She was asleep in the sun room the first night I was there, in that magnificent house overlooking Death Row. I actually came to see her daughter when J and I were returning from seeing the Healing Rinphoche in Sebastapool. Her daughter was a doctor at San Quentin, the first (and oldest) prison in California.
The morning after we arrived, I wandered into the kitchen. An elderly woman was sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper. She greeted me with a bright smile as though she was truly happy to see me. She introduced herself as Alice. Alice told me J was still sleeping, then asked me if I wanted some homemade banana bread or zucchini bread. Who could refuse either? Not I! We chatted for hours and got to know each other. She was funny, opinionated, lovely, and a total delight. I don’t really remember the other details of the day (other than waking up to the sounds of a loud speaker releasing inmates to work assignments and breakfast). However, I do remember clearly that being the first day I met Alice.
Now I didn’t mention this, but the house was large, two story, had a courtyard and other structures behind it, terraced front yard, and beautiful gardens. (When I slept in the master bedroom while Alice sitting once, I felt like I was in a tree house!) The view while sitting down was stunning! The house was on the Marin side of the bay looking towards Sausalito. On clear days Oakland and San Francisco were in the picture. But standing up, one noticed first the prison…which really didn’t spoil the view, in my opinion. I think it made the view quite interesting.
Alice spent part of the year at San Quentin and the remainder at her home in Utah. She had leg surgeries and eventually moved into the house at San Quentin full-time. Since the house was on a hill, the only way to get there was to climb over 20 stairs. After Alice’s surgeries, the inmates carried her up to the house. Everyone that lived in San Quentin village knew Alice as did others that worked (and some that lived) at the prison.
Anyway, we spent many weekends with the Dr. and Alice. The Dr. had the best parties (especially Halloween)! Everyone would greet the Dr. then head straight for the sun room where they would pay homage to Alice. Alice would be dressed, sitting on her bed, legs stretched out in front of her, heaters going near her bed, and guests on a bench. She was a vision of royalty. EVERYONE knew Alice and stopped to greet her first thing. My husband would always jump in bed with her for a quick cuddle then fill her glass with vodka. It was his ritual greeting.
I loved sitting with Alice during the parties as she would fill me in on the guests I didn’t know. “Humpff. There goes a strange one. Used to be a man. Was an assassin in Viet Nam. Always in a bad mood. Watch out for that one.”
A friend and I were going to the opera in San Francisco one Saturday. We arrived late Friday night and woke Alice to let her know we were there. Opening the sun room doors I saw Alice laying in bed lit by the high candle powered prison lights. There she lay in her red waffled flannel nightgown and pearls. I mentioned her pearls when we woke her and she replied, “I was so happy you were coming, I dressed up!”
Unfortunately, the good times at the house at San Quentin came to an end when the Dr. retired and moved to Seattle. Knowing Alice would help with the unpacking, I wrote notes to Alice on the paper I used to wrap the dishes. After endless trips up and down those stairs, I packed my car with treasures the Dr. had given me…including Alice. She was staying with my family and I for a week until the moving truck reached Seattle.
Our dining room was turned into a downstairs bedroom for Alice. It had all the comforts of home. The kitchen was close and she could use her walker to get to the bathroom. Living with Alice was easy. All she needed were five things to keep her happy…bread, cheese, vanilla ice cream, crossword puzzles, and vodka. She was a dream to live with.
My 12 year old daughter and Alice had incredible talks every day after school and before bed. The youth and the elderly are a perfect combination. I loved seeing them together on the bed sharing stories of their childhoods; one so long ago, one still in progress.
My husband and Alice teased each other constantly. Scott decided he needed to teach Alice how to respond appropriately to teasing by saying, “Oh, bite me!” He reminded her often when it was the proper response and she finally came out with it on her own. He was so proud you would have thought he had taught his firstborn how to say “Daddy.”
The night before Alice was to fly to her new home in Seattle, mutual friends arrived with Mexican food and we celebrated Alice. Her bedtime came early so it was an “eat and run” kind of evening. Morning arrived early and we were all getting ready for work, school, and the airport.
We have three bathrooms in our house, one downstairs. Scott was in the downstairs bathroom when I heard Alice’s walker hit the kitchen floor. “Scott!” she yelled. “Scott! Get out of that bathroom!” Here comes Alice through the kitchen in her cashmere sweater, pearls, black panties, white socks and tennis shoes pushing her walker. “Scott! Hurry up! I had Mexican last night and you need to get out of that bathroom! Now!” As she zoomed through the family room, I heard the bathroom door open and footsteps running up the stairs. The upstairs bathroom door slammed just as Alice closed the downstairs bathroom door. “Made it!” she hollered.
Alice made the flight to Seattle and slept in her own bed that night. She had a stroke the next morning. When her daughter called, I made the appropriate responses but also said, “Tell Alice thank you. Thank you for not having a stroke at our house!” Scott added, “I’ll know Alice is fine when she calls and says ‘bite me!'”
Alice had a rough time and her recovery was slow but steady. The Dr. and I spoke every now and then. One night the phone rang and Scott answered. All he heard before the caller hung up was “Bite me!” “Alice is alright! She’s back to her old self!” he cried with joy. I didn’t understand what the heck was going on until he told me about the phone call. That was almost two years ago.
I received an email yesterday morning.
My mother Alice expired this morning at my brother Pat’s in Miami. As was her wish, she died peacefully, at home, in her own bed. My brothers Dan, Pat, and I are blessed by her incredible life.
Thanks for all of your support of Alice and me.
Good-bye my dear friend, Alice. I will see you again someday. Scott and I will lift our eyes to the sky, our glasses of vodka in a toast, and our voices in love as we read this cake aloud eating in your honor.