A side. Alice.

20 Dec


I began 2013 with reflections on the death of my friend Eva. Now, at the end of this rigorous, trying year, I mourn the death of my dear old friend Alice Case. Alice was only 76, and I had known her since I worked at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, from 1985 to 1990. She was my closest, most supportive friend in those tumultuous years in a less than harmonious art department. Alice taught art education, trained students to teach art in the schools, and was an artist herself. She was a real pro in that field, and had been at it for many years when we met. I, on the other hand, came to Lawrence just having finished my PhD, and never having taught before. Alice heard one of my lectures, and right there told me with great confidence and encouragement that she knew I’d be a great teacher. Since she was such a seasoned and dedicated teacher herself, I took this as a great compliment.
We hit it off immediately. She was urbane and witty, a good old Chicago Catholic girl who smoked all the time and loved her Manhattans. She had a devilish, sometimes sarcastic sense of humor that appealed to me right away. She was always perfectly turned out, with great makeup and coiffed, and dressed like a million bucks. I–who was often disheveled and blowsy–always envied her sartorial panache; she was by no stretch of the imagination svelte, but always gave the appearance of a fashion plate. She had the air of a classy lady. She lived in a great house on the Fox River–the really pretty part of Appleton–with her basset hounds (always basset hounds) and cats, and her great character of a husband Tom. Tom was as much fun as Alice was, a successful stockbroker kind of businessman who loved to sail and who could sometimes be found having ice cream sundaes at a local shop in the middle of the day. She adored him, and he adored her, his independent, capable wife; Tom was always at Alice’s art shows and openings, and the two of them were the life of the party wherever they went. She talked often about her two girls Cathleen and Marianne–Cathleen went to the local Catholic college, St Norberts, and Marianne went to Tom’s alma mater, Ripon. They had a cottage up in the Wisconsin North Woods, on Lac du Flambeau, where they spent most of the summer. But you could never take the Chicago out of Tom or Alice, and I always found it amusing to think of Alice up at a cabin in the woods–she who would never step foot in the water, unless on a boat. She was so fair that she had to protect herself from the sun, but ended up travelling to Mexico for many art-making trips.

Alice was serious and passionate about teaching, and she would defend her students against all comers if she thought they had potential to be good art teachers. I remember she even chastised me once for sending one of her students to honor board for a plagiarized paper. Students loved her, because she treated them with respect and had fun with them. She was also a very good artist in her own right, and one of the first to venture into computerized image-making. She experimented with the earliest Mac systems and made some fascinating pieces. This is one of them which she gave to me when I left Lawrence to go to Australia.
All was not smooth for me in that art department, and Alice was the best supporter I could have asked for. She had the ear of all the factions, and in my case, could advise me on how to deal with particularly snarly personalities. We talked on the phone nearly every night, and gossiped incessantly about that dysfunctional community that was Lawrence at that time. We did not always share the same political or social views–she was very Catholic on some issues, of course, so we just didn’t talk about such things. Mostly we laughed a lot–she was so much fun! We had many girls’ night outs, and parties galore. The most fun we had was during the opening of the new Art Center, with all the attendant festivities. I produced my Pohl Collection catalog, Alice helped me with the installation of the exhibitions, and the entire art department successfully pulled off a big event. I can still hear Tom whistling through the galleries on a video Alice made of the occasion.

And then came that awful night when Tom died of a heart attack. It was the night before Thanksgiving in 1989. He was only 57. It was a terrible, terrible loss for her and everyone else who knew them. And here I must share a shameful secret. This was the time when my drinking was really starting to become a daily problem, and most evenings I was passing out after being in my cups. Alice called me that night to tell me Tom had just died. I never heard the phone, and when George tried to wake me, I wouldn’t wake up. When he told me in the morning, I was beside myself with mortification that I wasn’t there for my friend when she needed me most. I did, of course, go over to her house immediately and stayed with her as long as I could. And after that, I called her even more frequently, to make sure she was coping and to offer as much support as I could give, but I think that experience was so shameful for me that I began then, if ever so slowly, on the road to confronting my own demons. (Years later, when I finally got sober, I told her this story. She was as supportive then as she always was.) Although on many levels shattered to have lost Tom, her one true love, she behaved as always with dignity and grace. And she kept teaching, getting sustenance and energy from her young charges, just as she always had.

Tom died in November, and in June of the next year, we moved to Australia. Alice was so unhappy that I was leaving, but she understood why we had to go. The picture at the top was taken in the Lawrence art galleries right before I left–I know that’s when it was taken, because I’m wearing the pin that Alice made for me as a going-away present. She wrote on the back, “Two smart savvy ladies”. She saw me off at the airport, and we continued to correspond. When I came back through the US in 1992, she came to see me at the Thralls in Milwaukee.
That’s the last time I saw Alice. When we returned to California in 2003, I did get back in touch by phone–I knew she would never come out to see me, since she was terrified of flying, despite several trips to Mexico, many with her daughter Marianne, an enthusiastic Mexicanophile (and now an accomplished bilingual teacher). But by that time, Alice was starting to run out of steam. The last few years were a trial for her family, as she became a near-recluse caused by lots of health and other issues. I last talked to her about six months ago, when she sounded like her old self. And that’s how I want to remember her: joking, smoking, with a Manhattan in her hand, or in the studio with her kids, telling them the best way to teach other kids about the wonders of making art. So farewell, my dear old beautiful Alice. I will never forget you. And though it may seem strange, the poem that I shared for Eva works for a goodbye to Alice, too–she was a grown-up who endured, and we loved her for it.

Here it is again:

The Grown-Up

All this stood upon her and was the world

and stood upon her with all its fear and grace

as trees stand, growing straight up, imagelessĀ 

yet wholly image, like the Ark of God,

and solemn, as if imposed upon a race.

And she endured it all: bore up under

the swift-as-flight, the fleeting, the far-gone,

the inconceivably vast, the still-to-learn,

serenely as a woman carrying water moves with a full jug. Till in the midst of play,

transfiguring and preparing for the future,

the first white veil descended, gliding softly

over her opened face, almost opaque there,

never to be lifted off again, and somehow

giving to all her questions just one answer:

In you, who were a child once-in you.

–Rainer Maria Rilke, 19.7.1907, Paris

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