She told me that if my brother visited from Chicago, she would bake him a lemon meringue pie.
At ninety-nine years old, it would be a wondrous thing to watch. When I visited my great aunt Alice in early March, I was captivated not just by her intact intellect but also by her hands. Her palms are slowly turning in towards themselves, neat, gnarled cups covered with fine and translucent skin. Her knuckles are cut gems, ghosts of exquisite stone, and rested on my knee the whole time I visited her, both times.
Even her little room in an assisted living facility was her choice. After breaking one of her carved wrists, she rescinded the home of her husband, her porch, and her decades. She chose the assisted living facility herself so that her children, she told me, wouldn't have to make that decision.
A century of decisions. A century of those hands, from bracing herself when learning to walk to baking pies to writing letters to her brothers at war. A century of her eyes, the most crystalline of stones, blue like the early spring sky of her Midwest. My grandfather's eyes, so very shrewd and so very honest. Her focus is a little off, but she sees straight through to the quick of you: the quick of your thoughts and your pulse. The quick like March sap pumping through the trees outside her window--an elected view, remember. The quick of early spring as the shades slowly draw closed.
She laid her hand on my knee and I knew she remembered a physical vigor long lost and felt the might of my limbs. She once was brisk, but in her waning she is astute and unafraid. She swells with the vigor and might of years, her mind a muscle pumping with innumerable conversations and books and cups of coffee.
She is emotionally overwhelming. With years come an omnipotence overpowering the sensory. Her fingers and irises know whether to draw you in or disregard you. The quick that is her soul finds yours, and can leave you humbled or nervous. The tiny woman is tall in the power of her age and the independence of her spirit.
I am grateful to be bowed by her. I looked into her eyes and saw my grandfather. I spoke with her and heard all I was too young to understand about him when he was alive. As a child I could sense his magnitude, but it was hazy. Alice chose to give me clarity. She deciphered me and put her hand on my knee and gave me clarity.
The second time I visited, I asked if I could paint her portrait. She cried, and I felt a great mountain crumbling. The luminous stones that comprise her body are, after all, mined from earth like the rest of us.
The second time I visited, I asked her what she thought my grandfather's opinion of my life would be. He was wise as she is wise, and the life I chose for myself has been neither conventional nor easy. I braced myself for words of warning.
Alice became animated and energetic. She told me how proud he'd be of me, how very, very proud. And how proud she is, too.
I told her I'd be crying as I painted her portrait. That my hands--full of strength, yet unable to discern--and my eyes--focused, yet not crystalline--should attempt to depict her might be the best shot I've got at conversing with my grandfather. It might be the best shot I've got at paying homage to the quick shared by Alice and her brother. The quick she so sees mirrored in me.
Such a responsibility, as I have made them proud.
As I said, her presence is staggering, a Huron-sized lake of motherhood and mornings. And her independence is Superior deep, a remnant of Steinbeck's Midwest. It's a backbone uncommon for any one of any gender at any time. She spoke again of pride, though the conversation slightly changed tack.
"My father was a proud man," she said. "'He was so very proud."
Lineage and resilience and blue eyes constitute only a small part of Alice, I now realize. May her portrait capture her pride. Pride neither in me nor in her own age, but rather a pride that courses through her veins, like sap in the spring.
Post Scriptum: Alice passed away on June 10, 2016. To say that I am honored to have had the chance to visit her and paint her portrait, which I finished about a week before she died, is a sorrow understatement. If I know her, she even greeted Death on her own terms, and may we all have the fortitude and courage to do so.