Joni and Alexandra

She Came Before Me

By Alexandra Lev about her mother, Joni Dykstra, as told to Gale Straub

This is part one of a four part “She Came Before Me” series sponsored by Vasque Footwear, profiling the feminine mentors in our outdoor lives. 

I haven’t always gotten along with my mother, Joni. Most of my childhood and teenage years were full of fighting. I’m an only child and never really bonded with her until my mid twenties.

outdoor mentor
Joni backpacking

My parents divorced when I was six and my mom got breast cancer the same year. She had been working at Snowbird ski resort in Utah for the past 18 years and all of a sudden she was a single parent with cancer. She went back to school to finish her bachelors degree and worked her ass off to support us. I went to live with my dad while she was sick and their differing parenting styles created a divide between us. I didn’t think she was as fun as my dad, she enforced all the rules. They were two extremes.

Looking back, I think about how hard that time in her life must have been. She must have felt so alone, no one was on her team. It does make me sad. I know my dad is a very emotional person, and my mom is always taking care of everyone else. I think my dad realizes that the way he parented made it harder for her.

I’m lucky, though, that my parents didn’t have a nasty divorce, they stayed friends and have always had a mutual respect for one another. I’m very grateful for that.

Joni Dykstra

She taught me when to pizza and when to french fry. We’d ski a whole day through the trees.

We were mountain people. Every weekend we’d wake up at the crack of dawn and drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon so they could go to work while I was in ski school. When they divorced and she stopped working at the mountain not much changed, we were still there every Saturday and Sunday in line for first chair. She taught me when to pizza and when to french fry. We’d ski a whole day through the trees.

child skiing
When to pizza – Alexandra Lev skiing as a kid

When I was young it was the best of times. When I was in 7th grade the cancer returned in full force. I never saw her cry, not once. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about her sickness; there were a lot of times that I wanted her to share how she was feeling with me. Now, climbing mountains, I’ve learned a lot about inner strength and my own inner dialogue. I think about what she must have been telling herself, “you can do this, you’ve got this.” My mom has never wanted anyone to give her a pity party.

She persevered once again and beat the cancer. Several years later she had double knee replacements. She has two titanium knees and still skis as much as possible.

Joni Dykstra vintage skiing
Joni skiing in 1980

I guess with age comes perspective and as I got older I began to see my mom in a different light. I knew she was a strong women but I started to understand her more and realize how similar I am to her.

As I got older I began to see my mom in a different light.

My senior year of high school I was in a pretty serious car accident, I broke my back and my neck. My mom was definitely the rock of the family and held everyone together. I was in the hospital for a long time and I moved from there to a hospital bed in my mom’s living room. I couldn’t get out of bed for six weeks and she took care of me throughout it all. She’s given so much up and through that dealt with a bratty teenager. I wish there was a way I could take it back, but we wouldn’t be who we are without these experiences. I hope she knows  how grateful I am and that I know she did the best she could.

My mom is a athlete in every sense of the word. She is super fit, always has been, and is very dedicated to a healthy lifestyle. She recently retired and her activity level has just continued to increase.Two years ago she went skiing in Japan, this year heli skiing in Canada. When she’s not skiing, she’s road biking or hiking or planning her fifth trek through the Alps. She told me recently, “the mountains are my peace.”

Joni Dykstra today
Joni today

I think my mom is probably the strongest woman I know. This fall we are heading to Iceland together for a mother/daughter trip. I’m sure we will argue at times but I couldn’t be more excited for a trip with just her. There’s a lot to learn from her still, and there’s a lot for her to learn about me. I’m grateful that we have developed a relationship after years of battling each other. You can never thank your parents enough.

Alexandra Lev lives near Portland, Oregon. Follow her adventures on Instagram and via her portfolio site.

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