Erica would have turned 48 today. She probably would have spent a quiet evening at home with her family. There would have been a modest number of gifts and a nice dinner. She might have received a visit from her neighbors as well. In what I believe was a divine outpouring, Paul and Erica had some of the finest neighbors a person could wish for this side of heaven. Just after they moved into the Odessa neighborhood in early 2012, a mass was detected on daughter Lauryn’s brain. Strangers immediately became friends when Antonia, Adam, Cris, Ella and many others swooped in with baked dinners and good wishes. They did it again when Erica’s breast cancer flared up again earlier this year. They were a regular presence at the hospice, and I have four new friends now.
For someone whose family of origin was fractured for so many years during her youth, Erica was fiercely devoted to her husband and daughters. When Paul joined the Coast Guard in 2001, Erica took on the task of washing and pressing his uniform and shining his shoes. Whenever Paul was on duty, he would step out of the shower and find his uniform ready to go. He did not ask Erica to do this; nor would it have been possible for him to talk her out of it. For her many behind-the-scenes chores in Paul’s behalf, Erica was presented with a medallion and certificate of service by Paul’s base commander when she was at hospice.
In many high-end restaurants, guests are served by two waiters but only see one. The front waiter is the one who takes the order, brings the food and beverages, and entertains the guests while keeping the table tidy. That server gets all the credit for the service but in actuality is assisted unseen by the back waiter, who stays in the kitchen gathering the necessary china, coordinating with the chef, procuring wines, etc., so the front waiter can come in and collect whatever he needs. The two waiters are equal but have different roles. They split the tips down the middle at the end of the night.
Erica was the back waiter in the Johnson family. Her occupation was wife, mother and homemaker. In this age when so many people see the job of “homemaker” as some kind of consolation prize, Erica chose her occupation purposefully. She was more than intelligent and capable enough to succeed handsomely in the visible way so many westerners consider “more than.” She had college credentials in business administration and many undocumented skills and competencies, mostly in computers and telecommunications. If Erica hadn’t become a mother, she might well have ended up earning six figures.
However, becoming a mother changed Erica. Many of us commented that a side of Erica we had never seen before emerged when Ana and Lauryn came along. Her dedication to them was equal to or greater than any she had ever had to her own life. During those 12 years of motherhood, she displayed remarkable love and self-sacrifice, much more than any of us had ever seen in her before. She spoke frequently about their rites of passage and developing personalities and was constantly photographing them. She sent batches of pictures out regularly. My favorite was one of Lauryn riding in the back seat of the car and looking up at her father with an endearing expression I can’t describe other than to say that it had in it wonder and fascination and a huge appetite for life.
Erica’s children finished what her relationship with her husband had begun, which was to unlock her ability to engage emotionally with other people. I say “unlocked” because it was always there — just subdued. For a good part of her life, Erica expressed her love by taking charge of certain aspects of other people’s lives. Of course, many people find such love unlovely, and I was no exception. Many years ago, Erica offered to pick me up from my apartment and drive me to the Anchorage Daily News to get my photograph taken to go with an article I had submitted. She arrived a few minutes early and complained because I wasn’t ready to go. I informed her that I wasn’t ready because the agreed-upon time hadn’t yet arrived. She proceeded to instruct me on punctuality. We ended up in an argument, which for my part was a failure to see the big picture: here she was, taking time out of her day to drive me to the newspaper. I believe she was proud of her little brother and eager to be a part of what was to be a memorable occasion. It was my first time being published.
It wasn’t the first time the strength of Erica’s personality overtook her intentions. She was the quintessential Perkins woman — strong as steel with almost too much energy and will power. It was the same potent set of attributes that had been found in her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, each of them their parents’ firstborn child. I remember the four-generation pictures from the early 70’s — Erica in Grandmother Perkins’s lap flanked by Grandmother and Mom. No men were in the picture, which underscored the matriarchal nature of the family on my mother’s side. And yet, with all their strength of will, there was much love in these Perkins women, of whom only one — my mom — remains alive.
Thinking about Erica’s passing has brought to mind a hundred memories of her unique personality — of which I may write more at a later date. I feel grateful for many things: that the two of us mended our differences while we still had time left to enjoy each other; the gift of two lovely nieces; that we were warned in advance of Erica’s passing so we were able to say goodbye properly. Erica died loving and knowing she was loved.
Happy birthday, Erica.