Gail Woodard's Story
Alice’s House stands composed, stalwart, her front windows welcoming the majesty of the Atlantic waves just a hundred feet across the sand. Those very waves once smashed away the front of Alice’s House, but she shows no lingering resentment or fear. Rather, Alice’s House reaches out across her broad front deck to embrace the blue ocean and to declare as her boundary the far eastern horizon where new days are born.
I have come to Alice’s House with a group of old college friends. We arrive after a day of honoring the life of one of our group, who has died. Our friend, Annie, had been the catalyst for annual reunions of our group for fifteen years. Would this be our last?
The world falls away behind us as we enter the side garden, the frozen sea grass dusted by yesterday’s snowstorm. The stone edged wooden pathway draws away tension and fatigue as it leads us to the back porch. Life slows down here.
As we enter the house, the warmth of the kitchen embraces us. First, there is the charm of a century old cottage kitchen: open shelves piled with assorted dishes and cracked glazed pottery storage jars labeled Raisins, Barley, Oats. The large soapstone sink makes you want to get your arms into sudsy water, right up to your elbows. Above the sink the wall is covered with cast iron cookware - frying pans, tiny and large, hung next to popover pans and johnny cake pans. On another wall, behind the rocking chair, hang a dozen copper molds including one in the shape of a lobster. And then there is the table in the center of the room - an ancient oak table which has hosted an abundance of laughter, sadness, ironing, bill-paying, bread-making, letter-writing, meals eaten alone and banquets shared with good friends. This is where we gather.
Our evening together unfolds gently, blessedly. Wine. Food. Music. Talking. It is a patient gathering. Unlike some reunions, here no one needs to be on stage; no one dominates the table with story after story; no one tells too many jokes; no one is loud. Conversation bubbles quietly like a slow simmering stew. We exchange stories, catching up on each other’s deeper lives. We talk about Annie.
Our friend Annie endured twenty years of ever-worsening multiple sclerosis before she died. Annie’s twinkling Irish eyes were an attractive feature when she was younger. In recent years, they were the key to understanding her pleasure, her pain, her joys and her fears as most of the rest of her body became useless to her. She had a wonderful sense of humor and whenever she laughed, her body would bubble a bit and her bright eyes would shine with silent, sparkling laughter. Annie had spent many years in Africa and Washington, D.C. working with a relief organization to assist impoverished Africans. She spoke French and Italian whenever she could and was always interested in the latest videos and books. She loved chocolate truffles. She nearly choked on one I brought to her a couple of years ago. I didn’t know she couldn’t swallow well enough to eat a truffle. She knew but ate it anyway. Annie faced the restrictions on her life with defiance at times. She faced them with a quiet, enduring grace as well.
When she could no longer eat, Annie declined a feeding tube and simply asked her friends and family to continue to visit her and to share our lives with her as she slowly drifted away from her own. Her last words were “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” though it is we who will always thank her for being, among other things, a tender reminder of how blessed our own lives are. I wander around the house, noticing the collections everywhere: the large basket and table covered with heart shaped beach rocks collected by many visitors over the years; a substantial jar filled with smooth edged beach glass; a collection of Madonna pictures grouped over a table. Books fill one wall and lie scattered in small piles on every table - old leather bound classics and current paperbacks, fiction, poetry, self-help, many spirituality and healing books. Nature and wisdom are abundant here in Alice’s House. Some of the group leave late in the evening, heading to homes in Connecticut and New Hampshire. Four of us remain, warmed by the wine, the tea and the friendship that surrounds us. We continue talking for hours. Conversation slows as we tire. No one wants to go to bed but we do and we are content.
Now, in the quiet, I can sense the shimmering energy of the place. The air is rich with healing. The space vibrates with a sense that everything will be all right in the end. This house has somehow collected all the sadness and guilt and uncertainty and fear which has ever been released here, and has transformed it. The pain is gone and a gentle strength remains. Something about Alice’s House assures you that you are treasured.
Thick snowflakes - the kind you can catch on your tongue - fall gently in the early morning as we leave Alice’s House. The grey sky is a last embrace, wrapping our friendships like soft packing cloth around fine china. Cold snowflake kisses fall on our necks and faces. They are like the grace notes of a flute in an Irish ballad. They seem a gift from Annie to lighten the wistful sadness of our good-byes. We will gather again.
If you listen, you will hear Alice’s House tell you that life is like a hundred years on the beach. You pick through the debris and ruin of every storm. You save what is to be saved. You bless and release the rest. Then, in the quiet dawn, you welcome the waves again across the sand.
To learn more about Alice’s House or to contribute, please reach out to Janet Gibson at 781-834-8993 or email AlicesHouse112@gmail.com.