Sitka, Alaska where my family moved in 1961, and my mom bore down on her painting lessons

Have you ever fallen down the rabbit hole of Google Maps? I sure have.

I was traveling, digitally, the other night to my childhood haunts: the street of my family’s first little home in Syracuse, New York (the house is still there!), and other places I grew up. We moved about every four years, and they weren’t little hops, but sweeping migrations across the country. America, post-WWII, was a mobile society and we were certainly part of it.

The sweetest stop I made was Sitka, Alaska. A historic town at the edge of the Pacific, where I spent fourth and fifth grade. On the satellite view, I saw white snowcapped, spruce-clad mountains, and islands of them, adjoining a sea of midnight blue. Once you were in Sitka, there was no easy way in or out, no highways to take, surrounded as we were by the ocean and colossal, precipitous wilderness.

I clicked on Street View to zoom in closer. Suddenly I was back, in a virtual world of gloomy skies and pendulous rain clouds, just as I remember it. I was 11 again, pedaling around on my bike, breathing in the salty sea air, and the smell of damp ferns and fir trees.

When my dad took a job with Alaska Lumber and Pulp, Alaska had just become a state. Everything about Sitka was strange and new to anyone coming from New York state: The isolated island location, the Tlingit tribe and the descendants of 18th-century Russian settlers who lived there, and even the seaplane my Mom, brothers, and I arrived by.

I’m on the right. Brothers Bruce (left) and Scott (middle.) Seconds before the picture snapped, I’d been crying. But Dad could always make us laugh.

The kind of WW II PBY seaplane we rode in the last stage of our flight to Sitka. My mother, brothers, and I sat in the machine gun turret bubble you see in the middle. We weren’t expecting to land in the water!

Sitka was a place of mavericks and pioneers – loggers, hunters, fishermen. We would go on to make wonderful friends there with our Japanese neighbors, schoolmates, and my dad’s co-workers. (The pulp company was owned by Tokyo investors.)

My brothers and I were thrilled by all the little deprivations, like the way milk came to us by ocean barge, frozen in blocks, how television broadcasted for only a couple of hours at night, and how the sun dropped at 3 p.m. in the winter months, which meant we walked to and from school in the pitch dark. (Step off the beaten path and you could run into a bear!)

Google helped me find our old ranch-style house on the banks of Swan Lake. Spanking newly built and bright cranberry red when we moved there, it had not weathered the decades well. I imagined the rooms and remembered seeing my mother eagerly open a large package in the kitchen. It was a painting she had made, in oils of a still life some weeks before.

Mom was taking a correspondence course in painting. That day, when I watched her remove her artwork from the protective padding, after its long travels across the mainland and back, was when I first became aware that my mom had a secret life.

Alice Margaret Mitchell

While we were off at school or tucked in bed, I realized she was hard at work. Her supplies taking over the kitchen table, Mom studied her reference pieces and mixed her colors and glazes, trying to bring her scenes to life. When she finished one, as soon as the paint dried, she’d wrap it up in a big package and mail it to her instructor, back in the states.

Weeks later it would return, corrections made on a tissue folded over the painting, with additional suggestions typed on separate pages.

Every painting arrival day was exciting. Mom would absorb the comments and go right to work on the re-do.

Whether her muse was Famous Artists Schools (many of its teachers belonging to the New York Society of Illustrators) or another outfit, I can’t remember. I wish my mom were still here to ask.

To my 11-year-old eyes, the lessons seemed formidable: extensive corrections, along with B&W images and her next assignment (invariably another still life).

But more than that, it didn’t make sense. Our new home was a scene of glorious mountain peaks, lonely rugged beaches, and teeming tidepools. Its tiny downtown beckoned with a vintage Russian Orthodox church, Tlingit village and fishing fleet, and the slippery piers where my buddies and I fished for bullheads and patrolled the harbor for killer whales.

Amazement all around. And nobody seemed to be painting it. My mother’s curriculum centered on her still lifes – bottles and baskets, weeds and gourds. And the occasional New England covered bridge.

Because the basics come first. She accepted that and was grateful to be learning, however cumbersome the format and inconvenient the wait. The cycle of mailed lessons and critiques meant so much to her. Sitka possessed no fine arts community, not that we knew of. There were no nearby cities to visit. No museums or galleries, university, or community college to take art classes from.

So the USPS was our lifeline. It brought Mom the lessons and critiques she craved from her art school. As for my brothers and me? We pounced on each new issue of Classics Illustrated and Jack and Jill.

Art students at Syracuse University, thousands of miles away from Sitka

Mom painted on the kitchen table through those Alaskan winters. The isolation was splendid and exotic and just a bit devastating. We were thousands of miles, and worlds, away from my mother’s childhood home in New York. I knew she ached with homesickness, for her mom, for Syracuse.

Mom kept up her long-distance study after we returned to the states. She ventured into watercolor and took me along on her Plein air classes and workshops with watercolorist Jerry Baum in southern Indiana. Later, she painted beside John Carter, after my parents’ move to Texas in 1972.

In her dedication to grow as a painter, Mom worked with many teachers. Her pictures and sketches began to find customers. Eventually, she became a beloved teacher herself, inspiring watercolorists young and old.

A perspective-defying still life painted in oil by Paul Cezanne, my mom’s favorite artist

Before she met my dad, my mom with her spaniel, Shana at her parents’ home on South Bay, Oneida Lake, just outside of Syracuse, N.Y.