Her name was Alice.
We were in an over-crowded TGI Friday’s at a midwest airport, waiting for the snow to stop so we could board our connecting flight and escape for awhile. Our destination? Gorgeous Salt Lake City, Utah, for some spring skiing at Park City. We were giddy and didn’t mind the wait. We shared a secret – just the two of us – and no delay to our plans could bring us down.
Steve and I were fortunate enough to have found seats at a small table. We placed our order and when the waitress left, fighting through the crowd to reach the kitchen, that’s when we saw her.
She was an elderly woman, standing at the door alone, gazing about the restaurant in search of a place to rest. Steve stood and invited her to sit at the only spare seat at our table. She accepted with a warm smile.
“I’m Alice,” she said as she took her chair. “Thank you for sharing your table.”
Over nachos, we introduced ourselves and discussed our travel plans. Alice was in a more somber mood and explained she was on her way to her sister’s funeral. We offered our sincere condolences and suggested we’d talk and pass the time together. No one should be alone with their grief, waiting in a crowded bar. Alice gave us a small smile and said “I have a special feeling about the both of you.”
My husband and I looked at each other. He raised his eyebrows to me in question. Can I tell her? I smiled and nodded, listening with cautious joy as Steve told Alice that we were expecting our first child. We had told no one yet. In fact, we’d only found out ourselves the previous day. She clapped her hands in prayer and smiled wide.
We talked into the night. I cannot recall the details of our discussions, but I’ll never forget Alice’s reaction to our news, her brief respite from mourning her sister, and how it lifted her spirits, if only for a while.
Eventually our flight was announced over the loudspeaker. We exchanged addresses and at her urging, promised Alice that we’d send news about the baby. We reluctantly took our leave and wished her a safe journey.
We met Alice in March of 1998. I sent a birth announcement of our son, Zachary, just days after he arrived in November. Alice wrote back quickly and signed her letter: Love, Alice, Zachary’s first friend.
Each year at Christmas, we sent Alice a letter with a detailed update on Zachary and soon after, his baby brother, Alex. Without fail, she sent a long letter back, with news of her family and activities; her granddaughter’s wedding, the births of her great grandchildren, poetry classes taken near her assisted living community. She included pictures as well – one of her girls at her granddaughter’s wedding shower and one of her great-granddaughter’s first smile. We felt as if we were extended family, sharing her news.
Every letter we received began the same: Your card and note is something I look forward to with joy at Christmas... Our thoughts exactly.
Every letter was signed Love, Alice, Zach’s first friend.
In 2009, she posed the ‘big question’: Have you yet told Zach you met his first friend in a bar?
The last letter we received was in 2011. In December, 2012, I walked to the mailbox every day hoping to find an envelope with her familiar penmanship, and every day I closed the box disappointed. I sent another card and letter last year, hoping…and performed the same searching ritual with the same disappointing results.
We won’t look for a letter this year. We know why Alice doesn’t send one anymore. But at Christmastime especially, amid busy holiday preparations, we will take the time to think of her and appreciate how truly wonderful chance meetings can be. I’ll continue to write to Alice because it’s something I’ve done for fourteen years, but I’ll keep the letters with me, sure that she knows she’s in our hearts.
We are grateful for what she brought to us, for the years of correspondence and smiles, and we will always remember with love, Zach’s first friend.
Rest in Peace.
Alice Burroughs, September, 1923 – January, 2013