In Fairbanks, you didn’t expect a smile and “Good afternoon!” from Irene, even on a warm and cheerful day. You risked being pummeled with curses if you tried to force a conversation. Unlike the weather, Irene’s face seldom changed from a scowl as she ambled down the street to her “wigwam” at Noyes Slough.
She called her ramshackle cabin her wigwam, and for decades, city fathers tried to acquire the land under it, to construct a bridge at The Slough. But public outrage (and some well-heeled, altruistic Alaskans) protected her interests — until her 80-year-old body could no longer handle 40-below-zero winters anymore.
After an extended illness, friends moved the Alaskan bag lady into a warm long-term facility, where caregivers struggled to keep her from escaping to local bars. She longed for her old routines — each as deeply-rutted in her mind as the scars in her face and hands.
Most of us might have crossed the street to avoid Irene and her contrariness as she ambled through Fairbanks. But would we have — had we known her history?
On a cold November day when Irene was five years old, her mother locked Irene, a baby sibling, and another child in the family’s cabin. Irene’s mother joined friends for a beer while her children shivered in the below-zero cold. To stay warm, industrious Irene lit a fire — but too close to ignitable material.
Good Samaritans on the scene were forever haunted by the two faces pressed against a window — while the cabin burned. The rescuers were unaware of Irene’s baby brother inside. Irene was the only survivor.
For several years Irene was shuttled from hospital to hospital in the Pacific Northwest, until at 17, she returned to Fairbanks. The scars in her heart were deeper than any that people could see. Some locals accepted her, ignoring her outbursts. Others shunned her.
Irene died in 2020 at 92, and her tragic story is remembered whenever we cross the bridge at Noyes Slough.
We seldom know the stories behind the smiles or scowls of people with whom we live and work. Would it change how we feel about them, if we did know?
“Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.” [Romans 12:10]
Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. [Hebrews 13:1-2]