05 October 2011

Reach for the Stars

If you'll bear with my nostalgia once again, I have a little life story to tell you. From birth to graduation from high school I lived in the same house on the same street with the same neighbors. One of these neighbors was an elderly lady who lived in a brick house across the street from us.  The red brick was accented by various flowers, plants, trees, vines, and colors that come with the territory of a green thumb. Her name was Alice. She was upwards of 60 years old the first time I met her. I, in diapers and still unable to grasp a bottle, don't remember this first encounter, but my memory is made up of so many more that age only wishes to take.  The first memories I actually have of this incredible woman are faint, but still terribly real.  I would toddle across the road into her yard and help her water flowers, pull weeds, and simply take in the beauty of God's creations right there in her front yard. Her back yard was in the shape of a triangle, tapering the farther back it went into a small rounded point full of trees.  This was my secret garden.  The entire yard was shaded by various tree and bush families - great oaks, dainty dogwoods, green and white magnolias, red-tips, and so many more.  Mom would often yell for me out the front door, knowing I had somehow wandered my way into the hands of this older friend.  Her heart and knowledge were huge.  Her husband had been lost in the Vietnam 'incident,' and she had raised two girls on her own.  She'd lost a baby boy and was one of many children, herself.  Her sister, Dot, lived in north Georgia. Candy, one of her daughters, lived near by and taught at an elementary school in another county - she had two boys.  Vicki, her other daughter, lived in Jacksonville, FL and had three daughters.  They traveled up at least once a year to see her and Mrs. Alice often traveled to see them.  She had bowls from Campbell's that said "MmmMmm..Good!" on the inside. Her kitchen was a shade of green and white.  Her front door was deep mahogany red and always locked.  The brown table in the kitchen was often covered with our latest adventures - cookies, crackers with various toppings, letters, books, magazines, and always a magnifying glass.  There stood a four-tiered clear glass shelf in the corner of her living room near the front windows that held any number of knick-knacks - mostly angels and one so beautiful peacock feather.  Her couches were a deep blue, but always covered with quilts or crocheted blankets. And she had her rocking chair with the blue chair-pad sitting beside a short, dark wood coffee table covered with neat stacks of various books and magazines (Guidepost and the like). A closet to the left of her television held a collection of movies sure to shame Hollywood, though most were recorded from GP-TV onto VHS tapes.  Each tape had label after label with movies marked out, circled, and rewritten in the oddly pointed cursive of her wrinkled hands.  Others included Shirley Temple, Angels in the Outfield, and the greats of Katherine Hepburn.  On the lowest shelf sat a blue spiral bound journalist notebook, well worn and full.  It contained specific location details for each specific movie on whichever numbered tape.  We watched the finals of the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan more times than I can count. Figure skating. Tara Lipinski. I only wanted to be her.
It was here where I discovered book after book, great historian after great historian, and quilting.  We pieced a quilt once - "Grandmother's Flower Garden" - out of various dresses, t-shirts, and scraps.  We pieced it on the guest bed. This is the room where I found books - Nancy Drew being the first.
We sat on a squeaky swing under her carport often - she didn't have a car and had never driven - and looked around at the monkey grass, lightning bugs, squirrels, blue jays, and hummingbirds.  We walked to the mailbox often, avoiding the lengthy runners from Cherokee rose bushes that would 'reach out and get you' if permitted the opportunity. We raked with sklattering metal rakes, making lines in the dirt where the grass had rebelled against hot summer suns. (We avoided the concrete.) There was a vine of ivy here that I fell in love with, grasping tightly with its roots to the bark of an oak tree that dropped countless acorns each year.  I found a small evergreen pine tree here that I planted in the shade of a smaller pine on the opposite side of the front yard. Ice Cream. An odd name for an evergreen tree, but the name it is still named, standing proudly near the remains of a small field of lilies.
I only remember once instance of "getting in trouble" with her. I was thirteen or old enough to know better when I brought a small baby frog into her house. I was promptly and sternly chastened and sent outside. I was scared for a week that she didn't love me anymore. The end of the world. But my next big reading assignment proved that we were still the best of friends. I tackled Silas Marner, Romeo & Juliet, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dickens, Alcott, Chopin, the Bronte sisters, and The Scarlet Letter under her supervision. I read and read and read - biographies, fiction, non-fiction, Mother Teresa, Princess Di, and I taught her how to use her first computer. Dial-up. We spent hours working on her book - a history, if you will, of her family and ancestors. I fear calling it a genealogy because it was so much  more than that - full of so much. Oh how I wish I knew her secrets to publishing such a masterpiece. Where was she when I wrote my first?
The summer before eighth grade was the last full three months I spent with her. Breast cancer took her to Florida to live with Vicki who could take care of her and drive her to weekly chemo treatments. I would miss pushing her buggy around Kroger (the only grocery store she ever stepped foot in) and riding with her and mom to various doctor's appointments or shopping excursions. I have no idea where she got her clothes - we never went clothes shopping.  She wrote letters to me from Florida for almost a year before returning to the humidity of our neighborhood.  The ruthless, emotionless parts of me want to know what it was like to go through chemo with her.  I know so much more now than I ever did then - oblivious as a child - and I know there was so much sickness involved.  I never knew. Now home, she spent her days doing fewer of her favorite activities due to arthritis and an overall exhaustion from the perils of the relentless battle within her body.  Her rosary was more present then than ever.  Enter my disdain for The Great Gatsby.  I saw her less and less as homework and friends took more and more precedence in life, but I would sometimes walk over and visit after school when I had little homework. Unfortunately, this happened far less than it ever should. I now know the meaning of regret. My older brother cut her grass and my younger brother took his pb&j over to visit her after school like I had done so many years before.  We returned from a family camping trip to find her, once again, in the hospital. Broken leg. A stupid light bulb told us the answers that had been hiding for so long. The cancer had spread. It had never actually gone away. She hadn't wanted us to know - the kids, I mean. I'm sure, somehow, that my parents were aware. Tonya, a neighbor, had checked on her while we were gone and found her soon after her fall.  She went into assisted living and I was still oblivious to her sickness. Her leg soon healed, but she never came home. We visited her there twice. In the dark she sat and we knew it was time. April of 2008 she became far worse than we'd ever imagined. I still wrote her letters.  Hospice was called, but we weren't allowed to visit. I still have no idea where she was when this happened, I just know it hurt to know I would be graduating and she couldn't be there. Her influence was immense and immeasurable. You will never know, I was told, and I still don't.
She died after the shields of her immune system dropped low enough to allow other diseases and germs into her frail body. You won't want to remember her this way, I was told, and I still don't. I still wrote her letters. Mom made her a blanket that I now sleep with every night. She was my best friend through more years of my life than anyone at this point can say and, I have a feeling, that will remain.
Above my desk there is a flat felt doll with uneven stitching and button-filled stars on a twisted wire stretched between its hands. "Reach for the Stars," she told me, and I am.

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Alice.

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