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About Alice

Chapter 1

Now that it’s fashionable to reveal intimate details of
married life, I can state publicly that my wife, Alice, has a weird
predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day. ---
Alice, Let’s Eat

There was one condolence letter that made me laugh. Naturally, a
lot of them made me cry. Some of those, oddly enough, were from
people who had never met Alice. They had become familiar with her
as a character in books and magazine pieces I’d written ---
light books and magazine pieces about traveling or eating or family
life. Virtually all those letters began in the same way, with a
phrase like “Even though I never really knew Alice. . .
.” I was certain of what Alice’s response would have
been. “They’re right about that,” she would have
said. “They never knew me.”

I once wrote that tales about writers’ families tend to have
a relation to real life that can be expressed in terms of standard
network-television fare, on a spectrum that goes from sitcoms to
Lifetime movies, and that mine were sitcoms. Now that I think of
it, maybe they were more like the Saturday-morning cartoons. Alice
played the role of the mom --- the voice of reason, the sensible
person who kept everything on an even keel despite the antics of
her marginally goofy husband. Years ago, at a conference of English
teachers where we were both speakers, the professor who did the
introductions said something like “Alice and Bud are like
Burns and Allen, except she’s George and he’s
Gracie.” Yes, of course, the role she played in my stories
was based on the role she played in our family --- our daughters
and I sometimes called her T.M., which stood for The Mother --- but
she didn’t play it in the broad strokes of a sitcom mom.
Also, she was never completely comfortable as the person who takes
responsibility for keeping things on an even keel; that person
inevitably misses out on some of the fun. (“I feel the need
to break out of the role of straight person,” she said in a
Nation review of Alice, Let’s Eat that cautioned readers
against abandoning long-planned European vacations in order to
scour the country for “the perfect roast polecat
haunch.”) The sitcom presentation sometimes made her sound
stern as well as wise, and she was anything but stern. She had
something close to a child’s sense of wonderment. She was the
only adult I ever knew who might respond to encountering a deer on
a forest path by saying, “Wowsers!”

Once, during a question-and-answer period that followed a speech I
had given at the Herbst Theatre, in San Francisco, someone asked
how Alice felt about the way she was portrayed in my books and
articles. I said that she thought the portrayal made her sound like
what she called “a dietitian in sensible shoes.” Then
the same questioner asked if Alice was in the audience, and, when I
said she was, he asked if she’d mind standing up. Alice
stood. As usual, she looked smashing. She didn’t say
anything. She just leaned over and took off one of her shoes ---
shoes that looked like they cost about the amount of money required
in some places to tide a family of four over for a year or two ---
and, smiling, waved it in the air. She wasn’t a dietitian in
sensible shoes, and she would have been right in saying that the
people whose exposure to her had been through my stories
didn’t know her. Still, in the weeks after she died I was
touched by their letters. They may not have known her, but they
knew how I felt about her. It surprised me that they had managed to
divine that from reading stories that were essentially sitcoms.
Even after I’d taken in most episodes of The Honeymooners,
after all, it had never occurred to me to ponder the feelings Ralph
Kramden must have had for Alice Kramden. Yet I got a lot of letters
like the one from a young woman in New York who wrote that she
sometimes looked at her boyfriend and thought, “But will he
love me like Calvin loves Alice?”

The letter that made me laugh was from Roger Wilkins. By the time
of Alice’s death, Roger occupied a chair of history and
American culture at George Mason University, but in the seventies
he had been on the editorial board of The New York Times. In that
period, I’d sometimes join the regular lunches he had with
the late Richard Harris --- a remarkable investigative reporter for
The New Yorker who had the aggressively unsentimental worldview
often found among people in his line of work. Alice and Roger
became acquainted when she accompanied me to a conference I was
covering in New Orleans. In off hours, when we’d gather
around the hotel swimming pool, she and Roger sometimes had long,
serious conversations. It wasn’t unusual for me to find Alice
having long, serious conversations with people I’d been
bantering with for years. She got engaged with people’s
lives. If she said to a friend’s son or daughter,
“How’s school?” she wasn’t just being
polite; she wanted details, and she wasn’t shy about offering
advice. If people we were visiting mentioned that they’d been
thinking about renovating their house, Alice was right on the case,
room by room. In such architectural conversations, she could get
bossy, and sometimes I felt obliged to warn our hosts that one of
her characteristic gestures --- the gesture she used when she was
saying something like “You have to open all of this up”
--- was remarkably similar to the gesture you’d use to toss
money into the wind.

She wasn’t among those whose response to tragedy or loss was
limited to offering the conventional expressions of sympathy before
moving on with their own lives. In 1988, an old friend phoned us to
say that his grown daughter, a young woman we’d known since
she was a child, had been raped by an intruder. This was a dozen
years after Alice had been operated on for lung cancer, and among
the things that she wrote to our friend’s daughter was that
having lung cancer and being raped were comparable only in that
both were what she called “realizations of our worst
nightmares.” She said that there was some relief at surviving
what you might have thought was not survivable. “No one would
ever choose to have cancer or to be raped,” she wrote.
“But you don’t get to choose, and it is possible at
least to understand what Ernest Becker meant when he said something
like ‘To live fully is to live with an awareness of the
rumble of terror that underlies everything,’ or to begin to
understand the line in ‘King Lear’ --- ‘Ripeness
is all.’ You might have chosen to become ripe less
dramatically or dangerously, but you can still savor
ripeness.” Alice had a large envelope in which she kept
copies of letters like that --- along with copies of some letters
she had sent the girls and copies of poems we had written for her
on birthdays and documents like the announcement of a prize for
community service that Abigail, our older daughter, had been
awarded at Yale and an astonishing letter of recommendation that a
professor had provided for Sarah, our younger daughter, when she
applied for her first job after getting her M.S.W. On the envelope
was written “Important Stuff.”

In his condolence letter, Roger talked partly about that engaged
quality in Alice, but he also got around to her appearance.
“She was nice and she was concerned and she was smart and
when she talked to you, she was thinking about you, and, also, she
was so very pretty,” he wrote in September of 2001, a few
days after Alice died. “I always thought of you as a
wonderful guy, but still I couldn’t figure out how you
managed to get Alice. Harris once told me it was just dumb
luck.” When I read that, I burst out laughing. Harris had
nailed it again.

About Alice
by by Calvin Trillin

  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400066158
  • ISBN-13: 9781400066155