It was when I went to bury Alice that I understood she wasn’t dead. And I understood that she wasn’t going to die for a long time, and that people aren’t dead when they die, and you can’t kill them. People die slowly, sometimes too slowly, and in bits and pieces. Some of the pieces shine brightly. Others bite you long and hard. It is amazingly unique how the dead keep living.
Her ashes, in the plain white cardboard box we received from the undertaker, lay at the bottom of a nondescript brown paper shopping bag. No writing on the box, just a flap tucked in neatly, securely, cleanly taped closed with a seal. It looked like a gift. No one would guess a dead person was in there. A dead person who knew how to manipulate an entire family. Who knew how to play ‘people ping-pong,’ always vying for love. A genuine kind of love she knew nothing about but longed for, bargained for, purchased for, maneuvered for, drank for and was never able to manage.
On top of Alice’s ashes were two other cardboard boxes, one with fraying tape, dust and scuff marks. That was my father Vincent, Alice’s only child. The other box, just as unremarkable, held the ashes of Umberto Laraschi, Alice’s father, who was born in 1882 and died in 1979 a few months before my father. Umberto was the most dead, the memory of him nearly gone.
Umberto and my father were found, along with Alice’s formidable collection of shoes, in the back of her closet. My brother and sister-in-law discovered this treasure when they went to her Brooklyn apartment to clear out her belongings after she sort of died. They are good scrounges, my brother and his wife. My sister-in-law has a small side business selling things she finds or acquires, at flea markets. She is a professional. Always on the lookout for freebies to resell. To her credit, she is very good at this and has turned it into a small additional income for their family. So she and my brother cleared out Alice’s apartment, saving us a trip.
Alice died of a heart attack while in rehab after breaking her hip. She was 78. Her son, my father, died of lung cancer after chain-smoking for 25 years. He was 42. Umberto died of old age in a nursing home after living for 97 years. And this was the day they would all be interred in niches at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Niches I was told that had all been purchased years in advance by Alice.
With me at the cemetery, in the massive Victorian-era brick building that housed the niches, were my two brothers Victor and John, and my two daughters, Maggie who was 4 and Janna at six months. Maggie was sponging up the newness of everything around her: the massive iron gates we passed through at the entrance to the cemetery, the brick buildings just inside them where the administrative offices were. There were rooms full of walls, full of rows full of numbered niches with small metal doors a little bit decorated. She took in the polished granite floors, the large windows with 1800s-style thick oak frames, and a large round room with a circular bank of niches in the center, then more rows of niches lining the circular walls. She skipped around like a princess in a palace, watching her dress twirl.
Janna, my six-month-old, sat on my hip and cried. I held and bounced her, gave her a pacifier, a bottle and a song, but she kept crying. She had cried in the car most of the way there and still had the energy for more crying. Maybe she somehow knew that people were dead.
My brothers stood around like awkward scarecrows, draped in so many crows. Not knowing what to do. Not offering to take the shopping bag or to take hold of a niece. They did not sense that I may have needed them in some way. They were smirking a little, some inside joke about my husband having to wear a suit to work. So I was in charge. In charge of ashes, in charge of children, in charge of sorting out the mess that I had no idea was waiting for us.
We found an office where a clerk, a quiet older man, somewhat alive but looking dead, was waiting for us. He was polite and respectful. Mechanically sympathetic at first (after all, someone had died), he was a little surprised when he learned there were three dead people in the shopping bag. He perked up. As I explained what I knew, he flipped through a Rolodex and told me what he needed: full names, birthdates, death dates and certificates. 1882? How old was he? 97? But it was 1994 and that would have made him 112. No, he had died 14 years ago. 14 years ago? Yes. It went on like that until I could finally make it clear to him who was who, when they were born and when they died. He was visibly confused and had gone from being politely sympathetic to somewhat annoyed. I could tell he thought we were a bunch of weirdos. We must have been his story for the day, the strange group with the crying baby and three boxes of ashes, two that had been stored in a closet for 14 years.
I told him what I knew about the niches. I understood that Alice had purchased two of them years ago when her mother, Umberto’s wife Gilda, had died. One niche held Gilda. Umberto would go into that one with her, a niche for two. And there should be another niche for two with Vincenzo in it, Alice’s husband. She would go into that one with him. And we believed there was one for my father’s ashes, which should have been purchased 14 years ago when he died.
But Alice was Alice, and she had had problems with alcohol and money and procrastination and communication and honesty. There were niches to untangle. The cemetery clerk explained that, according to his files, Alice had interred her husband Vincenzo in the niche with her mother, Gilda. That yes there was another for two, but no niche had been purchased for my father.
What to do? What had she been thinking? How could she not have thought to get a niche for her son, my father?
I decided we’d open the niches and sort everyone out, put them where they belonged, get a new niche for my father and go back to my aunt’s house. But it cost extra money to open niches and move ashes, and the new niche for my father was not cheap. We were not expecting any of this.
While I was consulting with my brothers, Alice’s landlord, Maria, arrived with Jack, an old friend of Alice’s. They had wanted to be there when we interred her, to say good-bye, have some closure. My grandmother’s landlord, a middle-aged Italian woman, was polite towards my brothers and me, but not friendly. She considered herself a good friend of Alice’s. She had no idea she had been ‘ping-ponged’ by my grandmother into believing we were inconsiderate, ungrateful grandchildren who did not care a twit about her, and never helped her. Alice had bought all sorts of ‘gifts’ for her landlord-friend, clinching the relationship. Jack gave us hugs and offered condolences. We shared our predicament.
Maria was visibly shaken to learn that Alice had not buried her father or her son, that there was such confusion about the niches. She could not believe that Alice, the sweet, neglected, older Italian woman who lived in her basement apartment could have done something like this. She kept repeating that to Jack. Alice had painted a very different picture of herself and her family to Maria. John was amused; he knew Alice as we did. He confirmed that, yes, this was definitely something Alice could do.
She must have been juggling money. She did what was easy and cheap; after all, they were dead so what would they care?
Eventually we interred my father with his grandfather Umberto. We left Gilda, my great grandmother, and her son-in-law Vincenzo together as they were. We bought a new niche and put Alice in there alone. It seemed everyone would be more at peace that way. We said good-bye to Jack and to Maria, who would be sorting out her own ideas about Alice, and drove back to my aunt’s house on Avenue N for pizza and debriefing.
My aunt Nancy, my mother’s sister, was not shocked by our story and also a bit amused; after all, she too knew Alice. I was tired and aggravated with my brothers. We had driven all morning from Massachusetts to take care of this, and it had turned into a long drawn-out day that was more emotional than I was expecting. Alice had not taken care of my father’s ashes. She promised to do this 14 years ago when we couldn’t make it to the cemetery before it closed, when the car broke down on the way from Boston. He was not supposed to be at the back of her closet. She hated her own father, so why keep him in the closet?
She wasn’t dead.
Alice had deep wounds. I try to remember this so I can forgive her. I do forgive her for so many things. She wanted to be loved and important to people. And she wanted some control. She found different family allies during different times of her life and, when these allies died, she shifted with ease, the way a goat shifts its footing when a rock slides out from under it. Looking back now, I would try to give her more of what she needed. But she was so controlling and manipulative, so dramatic and attention seeking, so good at screwing things up, that loving her was hard and I was young and could not see the whole Alice painting.
In the histories of families, love and dysfunction can sleep together, often with explanations real and imagined. We do our best.
Alice grew up in a suburb of Patterson New Jersey, the only child of Umberto and Gilda Laraschi, immigrants from Como. Italy. They married young—at 17 & 18—and right away Umberto decided they would go to America. He was a skilled weaver from a family of weavers. There were jobs and opportunities, but Gilda never wanted to leave Como. She had objected, pleaded and argued, but Umberto knew what he wanted. They got on a boat and made the journey.
Gilda never recovered from this, and the tone of their marriage was set. She had one child, Alice, born Guilietta Alice (Aleeche). While Gilda and Umberto worked in the textile mills of Patterson alongside other Italian immigrants, Alice was looked after by another Italian family that she grew to hate. “They were not nice people,” was all that Alice divulged. My mother suspected that she had been abused in some way.
Alice’s family prospered by American standards. They came to own a home in Tilden, a Patterson suburb. Umberto gained skills at repairing looms and became indispensable at the mill. When there were layoffs, he remained employed and worked hard. At home, he was strict and determined.
In the local Italian community, he was known for his homemade red wines, which he sold in green bottles to other Italian families. His basement was lined with large musty kegs of wine. I remember, as a very young girl, visiting and walking through the basement with its clean cement floor, lined with giant kegs raised on platforms, as my great grandfather knocked on each one listening for something, speaking in Italian to my father, both of them sipping samples from different barrels.
Eventually Alice was old enough to go to school. She was intelligent, did very well and became bilingual. She learned to read and write English at school, and taught herself to read and write Italian at home, using the Italian newspaper. Her husband, Vincenzo, could never read or write Italian, even though he went to grammar school through eighth grade in a northern Italian village.
The Laraschis were not a happy family. The love Alice was always looking for was not something she missed from her childhood. It was never there. Umberto was a strict Italian father and Gilda had breakdown upon breakdown. She was depressed, mentally ill and, in her older years, was kept inside the house where she drank wine and ranted.
Nevertheless, Alice grew smarter and beautiful, thin and buxom with hazel eyes and golden northern-Italian hair like silk. I have her wedding dress to prove this, and there is a black and white photo of her in her 20s, dressed stylishly in a coat with a fake fur collar and a fashionable hat, posing on the hood of a 1930s car looking like a gangster’s moll. She loved to dress well and during her whole life spent lots of money on clothes and accessories. When she ‘died,’ she still owed a local dress shop over $2,000.
Her marriage to Vincenzo, a knife grinder, had been arranged when she was young, 11 or 12 years old. When she was 18 they married. He was 32. It would be the biggest mistake of his life. She never grew to love him, only to resent him more and more. They spent my entire childhood yelling and cursing at each other in Italian. But they put up with each other; divorce was never an option. What could she do? Meals and cooking brought them together for brief periods of calm. But after giving birth to my father, she spent the rest of her married life sleeping in her own room.
I cannot blame her for her resentment, though her husband was a hard worker, a good provider and a kind man. Alice never had choices or opportunities. And she was smart. She was born into a culture and time that set her life in motion. And her own family had many issues. Her childhood was not something she could lean on. She could never accept what she was given, and there was nothing soft about her that could help her make the best of the situation, to carve out some kind of real happiness for herself.
She was strong and strategically rebellious. She cheated on Vincenzo and spent his money buying clothes and jewelry. She learned to drink and to work around. She learned to manipulate, something my father learned from her by watching.
Along with the two boxes of ashes, Alice left behind a small collection of belongings, the handwritten letter to the grandchildren, five years of unpaid back taxes (after all she knew she would eventually die), the $2,000 of debt to the local dress shop, and a tangled net of damaged relationships that would remain that way for years.
My brother Victor and his wife gave the accounting of the possessions that had been left. I never saw most of it, including the letter to the grandchildren, which I asked about but they chose not to share. It wasn’t worth seeing anyway, they said. This pissed me off, but I sort of let it go. It probably wasn’t worth reading. There was a cedar hope chest my brother passed on to me that I had been promised since I was a girl, along with a small collection of Hummels, which went the way of the letter and I never saw them. I assume they were sold at a flea market.
There was also a collection of Native American tourist memorabilia, her clothes and personal items, and a few hundred-dollar bills found wrapped in tin foil in the freezer under the ice tray. My sister-in-law took care of all these things. Though she was not trying to help me by doing this, nevertheless I was grateful.
Alice played a prominent role in the deterioration of the relationship between my brother Victor and I. It was never a strong relationship, but Alice helped to push it off the cliff.
Virginia Cramer grew up in Brooklyn, NY, during the 1960s and went to Catholic school, learning to write good sentences and how to survive. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, where they have raised two daughters. For the past 30 years, Virginia has taught in public schools; she is currently teaching art at the middle-school level and regularly exhibits her artwork in the Boston area.