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Joan Rutherford: A woman alone in the Marshall Islands - Part 3 of 3

Joan Rutherford: A woman alone in the Marshall Islands - Part 3 of 3

When Joan Rutherford, an American woman in her 50s, retired, she moved to the Marshall Islands where she lived alone on a 30’ x 90’ island in Mili Atoll. This is part 3 of her story. 

Though Joan had come to Micronesia to rest, the first two years were arduous, mainly because there was nothing on her island except one broad tree with fragrant white flowers and five coconut palms growing out of the jagged coral surface. Kazzi and his brothers built her home. Her living room was outside: a table and chair placed in the shade of one of the palm trees. Kazzi’s brothers and sisters resurfaced the island with well-worn bits of coral, gravel that emitted a hollow, melodious tinkle when walked on. Until her island was resurfaced, she plodded around in rubber boots to keep the sharp coral from cutting her feet. 

“Before I settled on this small island for keeps, they assured me, ‘In one day, Joan, we can make it smooth. Shit! Eight month’s later they did,” Joan said laughing. 

The youth group, for a $50.00 donation to the church, resurfaced her island. 

“Do you know who the youth group is?” Joan asked me. “The youth group is all of Kazzi’s brothers and sisters. It seems the missionaries had been through some years before when they had been junior- high age and organized them into a youth group. When they are in their 50s and 60s, they’re still going to be the youth group.” Joan laughingly explained. 

Joan lived in a one-person tent for five months while her house was being built. She had no refrigeration and she cooked outside with a piece of tin roofing propped up to block the wind. 

“I lost 35 pounds in 60 days.”

Joan learned how to keep potatoes, onions, and cabbage for months. 

“No refrigeration was a real difficult thing. Eventually I could have had a refrigerator. But I have heard that the introduction of refrigeration changes the culture more than anything. With no refrigeration, everything is gonna spoil, so if you catch a fish larger than you can eat, you will naturally share it.” 

Life became easier once she moved into her home. She could cook inside over a kerosene burner and prop herself up with pillows in bed and read. A large window in her bedroom allowed a breeze to enter. It also provided a view of a nearby deserted island and the stretch of shallow lagoon that separated them. 

Joan's petite but comfortable bedroom. (Photo credit: DK Howe)

Joan's petite but comfortable bedroom. (Photo credit: DK Howe)

Sitting at the large wooden table/desk in her cookhouse, she could watch the Pacific Ocean crash onto the reef that surrounded the atoll, change color, from blue to aquamarine, as it travelled toward shore, and when it finally reached the island, morph into a translucent greenish white. She often sat there to work on her shell collection that artfully decorated the crossbeams of her wall. 

“In the tropics you don’t have to insulate, so you’ve got to put something there.” 

Though Joan snorkeled every day and saw plenty of shells grazing on the floor of the lagoon, those in her collection, for the most part, came from the beach. The live ones she left alone. 

“The tiger cowries are so gorgeous when they’re alive...like jewels.” Snorkeling in the protected lagoon was an everyday affair. 

The most beautiful thing Joan saw in the five years she was there was Typhoon Axel. While typhoons in the lower Marshalls are rare, Axel not only paid a visit, but it centered itself over Mili Atoll. Fierce 100-mile-per-hour winds battered the island while the surf, half as high as the palm trees, threatened to engulf it. But Joan was glad to be there. 

“That was the most beautiful weather I’d ever seen. The waters rose up and they were all aquamarine. They were high. They were clear. They were glistening. It was as though the light was coming from the water, half aquamarine and half whitecaps.” 

Eventually, Joan had to return to the United States. She left for medical reasons. She misses her home on the Marshall Islands, her adopted family, and the seabirds. The question she is most often asked is “How far were you from medical care?” 

Joan Rutherford being interviewed by the author in her house in Washington. (Photo credit: DK Howe)

Joan Rutherford being interviewed by the author in her house in Washington. (Photo credit: DK Howe)

“I could make my life decisions based on that fear. I could live in a little apartment across the street from the hospital. And I could be sitting there so disappointed." 

Before her medical challenges forced her to leave the island, Joan had planned on splitting her time between the island and her home in the U.S. 

“I had been planning to move and be living mostly [in Washington] and then go back there occasionally, probably with friends that I wanted to show the island to for a month or two at a time. What I hadn’t planned on was getting evacuated out with no transition time.” 

While in the Marshalls, Joan had installed a display of seashells for the Alele Museum in Majuro. 

“I think the gift of shells was a thank you for having me in their country for five years and I have an idea that was a step on the journey back to the states for me emotionally.” 


Joan Rutherford: A woman alone in the Marshall Islands - Part 2 of 3

Joan Rutherford: A woman alone in the Marshall Islands - Part 2 of 3