My father’s sister was born in a small town in New Hampshire to recent Irish immigrants. The year was 1896. With no more than an 8th grade education, barely able to read and write, this remarkable woman lived a life of clarity, integrity, and grit–all laced with a large dose of humor. Decades before the feminist movement, she embodied the ideal of a strong, intelligent, and independent woman. I want to share a couple of her outstanding traits with you, traits that I am still trying to emulate.
Alice was 9 when my Father was born, in 1905, and shortly after that their father disappeared from the picture. I never did get that complete story, but Alice became a surrogate parent, quitting school at age 14 to begin work in the local shoe factory, and ultimately sending my Father to university. In her early and middle years she found solace in the formulas of the Catholic church, and this, combined with her direct and unadorned communication, put her at odds with my Mother, who was a proper midwestern Protestant. Neither woman was “wrong,” but boy, were they different. Out of loyalty to my Mother, this tension led me to pull away from Alice for many years, but the graceful turnings of life reunited us in bonds of love during her later years. She worked at the local high school on the lunch counter until she was 91, and died in 1991, just shy of her 95th birthday. She lived independently almost until the end.
Here are two stories that demonstrate her direct approach and stunning emotional honesty. Since we lived 200 miles apart, Carolyn and I could only visit her about once a month. We would sit for hours at the dining room table drinking tea, while Alice regaled us with stories about her girlhood and the history of our family. One day, Carolyn nonchalantly reached into her bag and continued to knit a sweater she was working on. Silence descended, as Alice fixed her eye on the clicking needles. Then, in her heavy new England accent, she said “Deah, did you come heah to knit, or to visit me?” The needles disappeared, and the conversation continued without a trace of ill feeling.
The absence of emotional residue is what I find inspiring and humbling. Eckhart Tolle tells of the ducks who, when they “get into a fight, it never lasts long – they soon separate and fly off in opposite directions. Each duck then flaps its wings vigorously several times. This releases the surplus energy that built up in him during the fight. After they flap their wings, they fly on peacefully as if nothing had ever happened.” Alice was so good at this, she didn’t even have to flap her wings!
Here is another example:
A lovely young couple lived next door to Alice and they took wonderful care of her in our absence. They often did her shopping, and made sure she was feeling well. One evening, they asked Carolyn and me to stop by their house to discuss Alice’s situation. We had a lovely chat for about an hour, but on returning to Alice’s house, we found all the lights off, and Alice nowhere to be seen. Concerned, we began a search, and finally found my aunt in her bed, lying quietly in the dark. “Alice,” I asked, “are you OK?” She lit into me with considerable heat: “I know you have been down the street talking to my neighbors about me–Behind My Back! I won’t have it! I am not a little girl, and I will not be treated so disrespectfully.” I felt a gale of emotion whistling past my ears, that both scared me and filled me with tremendous admiration for her self-awareness, and for the honesty with which she was able to express her feelings.
Thankfully, grace allowed admiration to win over fear, and I responded, “I understand exactly what you are saying, and I think you are 100% correct. It was wrong to talk about you behind your back, and I give you my solemn word it will never happen again.” Without missing a beat, Alice gave me the warmest loving smile, hopped out of bed like a teenager, and said, “All right, then, let’s go downstairs and have some tea.” And we did that.
To this day, telling this story warms my heart. This lovely, stalwart human being, my Aunt Alice, was a living embodiment of the Zen teaching that the feelings we cling to are simply clouds floating past the moon. I have no need to wish that she rest in peace. In spite of, or perhaps because of, her occasional storms of emotion, she had the most peaceful center of anyone I have ever known.