As Far Away From Society As We Can Get

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Kamalla Rose Kaur

My great-grandmother, Doc, was one of the first women doctors in the USA. I imagine she couldn’t get a job anywhere else, so that is why she ended up moving to the Puget Sound (about as far away from society as she could get) to work at Western State Mental Hospital back before the turn of the last century. She also ran a private medical practice in Steilacoom, WA. Steilacoom (still-a-come) is South of Tacoma, just outside the gates of Fort Lewis. It is one of the oldest towns in Washington State, the very first incorporated town in fact. There is a park in memory of Doc there on the land where Doc’s house used to be. Her name was actually Dr. Mary Perkins, but she was always called “Doc” while alive, and subsequently down through the family stories.

In photos, Doc wears sturdy black clothing, all buttoned up from toe to neck, with a cameo at her throat. She seems so stern, cold and strong. I’m told Doc rowed out to the islands in bad weather to help deliver babies, and, of course, she worked in a locked down wilderness insane asylum. She was a pioneer doctor, with lumberjacks and fishermen as her patients. Doc certainly had class, but she was no society matron, rather she was an independent, educated, very hard working, Pacific Northwest career woman.

Doc was married to another doctor, my great-grandfather. I could never get anyone in my family to talk about him nor point him out in a photo. They would just talk about Doc. This puzzled me, but all I was ever told by my grandmother, and others, was that he had been a doctor on a merchant marine ship that had traveled to the Orient.

This seemed so very exotic and exciting! It was also pointed out that there were excellent pieces of Chinese furniture in my grandmother’s house that had been brought back by Doc’s husband, my mysterious great-grandfather. Sure enough, stuffed in amongst the flurry of other furniture in my grandmother’s Tacoma home, I discovered these pieces, which were far more exotic and exciting than any other furniture I had ever seen. Thus my fascination with the other doctor increased. But that is all I learned. Not a bit more.

Over the years, I have come to wonder whether Doc’s husband, the other doctor, might have picked up a STD in his travels? I mean when someone is so seriously NOT going down in the family history, you figure the worse.

But Doc lived a long life; she outlived her husband. She had three children with him, and she was described by all as a hypercritical and cold mother. In truth, her daughter, my grandmother, was like that too, except for her sense of humor. I don’t think Doc had a sense of humor. She didn’t approve of the man my grandmother married, a man named Bert, who, they say, possessed an excellent sense of humor. Grandpa Bert died long before I was born.

I find it hard to imagine Doc ever being completely happy and in love, but I think she may have been very satisfied in her work. She made it through medical school, which was scandalous and difficult in that era. She must have been very smart. I’d like to believe that she was a good healer.

That’s all I know. Yet down through my life I have been aware that there is much more I can learn about Doc, thanks to the Steilacoom Historical Society. Maybe they even know something about my great-grandfather, though I won’t be surprised in the slightest to find that they know nothing.

Thus from that branch of my family, I am among of the third generation of babies born in the Pacific Northwest. That makes me a native.

However, three generations isn’t anything in Europe, Africa, India or China. How pitiful when I compare my Pacific Northwest roots with those of the Lummi. I am completely puny when I compare my life , with the life and meaning of a cedar tree. I am pathetic when I stand at sea level, at the base of Koma Kulshan (later named Mt. Baker), pretending that I can see this land from a higher, wiser, or more ancient perspective.

We are all new to this land from Koma Kulshan’s perspective. But whenever you or your family moved here, as true Pacific Northwesterners, I bet you hoped, vainly of course, that others wouldn’t move here after you. This particular sentiment is an important part of our Pacific Northwest culture and identity. Pacific Northwesterners traditionally prefer the company of trees over the company of people. We expect to see eagles and sight whales as a normal thing and we want our great grandchildren to be authentic Pacific Northwesterners and see these things too.

We don’t mind the rain. It keeps people from moving here; or at least it used to.

When I was 16 or so, my grandmother sat me down and informed me that even though she did not approve of the organization, I could, if I chose, join “The Daughters of the American Revolution” and she explained to me what that meant.

“Was Doc a member?” I immediately wanted to know.

“No indeed!” my grandmother declared proudly. “It is Bert’s side of the family that can trace ancestry back to the beginning of this country. My family, Doc’s family, are mongrels, a mix of immigrants. For us the important thing is that we are Pacific Northwesterners.”

My grandmother paused a moment, peering at me to see if I was attending, and then she added, “You and I were born here, but we too are Pacific Northwesterners by choice. There are very good reasons why we love this land the way we do, why we choose to live here.”

Then, concluding the lesson with a mock shutter of distaste, and a twinkle, my grandmother leaned close and whispered loudly, “There are also excellent reasons why we Pacific Northwesterners have all decided to live as far away from the East Coast (with it’s notions of society) as we can get!”

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Filed under Kamalla Rose Kaur's Writings, Pacific Northwest

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