There is a lot of open space in Nora Merkel’s apartment. Furniture lines the outside of the living room, but leaves plenty of room to maneuver in the middle. It’s a stark contrast from the conditions in which Merkel was raised.

“I come from a family of 20 children,” says Merkel. “There wasn’t much privacy.” Still, Merkel recalls a well-spent childhood. “I didn’t miss what I didn’t have so as far as I know I was happy.”

She grew up on a farm near Telegraph Creek, British Columbia. Farming was a family project, and it was Merkel’s resourceful mother who got the children involved whether they realized it or not.

“She would take five or six of us out to play and then she would say, ‘Let’s pull a few weeds.’ Before we knew it, the garden was weeded.” One is reminded of Tom Sawyer painting the fence.

Merkel was also born into the Tahltan First Nation. Today, she is considered an Elder. Recently, Merkel made a return trip to Telegraph Creek and discovered a newfound pride in her roots.

“(The people in Telegraph Creek) were very smart. Going back there, I was quite impressed with them. Their family is their lifeline.”

But Merkel also confesses that she is not particularly well-schooled in her traditional language or culture.

“Whatever we know, we have learned on our own,” says Merkel about her family’s cultural knowledge. It was her father who decided that she and her siblings should focus on assimilation into the modern world. Merkel describes him as being tough, but fair.

“He made us realize there are guidelines. We had to make an honest living,” she says.

Does Merkel regret her lack of First Nations cultural underpinnings? She shrugs her shoulders, “Sometimes I think it would be nice to be able to speak the language.”

Still, Merkel doesn’t resent her father for the choice he made. “Everyone (in the family) is educated and professional,” says Merkel. “He must have done something right.” John Edzerza, the MLA for McIntyre-Takhini is one of Merkel’s younger siblings.

If she got her work ethic from her father, then she certainly got her sense of family and community from her Mom. Her eyes twinkle every time her mother is mentioned. Despite having 20 children, Merkel remembers her as a pillar of dependability.

“My mother was always there for us,” she says. “We tried to bring our kids up like that.”

Indeed, Merkel considers the raising of four successful children to be the major accomplishment of her life. “I’m just so proud of all of them.”

This approach to family is not limited to blood relatives. Merkel recalls a time in the 1980s when she worked at a dormitory for teenagers in downtown Whitehorse.

“I would sit down at a big table with a pack of cards and someone would come and sit beside me, and then someone else would come and sit beside them and before long the whole table would be full. I still see some of those kids around,” she says, smiling warmly.

It would seem that despite all the space in her apartment Nora Merkel can’t help but become close to people.

Peter Jickling is a Whitehorse playwright and the assistant editor of What’s Up Yukon