Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Alice While, November 19, 1936-Present

As I write this, Aunt Alice is still living. She won't be for much longer. Last week she went under hospice care, and I know quite well what that means. She has cancer, a disease she has fought for a long time. She has lived a life any one of us would aspire to: one full of love and purpose, kindness and meaning and, always, humor. She has been happily married longer than I have been alive. And I don't like eulogies, so I would rather grab these moments to talk about her while she is still with us, while her story is still unfolding. After that, I don't know if I can.

Aunt Alice is my husband's aunt. But she is more than family-- she is family with no blood relation to us at all, who could have chosen to dismiss us from her life at any time, without consequence. You see, she and her husband, John, were my husband's parents' best friends. I say "were" because Mike's parents passed away several years ago. All Mike's life he has known the Whiles as Uncle John and Aunt Alice, and all his life she has treated him like her own nephew. If there should be a barrier, a seam, an invisible line between a nephew-by-blood and a nephew-by-friendship, you wouldn't know it with Alice and John. And then there's me-- the woman who married the son of her best friend. I want to talk about that.

Nearly every summer, she and John would invite us out to their little vacation cottage on the Chesapeake. She welcomed our kids, brought out the toys for them, grilled up a feast: hamburgers, corn on the cob, potato salad and chips and salsa and whatever else they had around the place. She had a little chicken-leg-shaped mold, which could press a bit of hamburger into the shape of a chicken leg-- whimsical, my husband would say. She'd often pull that out to amuse the kids. At some point before dinner she would walk with us down to the Bay and help my daughter find sea glass along the beach. We'd walk out onto the dock and watch seabirds and boats through Uncle John's binoculars, and Alice and I would often hang back on the beach together and watch the kids play in the surf. In her cottage she kept a little dish for the sea glass she found, there on the windowsill among the lighthouse and Noah's Ark-themed decorations. There she is in the photo, smiling at me as I snapped a picture of her, standing in front of the dock looking over the foggy Chesapeake.

Not long after Mike's father died-- two years after his mother passed on-- we were over at the cottage and Uncle John told us a story about going out to dinner with them years before. The men had gone out for shrimp, he said, and the women went out shopping; my father-in-law's leg was broken and in a cast, so it stuck out as they ate the all-you-can-eat shrimp. At last the women came back, and the waitress told them of their husbands, "They put us to the test!"

A little while after John told us this story, he was out back grilling, and Alice began, out of nowhere, to tell us the same story. It was identical in every detail, and she ended it by speaking of the women's return to the restaurant and the waitress saying-- cue the same intonation-- "They put us to the test!"

This is why John and Alice are such a delight to me and Mike. The two shall become one flesh: when you talk to Uncle John and Aunt Alice, this seems less like a figure of speech than a literal, albeit mystical, reality. They work together as if they are two halves of a whole, each entirely their own person, but twinned with the other on a deep and inseparable level. We admire them tremendously; we seek to be like them one day. And they loved Mike's parents, just as we did. They shared our grief when they died, they share their happy memories of those two and carry them into our children's present. They have helped us carry the torch for people we loved, and love still.

I can say all these things about her: she has been kind to me when I least deserved it. She consoled me when I was grieving-- even though she was, too-- and opened her home to us, bestowing her hospitality upon us generously, sending us home with containers full of leftovers, folded recipes from her cookbook, toys for our kids. She has cheered me on as I've worked toward publication, and made me laugh, and loved my children. She has treated me like her own, even though I am several degrees removed from her own.

And so the gratitude I feel toward her is profound. Because in my own life I have been forced to confront the fact that if I am to experience the joy of being an aunt, a cousin, and now even a daughter, I am going to have to cobble together those relationships with people who might only loosely be considered "my relatives"-- and often aren't at all. This is the biggest hole in my soul, and some days I suspect it has its own gravity. And while I hold great affection for my little second cousins once removed, and my first cousin by marriage, and the friends who let me adore their children and the children themselves, I often feel a little apologetic about it. Is it okay if I love you? Is it okay if I treat you like I have a right to?

Aunt Alice is the yes to all of that. She is the one who has shown me that it is okay to hold tight to people, and treat them well, for no reason other than that you love them. A blood relationship is not what matters; all that matters is that you are willing to take out the chicken-drumstick hamburger mold every summer, just for those kids, and adore them without reservation. She picked us up like sea glass-- rough-tumbled and questionable treasures, little damaged things in which she found some worthwhile beauty. It makes a person vulnerable to offer that kind of love and kindness and generosity to people who are not bound to her, but Aunt Alice has never hesitated nor withheld.

We know. We put her to the test.


  1. Rebecca- I don't know you but it seems we share an Aunt. Aunt Alice and Uncle John lived across the street from me when I was growing up. They are the only people outside of blood relations that I call Aunt and Uncle. You described them so well. My sister and I were very shy children but Aunt Alice and Uncle John were family; I don't ever remember hesitating to be close to them. I think what you said about Alice was very profound. The comfort it takes for a person to have with themselves- the way she made each and every person feel loved and worthy- what a gift. Thank you.

  2. Dory-- I'm sorry to be so late in replying, but I really love your comment. One beautiful thing to come out of this loss is seeing how many lives she touched-- and yet made each of us feel so special! It makes me aspire to be like her all the more. Thanks for your kind words about my little tribute to her and thanks very much for getting in touch. I hope it won't be the last time!