Here are thirteen lessons that I have gleaned from this remarkable 94-year-old (adapted from remarks I made at Alice’s memorial service)
1. Be curious about your world
Alice was a reader to the end. Even when sight impaired she would often listen to local radio and listen to a books on tape. As a little girl she would roller skate to the library and get her favorite books: Heidi and Little Women. Then she would sit on a hammock or a bench in her yard and read for hours. Alice also explored her world like crazy. She took the trolley from her house on Hamilton Street down to Pearl Street. She would look at the beautiful department stores, and visit the peanut man dressd as a Planter’s Peanut (who gave out free peanuts). Then she’d stop at Highler’s ice cream – her favorite. Later in life she studied at Radcliffe and Columbia University and traveled the world with her friends; experiences that truly opened her mind.
2. Create family around you
Alice’s 90th birthday party is a great example of how Alice cultivated friendship. 100 people attended; mostly friends. Her close friends were her family. Alice was the most loyal friend, even to her pet cat, Bart, named after the rebellious Bart Simpson.
3. Cultivate a spirit of generosity – help others as much as you can; however you can
Alice was an active member of the Guardian House here in Albany. This was a home for the old and helpless started before Social Security and in existence for 150 years. According to Alice, each member of the board adopted one resident in that home and saw that her needs were met. This experience really shaped Alice’s life. In old age, Alice said she couldn’t help people the way she wanted to, but one thing she could do was listen to them…
4. Look people in the eye, listen to them, embrace them
No matter who was involved, Alice treated that person with respect. But it went beyond this. Alice could trace her family back 13 generations in the US, and she said those like her with British lineage tend to be reserved, but she learned over the years that warmth is a better approach. She found that especially as we age, there is almost a universal need for physical closeness and touch. She was a big fan of hugs.
5. Delight in people, all kinds of people
While others wanted to read the sections about their own lives, Alice wanted to hear about the other people in my book. She delighted in people. She reminisced about her nursemaiden Minnie, growing up. And she talked about her days as Hyde park school librarian/school administrator head. During those days, Franklin Roosevelt would be in and out and Eleanor was wonderful. She respected both of them tremendously. During that time she said “I got to meet all sorts of families — go to their homes and meet farmers and everyone. That was when I really learned about my world. I was sheltered up to that point.”
6. Plan for the future – think ahead for the people you love AND for your country
Alice planned ahead in her life. She thought about her end-of-life wishes, and prepared accordingly. She never expected others to speak for her. When she decided she needed to move to assisted living in Jan 2010, she drew up blueprints of her new apartment and directed movers accordingly on move-in day. She said, “Once a manager, always a manager.” Alice also saw the big picture when it came to her country. She spoke of the war years as exciting times for serving her community and her country. She worked with the Albany public library years and at the canteen with soldiers. She talked about putting pins on maps to mark where the war planes were. That was when she learned all she needed to know about puppetry and put on some great shows for the kids at the public library. She brought smiles to their faces in rough times.
7. Insist on your dignity, humanity, and full personhood
This was something Alice addressed directly in our AARP radio interview on aging –the issue of ageism. She disliked being patronized, being managed, being marginalized in old age. She found it painful not to be treated as a full human being. So she raised awareness about ageism when she could.
8. Try to lighten the moment whenever possible
Alice said humor is so important to a balanced life, she even tried to make her very stern doctor laugh, to lighten the moment. She laughed a lot – that low, gutteral laugh/chuckle, I will never forget her laugh.
9. Mobilize resources; ask for help to protect your own autonomy
Alice was one of the most independent people I know, but she learned how to ask for help in order to continue to navigate her world as a blind person. For example, she stopped driving, but she retained her car and hired a driver. She asked the Northeastern Association for the Blind volunteers to help her learn to navigate her apartment and the outdoors. All of these moments of assistance made her even stronger, that much more connected, and even more in control. This lesson remains with me every day: that to be independent we must be interdependent.
10. Never stop making new friends
A major theme across Alice’s life is friendship… She traveled with friends, she never stopped learning from friends. She focused her life around friendship and social networks – from the Fortnightly research club, to the antiques club, to various book clubs. Even at Beverwyck over the last 2 years she made it her project to befriend lonely souls. She sometimes referred to them as her “clients.” She was the best listener a friend could have.
11. On a birthday, celebrate your age. Better yet, throw a party for your friends.
Alice’s 90th birthday party was a gala affair, written up in Times Union. To entertain her friends (and educate them at the same time), Alice put her old clothing on display, like the bloomers she wore at St. Agnes (the original Doane Stewart) for physical education. For her, this was a party for her friends, to thank them for making her life richer.
12. Be a rebel; stand up for what you care about
Alice’s rebellious spirit manifested in little ways. At one point, when the condo association was about to chop down her favorite tree, she and her friend Betty threatened to chain themselves to that tree. As a child, she found herself in trouble with her mother quite often: whether roller skating through the tunnels, or signing fake names on petitions distributed by Alice Morgan Wright, Albany sculptor and suffragist. She also befriended servants and their children, to the dismay of many in her community. She believed herself to be a feminist throughout her life. In this she was inspired by her grandmother, and to some extent, her father (who was ahead of his time).
13. Delight in the moment, in the preciousness of life; don’t dwell on the negative
Alice never complained. For this reason, it was hard to know how she was doing health-wise. But she was pragmatist in all ways. It didn’t serve her or anyone to be negative. However, she did admit that the hardest thing about growing older was loss of friends. But she also believed strongly in honoring the cycles of life and death. She gave my daughter a book she enjoyed in her childhood, called The Christmas Kitten, about a cat that dies on Christmas day, but her kitten survives. She thought children should learn about these natural cycles early-on and not be afraid of death. She herself was fearless. She said, “When the time comes I will be ready.” But until that moment she was committed to appreciating life in all of its beauty. And boy, did she ever.
I know I’m a better person after knowing Alice. I imagine many of us feel that way. Thank you Alice, for all of the gifts you have left with us. We will miss you.