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"The past is a foreign country—they do things differently there." That phrase from the 1953 English novel "The Go-Between" is more famous than the book itself. Maybe because there's a truth within it. Whether we're trying to understand something that happened yesterday or something that happened seventy years ago, there are always parts of the story that elude us, and tantalizing figures who we can never quite know. In this story—of the Satko family's odyssey across Depression era America in a home made automobile that turns into a boat—in this story one of those elusive figures is Mollie Satko. Wife to Paul Satko, mother to twelve children in all.
North Sea Meridians Satko, daughter of Paul and Mollie Satko.
Molly, my mother—she was, Lord, the first born of eight, in—well the called it Newtown but Muffesborough North Carolina. And she grew up on a farm. And my grandmother—my mother's mother—was trying to get my mother to marry someone she had picked out and my mother objected. So she was sent to Nortfolk VA as punishment, to be away from the family until she changed her mind. To live with her aunt that had a milliner's shop, and work at the milliner's shop. And my aunt and her husband had a friend, a young widower Paul Satko.
And that's how they got together.
DB: That's how they met?
That's how they met.
In Paul Satko's account of the journey from Virginia to Alaska—recorded in 1941—he rarely mentions Mollie. She's a sort of absent presence in the story though, how could she not be? You hear Paul talking about his plans and how he has every angle covered and it's the most natural thing in the world, this trip, and you can't help but wonder, 'What must his wife have been thinking?' Around the time the family was ready to set off overland from Virginia, she was heavily pregnant. It's hard to know for sure what she thought—she didn't talk much about the trip, even to her children. But you can make an educated guess from what's known about her character. For that, just listen to what happened next in the story of her fledgling relationship with Paul Satko—he's called papa on this piece of tape. And remember, as far as her parents are concerned, Mollie's fate's already been decided—she'll do what she's told and marry who she's supposed to:
Northsea: And then when my grandmother was sending for my mother and saying you have to come home and you've got to marry this man my mother got very upset. And papa said 'I'm a widower and I have these two children, do you want to get married?' And she said yes.
There was no love or dating, it was just an arrangement.
DB: When you say there was no love, there must have been some spark there.
Well mama said no. She said no. It was a good thing. She liked him—she wasn't in love with him. She just liked him, and he said the same for her. He liked her. So they decided that they should get married and em, because his family was pressuring him to marry and nice Slavic girl that he didn't like. So they were both being pressured to marry other people and they ran off to the justice of the peace. Foiled both families.
DB: The absent presence in the Satko story is suddenly visible in full color here—strong willed, smart, determined—sensible. Somebody you'd actually WANT to have with you on a 3000 mile trip to Alaska. Cathy Satko is Mollie's grand-daughter. I asked her how Paul persuaded Mollie that the trip was a good idea:
Cathy: I don't believe he ever asked her—I'm sure he told her. And she was so small, by comparison she was a very small woman and I believe that he fully dominated her. I don't recall her saying that but I...but I felt that she felt she should submit completely to her husband: whatever his wishes were that's what they were going to do. And especially with this particular gentleman, you weren't going to get your way I'm sure. It was all going to be his way.
Northsea: She had complete trust in Papa, that he would do what he said. They had trust in one another. I don't understand it but—
DB: You don't understand it?
Northsea: You think I have it with MY husband? Well I have trust with him yeah but...she would say 'Oh no, your Papa says this the way it's going to be. Just have faith in him.' That's the way they were.
In the context of the time, Northsea Satko's memory of her mother makes perfect sense. We're talking about the 1930s when it probably wasn't that unusual for a man to make decisions and his wife to fall into line behind him. Which is NOT to imply that Mollie wasn't happy to follow Paul.
Northsea: You know my mother never complained. Never. Ever. I don't know. I think they were just vagabonds. They liked to do it. Because mom would travel all the time, even in her old age she loved traveling.
DB: These sorts of personality traits that we're talking about with your mum and your dad—what of that has rubbed off on you?
Oh lord, I think I have a sense of humor. Not quite as good as my dad cos he'd pull pranks on us, oh God. He truly would. And Mom. I hope I have some of her patience because god she had a bucket load of it. She was patient with us. I don't know. I know I don't have her quickness. She was quick mover. Her feet, she'd just fly over the floor.
You can picture Mollie so clearly from this description—cooking up dinner from improvised ingredients somewhere in the tundra of the mid west—she could make a meal from the thinnest ingredients her family say. An essential skill for a woman orchestrating a family traveling across a depression ravaged country—making their way towards salt water, Alaska and a new life.