Christmas and cultural exchange with Elder Mentor Maryann Johnson

Hello! My name is Maryann Johnson. I'm from Montana. My grandfather homesteaded there in the late 1800s, and the family is still there. They came from Norway, and my other grandparents came from Poland. My grandpa started with 360 homestead acres and turned it into 4,000 acres. He built a beautiful two-story white ranch house. His was the first home with electricity and plumbing. It was pretty exciting times. They were just starting to put up telephone lines then, at the turn of the century. We had a small mountain range to the east of us and a ski area about 60 miles from us.

It was a quaint town of 700 people: two churches, one café, and one school, kindergarten through high school. My graduating class was 40 students. Our town was a ranching community of cattle and wheat. In the summers I'd go and stay with my aunt and uncle, help her cook three meals a day, and spend the rest of my time riding horses and bringing in the cattle in the fall. I lived the real Yellowstone.

Of course, my mother was Polish, so I also grew up with the beautiful traditions and rituals of the Catholic church. The mass was still in Latin then. I remember going to Midnight Mass when I was very little for Christmas. I can still recall the cold on my face and the snow crunching underneath my feet. I had these pink rabbit fur boots. The altar in the church was covered in fresh pine branches, with blue Christmas lights, and the choir was incredible. Our town butcher sang bass and his voice was beautiful. One of my grade school teachers conducted the choir.

We lived as an extended family. The coffee pot was always on, my mother was always baking something, and the doors were always unlocked. My uncles were such kind men. I remember being thrown in the air when I was little, and I remember their sparkling blue eyes.

My favorite place was Tiger Butte. It got that name because it looked like a tiger laying down. We'd go up this old country dirt road, up to the top, and there would be antelopes jumping all over before the snowstorms.

All the aunts and uncles, all my cousins, everybody would get together for Christmas dinner at our original farmhouse. The women would be in this huge kitchen. Dinner would already be made and spread out on the large dining room table. The women would make the lefse days before, and it would be stored in dry stacks. Then we would take it and layer it in linen or cloth napkins, then steam it in the roasting pan. They had one of those electric oven roasters. Finally, we'd roll them up-they'd be nice and soft-and smear butter, cinnamon and sugar on top. It was like our dessert. The next room was where the men would be playing poker (my dad and uncle), then there was the parlor with one of those old-fashioned pianos that plays by itself.

My parents had had friends who came down from Alaska in the '50s and they showed slides at our house when I was about five or six, and I knew right then and there I wanted to go to Alaska. I came up on Oct. 7, 1976. It was a lot of snow.

I have served as an Elder Mentor at several schools in Anchorage and have thoroughly enjoyed my experience, especially the diversity Anchorage has to offer. I have been exposed to so many different cultures from my own, and that has become so valuable and rewarding to me personally. We as all people of this planet have more in common than we do otherwise. Human emotions are human emotions.

I immensely respect the professionals, the staff and teachers at our Anchorage schools who do so much to support our kids and encourage their success, safety and growth as young people. School culture has changed so much since I was growing up to be more inner-directed than based on outer authority, which is powerful.

I first started as an Elder Mentor at the school my grandchild was attending. I love working one on one with kids, assisting them with reading, and helping them with their class assignments in all subjects. I had this one student who was reading this story about dirt. It really made me laugh that he didn't like dirt at all. I had never met a child who didn't like playing in the dirt. Well, some days later we were out in the garden, and all of a sudden he started getting his hands in the dirt and having a great time. That was so much fun to see.

Our children need us. Our teachers need us. So many kids need a connection with a positive role model, a grandparent figure, a safe, caring, loving mentor. Also, because Anchorage is so diverse, if you or someone you know is bilingual, we really need you. The teachers are overloaded and they are doing their best, but any help from the community is appreciated.

It can be intimidating entering a school, not knowing how it might go with the kids, learning new material and familiarizing yourself with your school culture, but it is worth it. I have learned and grown so much, my network has expanded, and I'm building community where I live. My advice is to jump in and start swimming. I have a card from school on my fridge right now that says, "You are wonderful!" I get lots of beautiful cards from the students saying thank you.

Become an Elder Mentor in your community

The Elder Mentor Program is currently accepting applications for the school year. Benefits for qualifying seniors age 55 and older include paid time off, a tax free stipend, paid holidays, free meals and travel assistance. For more information and to apply, call 907-865-7276. Check out the online interest form and learn more at If you are a school interested in having Elder Mentors volunteer in your classrooms, please contact us. You can also reach the team via e-mail at Search "Elder Mentor" on Facebook to find us there.

Maryann's Lefse recipe

This is a really short version, and you really do need the tools. It's an art, more like quilting. It's a community effort, lots of people do it together. I also made lefse locally with Sons of Norway. There was one man who was rolling it perfectly thin in a circle-he was an artist. Learning how to roll it, the kind of rolling pin you use, it's all very beautiful and impressive.

For my family, lefse was a Christmas tradition and treat for us.

Boil 2 ½ pounds russet potatoes. Put through the ricer. Add 1 stick butter, ½ cup cream, 1 tsp salt, ½ tablespoon sugar, and refrigerate overnight.

Add 1 ½ cup flour, mix with hands, form balls about 1/3 cup. Roll out balls with covered lefse rolling pin with enough flour. Use round lefse stick with flat point to scoop onto heated dry grill.

The round lefse griddle is very hot, so cook for a few minutes on each side until light brown spots appear. Lefse is rolled very thin so it cooks very quickly. There are photos on YouTube.

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