Lunch with Alice-Lee
Guest Column by Jodi Nisly Hertzler
Editor’s Note: Jodi Nisly Hertzler writes occasionally for Another Way and is a college counselor, tutor, and freelance proofreader. Jodi and her husband have three children.
There are four women at the table. Only two share a blood tie, but we’re all family. I’m in the seat tucked closest to the wall. Across from me is my mother. That connection is molecularly deep and eternal—I feel it almost physically, an elastic cord that links us together, expanding and contracting as needed, but never torn. To my right is my sister-in-law. We’re different in so many ways (she’s a vivacious Latina with eternal energy and creativity, and I’m . . . not) but we greatly enjoy each other’s company and have discovered common ground in many areas of life. To my left is Alice-Lee, the reason we are all here.
The stories are delightful to hear, but what I’ve treasured even more is the fact that she doesn’t sugarcoat her memories.
Alice-Lee isn’t related to any of us through blood or marriage, but she’s a member of our family just the same. And she just turned 95 years old. To celebrate, we’ve arrived at her home on a Sunday afternoon, laden with lunch and a basket full of birthday goodies.
I’m not exactly sure how Alice-Lee became part of our family. It happened gradually, starting with a friendship that developed years ago between my parents and Alice-Lee and her husband, residents of the retirement community that employed my parents. I remember them joining our family for dinner now and then, but it wasn’t until Alice-Lee’s husband died many years ago that we started regularly inviting her for holidays and other events. Her children don’t live in the area, and my grandparents have long since passed away, so it wasn’t long before she became an honorary matriarch of our family.
When my first child was born in Oregon 14 years ago, Alice-Lee sent me a card. I can’t remember exactly what she wrote, but I do remember that it contained money and firm instructions that this money was for me, not for the baby. She remembered what it was like to be a young mother far from home, and knew that some pampering was in order.
Alice-Lee’s husband served in the military for years—in fact, they rushed their wedding because they were concerned that he would be deployed to Japan. She recalled that day over lunch, when I admired the wedding picture hanging on her wall—a handsome young man in his uniform, a slightly devilish look in his eye, standing behind a lovely young woman with dark hair and Alice-Lee’s gentle smile. After his service, Alice-Lee’s husband became a pilot and flight instructor. He flew commercial airliners, often internationally, essentially leaving her to raise their three boys alone for large blocks of time.
I’ve always been amazed by her clear memories of those young boys. When she joins our family and watches the six cousins racing around, those recollections surface. The stories are delightful to hear, but what I’ve treasured even more is the fact that she doesn’t sugarcoat her memories. I’ve heard so many aging mothers reflect longingly on their early years—women whose children clearly walked on rainbows, spoke only in dulcet tones, and always ate their spinach. Alice-Lee readily acknowledges the extremely difficult job of parenting, and her understanding and sympathy has been a balm to me as I mother my own children.
Over ice cream and strawberries, we laugh about how things have changed from the time women wore aprons that had to be ironed (even when, as my mother shares, the women planned to strain raspberries through it) and young girls learned to iron on their father’s BVDs. To Alice-Lee’s amusement, I admit that I recently had to press my husband’s shirt for a funeral and my eight-year-old asked what I was doing. I don’t think he’d ever seen an iron before.
As my sister-in-law and I wash the lunch dishes (Alice-Lee teasingly asking if we know how to do such things by hand, as she doesn’t have a dishwasher), I’m struck anew by the gift this woman has been to our family. Because of her, my children know what it’s like to have a great-grandmother. She has blessed us with daylilies and gardening advice, books and birthday cards, and a cake recipe that uses the leftover yolks from making angel food cake. She is a reminder of the importance of a thank-you note, the meaningfulness of a visit. Her twinkling eyes and sweet smile are evidence of her friendly good nature, but make no mistake: this lady is no cotton-candy granny. Those twinkles neatly disguise a spine of pure platinum and a no-nonsense attitude.
Alice-Lee is my example of how to age gracefully. Her body is slowing down, but she doesn’t give in to it easily (she was driving until just a few years ago, and she and my mother still stubbornly rearrange her furniture without asking us for help). She is a survivor of triumphs and struggles, of illness and terrible loss. But ever shining are her wise and generous spirit, her willingness to take life as it comes, her joy in the simple things . . . I want to be just like her when I grow up.
Do you have any friends who’ve become like family? I would love to hear your stories! Email me at MelodieD@MennoMedia.org or write to Another Way, 1251 Virginia Avenue, Harrisonburg, VA, 22802.