She was an ordinary woman. Her days were given to routine, replete with the utter sameness shared by others of her station. Her story will never be chronicled in history books, her days largely unremarkable and unworthy of a biographer’s pen.
Still, in this holiday season, Miss Alice is all I can think about. There are no fonder memories for me than the holidays we spent at her house on 10th Street. Number 623, situated between Pennsylvania and Summit Avenues, was among the largest on the block and it seemed the screen door was constantly swinging open to visitors. Thanksgiving brought family and friends from both sides of the Mississippi, the river that separates St. Louis from East St. Louis.
Family, by blood and by our own making, came together to cook, laugh, and eat. Aunt Geraldine even let us into the “front room” to dance on the rarely stepped on red carpet as music streamed from the Zenith floor model entertainment console. For a few hours, lulled by the Temptations, we left our differences at the door to celebrate new babies, count the generations, and tell old stories about the Robinson journey. If you were old enough and good enough, you could Spades and Bid Whist on foldout tables.
One year, five generations gathered around the table and clasped hands, as Miss Alice prayed. When she was done, she opened her eyes and said to the circle of family, “Never forget. Never forget what we have, what we’ve been. Never forget who we are. We are the children of an all powerful, ever present God.”
Alice Beatrice Cole was born in 1901 in Sugar Ditch, Mississippi. Most of us had never seen her homeland and the Mhoon Plantation from which we rose was little more than family lore. All we had was what Miss Alice could remember and even that faded with the years. She passed on to Glory in 1990, leaving us with her lessons of Grace, Forgiveness and Faith. In her living, she had ample portion when we did not, could not or would not have it for ourselves.
We still own the house on 10th Street, but our family is different now. We live in various corners of the country and are cutting roads of our own. As a family and as a people, we’ve accomplished things Miss Alice never dare dream about for herself. She could never have imagined a granddaughter attending an Ivy League college. There was no way for her to know that another would marry her high school sweetheart, a highly decorated Army Command Sergeant. Or that another would greet the first black president.
For all of our shortcomings, for all of our differences, for the times when we lacked grace of our own, Miss Alice believed in the perfection that is family. She never dreamed us to be kings, to conquer lands unknown. Rather, she dreamed us to be love, to know love and to give it without hesitation. To care for one another in our darkest hours, that the spirit of Thanksgiving would last beyond one day.
This year, as I busy myself with stewing collard greens, baking the perfect yellow cake from scratch, as I roast turkey and hunt the grocery aisles for the last bags of red potatoes, I am thinking of Miss Alice—my maternal grandmother.
Her chocolate skin was as smooth as fudge frosting, her loving kindness sweeter than the candied yams, her grace more beautiful and elegant still than any peach cobbler I will slip into the oven. Her love was greater than any I’ve known. Unselfish in its giving, never running dry.
I am grateful for Miss Alice, thankful for how she loved this family and our broader community. Most of all, I am thankful that she believed. Her portion of faith was wide and thick enough to cover us all.
I’ve spent the last few years researching her life, needing to understand from where she came. What I found was necessary perspective, that no matter my road and no matter the struggle I’ve seen, that Miss Alice had done more so I could be more.
Running through the almost-final Thanksgiving menu, I get caught up in her spirit. I remember how under Miss Alice’s watchful eye my Uncle Ross would layer on a new coat of paint every other spring, and kept the rose bushes tidily cut to ensure they’d bloom again. At her urging, he bleached the walkway leading to the porch that spanned its frontage. When the weather was warm enough, Miss Alice would sit in the swing he’d hung, enjoying her piece of paradise, welcome all who would enter.
You see for Miss Alice, every day was Thanksgiving. For me, she was most extraordinary.