Her name was Alice. I wasn’t named for her, but I always liked that our names sounded alike. Alice and Allison. Our own secret code.
She made me cups of milky black tea, the way she liked it, and made a tea drinker out of me. Each morning as I pour a splash of milk into my teacup, I think of her. I think of the balls of snickerdoodle dough she kept stashed in the freezer, ready to pull out to bake a few fresh whenever she had company. She taught me how to make pies, to roll out the dough just right. She told me stories of waking early on Sundays as a child to bake pies before Mass. She was famous amongst her friends and family for her Christmas candy: peanut butter cups, divinity, chocolate-covered toffee, and more. She had a sweet tooth like me, and I feel lucky that one Christmas, just before she gave up candy-making for good, I got to be in the kitchen with her, melting chocolate and whipping egg whites.
I remember Sunday dinners at her house when I was a kid. I played in the woods behind the house with my cousins until it was time to eat, and then we’d retrieve the table leaves from under my grandparents’ bed so that the whole family—her eight children, their spouses, and a bevy of grandchildren—could gather around the table for a big meal that would stick to our ribs, most often something like a roast with carrots and onions and homemade bread, fluffy and white, still steaming as we cut it.
She taught me about mysterious things like guardian angels (hers was named Claire) and the stigmata. She told me if you prayed the rosary enough it would turn gold. She said she smelled roses the moment she knew my grandpa had entered heaven. She had an enviable faith, an unflappable belief in Catholicism, God, the Virgin Mary, and heaven. For most of her life she attended Mass daily, and sometimes when she babysat me she took me on her nursing home rounds, where she visited residents and helped with Mass.
She did a killer impression of the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz. I can easily recall her cackling, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too.” She enjoyed playing cards and drinking wine. She traveled the world—Cuba and New York when she was young and then in her older years places such as Washington, California, France, Germany, Italy, and Yugoslavia. She inspired my dream of traveling to Alaska after she told me stories of her Alaskan cruise, about the beautiful scenery and the lady she traveled with who’d packed enough underwear so that she’d just throw away each pair after wearing them. What an adventure!
She sent me a bouquet of flowers after I gave birth to my son. It was a memorable gift because so many presents were for the baby, but those flowers were for me. A congratulations. A pat on the back. A welcome to motherhood. She always said my boy looks like “a doll baby,” such a great-grandmotherly compliment.
I just caught myself writing that last sentence in the present tense. Even after a couple weeks, it seems strange to think that she’s gone. How can it be that she won’t be at the next family gathering, won’t take her seat at the poker table, won’t hug me or my son again? Her death was really the best she or anyone else could hope for. She lived a long, happy life, was independent for most of her 86 years, suffered for only a short time at the end, and was able to make the choice not to pursue treatment for kidney failure and a recurrence of ovarian cancer. Yet, even with this best-case scenario, the loss feels huge. It passes over me in waves of realization, most often in that moment between sleep and wake, a split-second of terror and grief.
The good part is that with eight children, fourteen grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren, there are plenty of people to tell stories about her, and she passed down a feistiness and zest for life that really comes out when we’re all together.
And in those moments when the loss feels like too much, well, there’s always tea, with an extra splash of milk for Grandma Alice.