Alice Evelyn King Skiff
October 16, 1904 - May 8, 1993
She was tall and thin in the old black and white photograph, standing before a wood frame house in a straight, plain dress and dark straight hair cropped square just below her ears. Her vertical form opposed the horizontal lines of the house siding. Next to her, a curly-haired toddler stood holding her hand. She held a baby perched on her hip. Strong she looked—not muscular, but unpampered, with strength born of necessity, of hard times.
Inside that thin frame, though, hidden beneath her survivor's strength, lay a softness in which fantasies of gentle forest romances dwelled, that watched a perky cardinal pick at bread crumbs on the windowsill, that marveled at the unfolding of an iris in spring.
Almost without my knowing it, she taught me to feel, to touch the world gently. Those were not popular qualities in boys, and I spent years trying to throw them off, to hide them in shame. (No more.)And she taught me to think, to explore. She read books and she wrote poetry, off and on, all her life. She crafted in yarn and later in oils the images she saw in the world. She taught me of the tragedies of war and violence. From her I learned reverence for beauty and for life.
One lifetime is not enough to change the world. But one mothertime is enough to carve the image of a world that one child sees, to guide the tiny fingers that explore the face of reality, to smooth the standing-place for restless, growing feet.
She lived alone as many years as she shared in parenthood, but she touched many lives. In her sixties she took a job as a companion to an "old" woman, cooking and cleaning and tending the cats, and listening to stories of days long gone.
Now, standing quietly over this still, frail form, I think of the years of patience, of strength, of hope that were hers to give. I see the gaunt, drawn face and the nearly transparent skin on gnarled hands that touch her throat as she sleeps, her breathing light and tentative, and I remember being cuddled on her then ample lap, my growing legs sticking out at all angles, my eight-year-old face blushing in embarrassment at this unseemly display of tenderness.
Now I can give back as I help Wilma care for her needs. I can enfold her in my arms the way she did to me, as I gently lift her head back onto the pillow. I think it is the first time in my life I've held her like this, and I wonder why, and my throat grows tight.
Her fragile body now lies cradled in billowing softness, protected from the world, protected from her own occasional, delirious efforts to take control again. Mostly she sleeps, not able even to acknowledge those who come to pay respect, love and gratitude—except sometimes as they prepare to leave and touch her hand one last time, she murmurs and feebly squeezes their fingers. And I see again those same hands, wringing water out of steaming clothes over a big copper tub, the smell of chlorine strong in my nostrils.
On the wall now are collages of photographs, of her with children, grandchildren, and their children, laughing, playing, full of the joy of belonging. Pictures of time passing, of young faces blooming into women and men just a few inches away—the briefest of moments flicking by, a lifetime of smiles. The young faces carry her smile into forever.
The cat, her constant companion as she shuffled about her home (just the other day!) paces, waiting for her to rise and greet the day, then curls up under the very center of her bed.
We stand and watch her slowly fade, yielding gently to the inevitable, irresistible, unfathomable darkness. Her thin chest moves softly, then simply stops.