Mother’s Day, Siettende Mai (Norwegian Constitution Day) and the 110th anniversary of the 1912 Katmai eruption are just around the calendrical corner and Mary Morris, who died recently, brings these important days together. Mary was a beloved friend, mother and grandmother — the kind of person that was the impetus for Mother’s Day. She had a motherly concern for those even outside of her family circle.
She was “always a lady, very polite,” said friend Cherie Stover Biddle. “She had a very strong connection with her faith.”
She also loved to garden. “She encouraged people to grow a garden,” to be self sufficient. “She grew beautiful flowers, fantastic strawberries and zucchini,” said Biddle.
“She took a lot of pride in what she did,” including her cooking, which she was very good at, noted Biddle.
Another close friend, Dana Stafford, said Mary was “encouraging and very supportive.” The two would often have telephone conversations about the weather, recipes and other topics of interest.
Mary had a “gentle spirit,” and although she could have been firm with others, she was always ”gentle with me,” said Stafford.
Mary loved Siettende Mai and was a devoted member of the Island Viking Lodge chapter of Sons of Norway.
Jan Finlay, former Sons of Norway president, recalls Mary’s “special sweet smile.” The lodge had been going through a dry season, and somewhat discouraged, Jan came to a meeting. As soon as she walked through the doorway, Mary was there with her big winsome smile. Mary had decorated the hall according to the theme of the season and had prepared a big dinner. Even when her own resources were running low, Mary loved to provide special treats to the lodge. It was obvious that the membership was like family to her, and she was family to them.
And how does Mary fit into the Katmai eruption? It goes back to her grandfather, Nikolai Kalmakov, whom she fondly remembered. Kalmakov eventually moved to the Alaska Peninsula village of Kanatak, where Mary grew up.
Grandfather Nikolai was the posterity of Fedor Kalmakov, a Russian American Company employee from central Russia who established the Novo-Alek sandrovskii Redoubt on the Nushagak River and remained in charge of it until his death in 1943. The Kolmakovskii Redoubt on the Kuskokwim River was named in Fedor’s honor. Fedor’s wife, Natalia, was from Katmai in Kukak Bay.
Nikolai and his wife, Dora (Chichenoff) Kalmakov, lived in Katmai village in June of 1912 while Dora was pregnant with Pauline, Mary’s mother. During that time Mount Katmai erupted. The Kalmakovs apparently had a premonition that something dreadful was going to happen that day.
Nikolai had everything in his kayak, ready to go. He had a covering over it, so no ashes got in. He placed the Mother of God icon on the bow of his kayak and the couple was protected from the fire that was falling all around them. Not a single cinder fell on the kayak, said Mary, who got much of her information about that dark day from her family and her father’s friend, Larry Ellanak, who lived his sunset years in Ouzinkie. Like Nikolai, Larry was a church reader . He lived in Kanatak 15 years and traveled all over Bristol Bay and other parts of the Peninsula, interpreting for priests. He often traveled by dog team.
Mary loved it when Larry came from Ouzinkie to talk to her mother. Through Larry’s accounts, Mary got to know her grandfather even better.
During the 1912 disaster, Nikolai took his wife to Cold Bay where “grandma had my mother,” Mary said. “They lived off the land” and then moved to Kanatak to settle down.
Nikolai decided to walk back to abandoned Katmai to retrieve the icons in the church there and bring them to the chapel in Kanatak. He struck out for the place in the dead of winter.
When he came back from that trek, there were holes in his boots. He had to tip-toe across the creeks to keep from getting his feet wet.
The icons were placed safely in the chapel and after Kanatak was abandoned they were taken to Kodiak, Mary said.
“My grandparents were amazing people,” Mary said. “They were village doctors.”
“My grandfather was gentle and kind. He was very religious. He passed (the faith) on to my mother and she passed it on to me.”
In a 2002 interview, Mary said she clearly remembered the village she grew up in. “I remember where the post office was, and Evan’s Store, the barn,” she said as she perused pictures of the village. “There were cattle and horses. I remember the church and my grandparents’ house and the school; and two other houses. That’s where Big Andrew lived.
“Mama took me berry-picking across the river. I never saw a bear, but mama told about big bears in the mountains.”
Mary’s father, Frank Yaggi, was a fisherman and he also trapped foxes, weasels and other animals.
“Dad provided well for his family (by catching) fish, getting food from the land and beaches (such as) clams, bidarkis and tallow from deer or caribou. He put it in boxes and stored it.”
He was born at Cape Douglas, on the upper coast of the Peninsula.
In summer, many of the villagers traveled to fish camps on Becharof Lake or went to Egegik or other Bristol Bay villages to work in the canneries.
In 1948, Pauline took her kids to Kodiak. They lived on Tagura Road and years later, Mary married her neighbor, Reynold Morris, who had moved to Kodiak with his family in March of 1948.
The Morrises raised three boys here.
For many years, Mary worked for the Kodiak Area Native Association and was involved with home care and day care for children.
Several years after Mary’s mother left Kanatak, the village was evacuated. The post office and school closed down, and families moved to communities where their children could continue their education.
”They wanted to be close to places where they could get medical attention,” said Mary. “Some ended up in Kodiak, others in Afognak.”
With no residents to guard the village, it was frequented by looters and arsonists. Buildings were rifled and burned, artifacts and other valuable items were stolen.
To Mary Morris, Kanatak was home and a dwelling place for hearty souls and heroes who ventured into high seas, cold winds and blizzards to provide sustenance for their families and perform sacred duties.It was also a place that produced gentle souls, such as Mary Morris, and her mother, Pauline.