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Book REVIEW / MEMOIRS

How One Woma n Embraced the Past, the Present--Life

OUTSIDE PASSAGE: A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood by Julia Scully; Random House

$23, 224 pages

June 05, 1998|THOMAS CURWEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Julia Scully's mother believed she could outrun the past and didn't think it would catch up with her children. She was wrong. Her marriage, her husband's suicide and the two years she went searching for a better life were never spoken about, yet they haunted the family. Scully's mother believed silence the best antidote for pain, but silence inflicted the most.

"Memories are not to cherish, but to leave behind," she writes of her childhood. "It will be years--a lifetime, really--before I understand the value of memories, before I grasp that they are, in fact, the essence of life, and before I try to reclaim them."

Which makes her memoir, "Outside Passage," all the more remarkable. For living in the shadow of a woman who distrusted and feared the past, Scully writes with a love for remembrance and an eye for imagery, gifts that served her for 20 years editing Modern Photography. In 64 brief chapters, she re-creates vignettes of her early life with photographic precision; the cumulative effect is heart aching and rich. The frames of childhood are discreet and dimly lit, each story animated by tracing the outlines of feelings.

San Francisco, 1936. Scully is 7, her sister Lillian is 9. They're running home from school through the blinding sunlight. Mom--Rose--is working in the coffee shop. They race ahead into the apartment. "I don't know what happened next," she writes, "or even if I saw my father there on the kitchen floor," dead.

Daughters unquestioningly love their fathers and most savor that love, but Scully learned to hide her feelings. Rose, long suffering in marriage, was unforgiving as a widow, and Scully never felt comfortable speaking about her father, a man she barely knew, a man she remembered by his scratchy cheek and nonsensical stories. Confused, she wondered about the silence between herself and her mother: "Maybe I don't tell her because I'm not sure if these things really happened. Maybe I don't tell her because I'm scared she'll be mad if she finds out that my memories are different from hers."

Soon enough she learned for herself that forgetfulness is a balm. Two years lapse before Rose, who headed to Nome, Alaska, where she once lived with her husband, sends for her daughters. Two years during the worst of the Depression, and the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and the Seattle Children's Home become home with the sudden ordeal of rules, loneliness and an overriding wariness.

"Only when I'm alone do I feel safe. . . . I crawl between the tall hydrangea bushes and find a piece of clear ground just big enough so that if I scrunch down, knees under my chin, I'm completely hidden." Later comes the hollow relief: "I don't remember Mother and the way it was before, and I don't feel the hollow ache in my chest." Years later, her sister remembers only a fraction of it.

*

Located on the Seward Peninsula, just 200 miles from Siberia, Nome was a treeless outpost, a row of shacks hugging the edge of the Bering Sea. In winter, the arctic ice pack drifted in, floes crushing up against each other until the sea was a solid white mass. Malamutes roamed freely. It was a perfect place to run to, a place where life was so rigorous that there was simply no time to think of anything else.

It suited Rose and for a while her youngest daughter. Scully, then 11, quickly grew intoxicated with the men who frequented the roadhouse Rose ran--their smell, their postures, the poker games, the Victrola squeaking out "Sweet Leilani" in the background. And when she starts to date--World War II brings the Army to Nome--she discovers the joy of a kiss: "Nothing matters but the feel of his hard, skinny thighs under my rump and the delicious taste of tobacco in his mouth." Yet Rose's shame for her daughter's emerging sexuality is palpable and soon sharpens the uneasy tension that has coursed between them since her father's death.

Scully, though, never betrays her mother, and when she comes to understand the reasons for Rose's shame, she completes what has become a poignant account of the subconscious sparring between mother and daughter over hope and disappointment, time past and time present.

Beautifully written, wisely understated, "Outside Passage" is important for how little it tells, for trusting the image and knowing the eloquence of the picture that lives beyond the frame. More than a story of an Alaskan childhood, "Outside Passage" is about something far more difficult to describe--memory and the delicate skein it weaves within us and across the separations of life.

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