Last Call

One With the Underdogs

My mother was 17 when she met Alice, 40 years her senior.

By From the February 2009 issue

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Lawyer, doctor, Indian chief, Auntie chanted mantra-like as she and her niece buffed, polished, and mopped their way through the mansion where Auntie served as maid. If an orphan like Alice wanted a shot at a decent life, she’d better wed one of the three, Auntie insisted. Holy matrimony as snare. The Good Life could be wily prey during those Depression years.

Jim hardly fit the profile. He’d resided at the Home for Little Wanderers in Boston since the afternoon his father left for the store and never returned. The bitterness-tinged loneliness of abandonment burgeoned into an even more profound solitude when his brothers were adopted, leaving him behind. Ascension to Indian chief appeared unlikely, yet the day Alice met Jim the pair understood one another, fundamentally, as few others ever would. Superficial status trumped and transcended by two hearts’ intuitive coupling.

And so, despite Auntie’s hair-pulling apoplectics, Alice and Jim forged a forbidden romance. Furtive moonlight rendezvous by hobo-strewn railroad tracks evolved into open courtship. In 1937 the couple married. A few years later Jim went off to war. He returned scarred. Difficult. An essentially good man with demons that thrived, never drowned, in the bottle and a sad past like an implacable dark cloud. Forbearance and self-sacrifice in relationships, of course, long ago fell out of vogue with the rise of the Boomers’ Nation of Navel-Gazing. No matter. Alice loved with a stubborn unconditionality, seer of the diamond in the sometimes very rough, a living example of a commitment.

My mother was 17 when she met Alice, 40 years her senior. They worked together soldering circuit boards in the dirt floor basement of a hard-luck small-town factory and came to fancy themselves a comedy team on par with Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance. (Both later acknowledged the hilarity might have been as much a phenomenon of workplace chemical inhalants as personal chemistry.) The friendship, happily, proved more enduring than the job or contact high, demolishing the idea that age poses any real gauntlet for kindred spirits. “Rachel’s friend” soon metamorphosed into an honorary member of the family, “one of us.”

When Alice’s physical condition deteriorated to the point that she could no longer live alone in the house she and Jim had purchased decades earlier with a $50 down payment, my mother and her fiancé built an addition onto their own home deep in the New Hampshire woods and cared, selflessly, for her every need. Strands of life had woven tightly together in ways a teenage girl and middle-aged woman hunched over circuit boards long ago could not have fathomed--the end result elegant and unique as a snowflake.

In my mother’s house lived a rescue dog named Buddha, paradoxically the least Zen-like dog in the history of canines. My sister’s kid boxed Buddha’s ears. He nipped her face. Coos elicited growls. Even in a family of pooch obsessives this dog was dangerously close to getting his Euthanasia Express ticket punched--until Alice came along. Her glacial gait and general immobility soothed his nerves, rebuilt his fractured trust in humankind. “You need a good dusting, my boy,” she’d say as she gently brushed his snow-covered face with a Kleenex and, inevitably, reached for the treat jar. The dog gained 20 pounds along with his new lease on life. Another orphan, another special relationship, Alice was one with the underdogs, always.

Toward the end, Alice had frequent visions of Jim, who had died of lung cancer in 1988, at her bedside. One side of the couple’s long conversations emanated fuzzily from the infant monitor my mother installed to keep less obtrusive watch over her fading friend. Presumably Alice felt Jim’s presence when, as my mother held her hand and Buddha rested his great snout atop her foot, she took her last rumbling breath and exited a life well lived for the Home for Spirit Wanderers she so fervently believed existed in the Great Beyond. Not exactly the Trinity endlessly hyped from the pulpit, but try to find the fault in it.

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