. She simply had a way with making things grow and a series of health problems made it impossible for her to help.
Rosie had back surgery to remove arthritis from her spine that was causing her to lose feeling in her legs. While recovering from the back surgery she fell and broke her ankle. Then came the open-heart surgery that was done in Anchorage in the spring of 2003. From that point on Rosie really struggled and was unable to get around by herself. She was in a therapy program with Carol Ernst who worked diligently trying to help Rosie regain her strength. Despite making some progress, the reality of the situation was that once we get over 80 years of age this sometimes becomes a very difficult task.
On several occasions I drove to their home and carried Rosie from her hospital bed down the stairs to the car so she could go to therapy or a doctor's appointment. The local fire department in Nikiski also helped in getting Rosie out of her home and back in.
Even though Rosie was a weak frail woman at this point there was nothing weak about her faith or the grip she had on my neck!
On Easter Sunday 2003 my family and I took Easter dinner to the Spires home on Wik road in Nikiski. I carried Rosie from her bed and set her up to the table with us. She had the biggest smile on her face, as there on the table directly in front of her was also an Easter lily. I'm not sure what meant more to her the meal or the Easter lily.
Steve Dambacher and his family also had spent countless hours at the Spires place helping with the garden, unloading hay for their milk goats, or other projects. Steve's family and I were at the hospital together visiting Rosie after her open-heart surgery. Rosie had been told there was a 20% chance that she would not make it through the surgery. After thinking about the situation she was in for about a day she decided that there was an 80% chance that she would make it and she said "If I'm going to go I'm going to go down fighting." She had a renewed sparkle in her eyes and a very grateful smile as she looked up at us from her hospital bed.
After visiting with her and Billy for a while I told her good bye and headed for the door. She glared up at me and said "John Perkovich don't you dare go out that door without giving me a hug." She also demanded that Steve and Heidi Dambacher and their baby Mick also give her a hug before leaving.
In the fall of 2003 Billy and Rosie went on vacation to Washington where Rosie once again had some more health problems. She was hospitalized at the Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon, Washington and once again was dealing with heart problems followed by a bout with pneumonia.
I will never forget that phone call I made home from the Tyonek Platform on the evening of November 13th, 2003. My daughter Alea answered the phone and was crying. I asked what was wrong and she replied "I will let mom tell you." My wife Taby got on the phone and said only four words "Rosie died this evening." I went to the galley and sat and thought how Rosie was a true Alaskan. She taught school here for 26 years to earn a living but her real love was her plants and the Alaskan wilderness. She often spoke of her cabin she had on the North Fork of the Big River and how she loved spending time in the Alaskan wilderness.
Steve Dambacher came into the galley and I told him " I got bad news buddy, " he turned towards me and said, " What is it? " I replied. " Rosie died this evening. " I could see the tears starting to well up in Steves eyes, so I decided there was no need to have two guys sitting in the galley with tears in their eyes, so I went outside the platform camp and looked off towards the Sleeping Lady Mountains. There dancing in the sky was the most beautiful morthern lights! I watched them till I got cold and walked into the restrooms just inside the door. Old Joe, the GBR casing hand, waked in and said " Boy that calcium chloride stuff you're dumping in the mud is really eating up your eyes. " Not wanting to explain myself I just said, " Yes it is eating them up " and walked outside.
I looked up to watch the northern lights again but they were gone! Perhaps these lights were a tribute to Rosie after all they were directly above the " Sleeping Lady Mountains! " Perhaps it is also a lesson to all of us " Enjoy the things here on earth while they are here with us, as we never know when they will be gone! "
I have to commend Billy who spent the last two years of Rosie's life taking care of her day and night.The job he did in cooking, cleaning house, doing laundry and taking care of his wife was an inspiration to all that knew the Spires family. On several occasions Rosie suggested that Billy simply put her in a nursing home as it was too much for him to do. Billy repeated the wedding vows to his wife ad said we agreed to stay together till death we do part so I guess you are stuck with me!
Dr. Peggy Bench is also to be commended for the special care she gave Rosie. Her help and acts of kindness to Rosie go way beyond just being a good doctor.
There will be a celebration of life for Rosie (Drew) Spires at the Star of the North Lutheran Church on Sunday, June 13th.
See you next week!
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