My great-aunt Alice – My Idol!
She’s been gone over twenty years yet she still lives on in our minds.
Whenever she flashes through my mind a smile lightens up my face and a warm flush of energy spreads through my veins. I can still hear her sing-song voice whispering in my ear,‘you’re a smart little girl, Margo, you’re just like me!’ I must have been ten when she said that to me the first time, and she must have been in her early forties. I remember how my skinny form swelled with pride as I trotted off with a song in my heart. ‘I’m just like Aunty Alice, I’m smart, just like Aunty Alice.’ I wanted so much to be like her in every way and God knows I tried, but the truth is I’m much more like my mother who is the exact opposite to my great-aunt Alice.
Aunt Alice was charismatic, captivating and charming. She was most seductive when a man was around. Her tongue was made of pure honey, uttering sweet words to enchant anyone and everyone who crossed her path. Her smile that showed a perfect set of pearly teeth never left her face and her eyes twinkled like two stars as they scanned laser-sharp whomever or whatever held her attention. She also had a very special gift which was a marvelous memory for names, and faces including each of their individual stories. Every soul, family and friends, was mesmerized by her and in love with her. They couldn’t help it. She had a kind word for all alike making every one feel special and important. I didn’t realize it then when I was trying so hard to be like her, that she was blessed from the Gods with a gift, and I wasn’t. What came naturally to her and was genuine required great effort on my part and sounded terrible I with my sorry attempts to be like her.
I have no first recollection of my great-aunt Alice. What I mean is, I can’t remember when I first became aware of her, she was just always there, an important larger than life figure in the family maze of endless uncles, aunts, cousins and in-laws of all ages, shapes and sizes, who waltzed in and out of our large household. I do remember that whenever the word went around that she would be visiting, everyone was ecstatic, dressed in their finest clothes, brought out their select china and silverware and were at their very best behavior. I mean her presence was continuously prominent in my life until I was well into my sixties, by which time she must have been, well just ancient, because no one really knew her age. She must have been nearer to ninety, would never admit to being more than seventy and she certainly didn’t look a day over sixty! She never had grey hair. She made sure of that.
At the prime of her age, in the nineteen forties, my great-aunt Alice was a globetrotter and a celebrity hopping between two homes in Damascus and Washington. I was but a child then but she made sure to show me the faded clippings as soon as she felt I was ready to take it in. Every time she left or arrived in Damascus the local newspapers front pages were full of her photographs dressed in the latest fashions and furs of the season, on the arm of her dashing older Syrian born American husband who naturally adored her. To my delight he adored me too and spoilt me to death! I remember that very well, he called me his sunshine. How could I forget that? I adored them both.
My lovely young mother was a quiet discrete woman who hated any kind of attention. She spoke only when she had something important to say. She had a dry sense of humor that shot out like an arrow nailing an obvious truth exposing it without any doubt to shock everyone into loud laughter or embarrassed silence. She was pretty and delightfully plump, hardly used any make up and never colored her nails. As she grew older her dress sense became more comfortable than fashionable. Nevertheless, like her aunt Alice she was also loved and respected by one and all. There was a difference though people had no need to be at their best with my mother, they were just their relaxed normal selves. I figured this was so because my mother was by nature a peaceful person, uncomplicated and a little on the timid side. In my young innocent years I did not appreciate these qualities as virtues. I so wished my mother to be more like her aunt Alice.
My great-aunt Alice was my one and only idol. I went to sleep with her on my mind and woke up in the morning with the thought ‘I want to be just like her.’ She had beautiful little feet, always well manicured toenails, and she always wore open toed shoes. To this day I hear her voice whispering in my ear every time I buy a pair of shoes. ‘Always wear open toed shoes Margo, they’re sexy.’ At the time I had no idea what sexy meant, I just loved pretty things. Even when she went to the bathroom at midnight she’d slip her feet into her high-heeled slippers with pompom feathers caressing her toes. I hardly ever saw her in flat shoes or slippers, not even barefooted come to think of it. She had a large collection of exquisite high-heeled shoes, sandals and slippers with and without ankle straps that she bought in New York, London, Paris, Rome or Beirut. She was very proud of her shapely legs like Joan Crawford was, and high heels were the perfect accessories to show them off at their best. That much I understood.
My great-aunt Alice was a woman well ahead of her time. She would have blended perfectly in today’s world, independent, motivated, self confident and diplomatic to boot. She was a businesswoman and knew exactly how to get what she wanted. She was lucky of course that she had a husband who had no problem with that at all or – maybe she knew just how to turn him around her little finger? Anyway he never felt threatened by her, in his eyes she could do no wrong. God knows she was more than willing to share her secrets with any female in the family who would listen. I picked up what I could from her but some things were just too difficult for me, for example, being diplomatic. In my teens I dreamt about being a diplomat and I practiced and practiced to no avail. The harder I tried the more I felt my nose growing longer à la Pinocchio. For me it meant hiding my real feelings, putting on a fake smile, keeping my voice sweet and seductive and speaking words that I did not really mean. My great-aunt Alice was a born diplomat. She was authentic and I was not. Over time like it or not, I had to give up my dream of ever becoming a diplomat.
It never occurred to me at the time but now when I think back, I realize that I’d never seen our dazzling aunt Alice in the kitchen. I have no idea to this day if she knew even how to cook, she always had servants and a cook around in contrast to my mother who was the best of cooks. Somehow kitchen, food and aunt Alice did not mix. For some odd reason I have no recollection of aunt Alice eating but I do remember how she talked. She charmed everyone with the way she spoke. How I wished I could speak like her. She used endearing words with everyone. Everyone was darling or dear to her and she was generous with her compliments. As she entered a room she would greet everyone with ‘Hello all you beautiful people,’ and she was extravagant with her compliments to any male that was around, flattering and admiring their hair, dress and looks and praising their deeds. She used Arabic at its best, using all the flowery Arab words that exist.
I loved it and God knows I tried to copy her mannerisms of speech but when I tried to imitate her I sounded silly, so I stopped. I’ve accepted the fact that I am my mother’s daughter as far as my speech is concerned which means no fancy words at all! Just say what has to be said and leave it at that. Leave out the dears and darlings, and all the flowery stuff. Unless I actually meant it of course.
On one of my last visits to Damascus in the late nineties, with one of my daughters, I recall being in a gathering of about twenty people, on a summer evening with five generations of our family all in one room. Of course, our aunt Alice, the matriarch of the family was there and the youngest were little kids running around, fourth or fifth cousins of mine. My daughter who is raised western style marveled at the respect everyone showed our aunt Alice. What she said was law, no one dared to argue with her or contradict her, no matter whether they agreed with her or not. Five generations between the ages of five to eighty years plus, all in one space, chatting, eating, sharing gossip, ideas, news about this or that, kids running around, enjoying being together. Tolerance, love and respect were exercised while personal opinions and any personal ill-feelings were put on the backburner.
Aunt Alice’s nature was just as generous as her lavish way of speaking. She was generous with her purse towards all her nieces and nephews, spreading to four generations and she remembered all sixty-two of them! About ten years before she passed away she sent a check to each and every one of us, not a staggering large sum but nevertheless, she remembered all of us. Some years after her death I discovered that she was far more generous with the girls in the family than she was with the boys, so my great-aunt Alice was a supporter of women’s lib too but her secret was that she never let the men feel that. She had a way of making the men feel very important never letting on what she really thought of them.
Her age was a secret to one and all until after her death in the late nineties. The buzz quickly spread through the family members scattered all over the globe. According to her passport our aunt Alice was ninety-seven. She stopped traveling after her husband died but she was never bedridden and was still trotting around with her open toed high heels and flirting with any male specimen who crossed her path until a few months before her death. She died childless but as she liked to repeat to everyone she met, she had sixty-two grand children! For her all her grand nieces and nephews were her children.
Today well into my seventies whenever I feel tired and fed up with the world as it is today, I think of my great aunt Alice and wonder what she would have to say. I’m glad she’s not here to witness her beloved Damascus being destroyed. Perhaps I resemble her in looks and dress but in character I’ve resigned to the fact that I am my mother’s daughter. Some things I feel are best left unsaid. When my mother crosses my mind I smile and feel an inner calmness and regret that I did not appreciate her more in my younger years and sometimes I wonder how I will be remembered by my daughters and grand children.
Can’t remember when I wrote this but maybe around 2008. Today I am 82 and I know I will be joining my Tante Alice very very soon.
11 December 2021