Updated: 5 days ago
My Aunt Alice passed away shortly before Christmas. She was my mother’s oldest sister and sometimes referred to as the family historian thanks to a sharp memory and simply being around the longest. She was a very typical first born: independent, stoic, and affectionately called ‘Sarge’. Even though she was very private, she did open up to me in 2016 when I interviewed her and her sisters for a special life storybook project for our family. Hearing her thoughts on their shared childhood shed light on my mother’s character and how these four Foley girls came to be.
She shared stories about my maternal grandparents who I never really got to know. My grandfather died when I was an infant; my grandmother already in the throes of Alzheimer’s by the time I could appreciate her. Tom and Alice Foley were outwardly calm and collected but suffered from ulcers from stress and worry. My grandfather was an attorney and did a lot of work pro bono even when they really couldn’t afford the charity. The family lived frugally, but my grandmother loved Marshall Field’s on State Street, so much so the delivery driver knew young Alice by name and where their mother kept the packages that needed returning. Back then, a car came to the house to pick up returns, complimentary. Now that is customer service. (I still miss Marshall Field's.)
As children, Alice and her sisters went to Little Flower Elementary and walked the three blocks home every day for lunch. But they only had an hour, so lunch was a rushed bologna sandwich and tomato soup while Mom listened to the Ma Perkins radio hour. Alice recounted all this so easily, like it was all just yesterday. I lapped up these precious details that could only come from relaxed but intentional storytelling.
For Alice, growing up one of four girls had its ups and downs. They all loved each other but she and Norine especially had their share of squabbles. They acted much the same as adults: Alice, the quiet and wise elder; Norine, the fun and sociable sister. The two roomed together for a time in the family two-flat on Paulina Avenue, but bickered so much they had to be separated. I can’t help but laugh thinking that they spent the last few years together in the same retirement community and saw each other daily, each still set in their roles. Alice remained independent, caring, but a bit stubborn up until the end, while Norine buzzed about, often fussing over her and probably driving her crazy. You can't help who you are born to be.
During Alice's interview, I learned more about my great Aunt Margaret and Uncle Maurice, my grandfather’s siblings, who I only knew as kind but old people. Aunt Margaret was a Chicago schoolteacher with beautiful penmanship who donated all her classroom gifts to Alice and her siblings, who no doubt brawled over who got what.
Maurice was beloved as “Uncle Maurie,” a Catholic priest with a twinkle in his eye and a great sense of humor. He was a chaplain for the Seabees during the war and loved to travel just like his niece Alice. They spent months traveling together through Europe and the Middle East when Alice was in her 20s. I had no idea Alice had ever left Chicago.
I also heard about their mother’s cooking, Irish and bland, and discovered where my Aunt Alice’s strange love for fruitcake came from. My grandmother made it annually for the holidays and Alice took up the tradition. My mom did not share in her sister's affection for it: each Christmas, a loaf of it sat like a brick on our kitchen counter until February when my mother finally threw it out.
My Aunt Alice did not marry or have children but spent much of her adult life caring for others. When her father had a stroke and could no longer work or live alone, she helped him close down his law practice and also sell their home in Beverly. She moved into the same building, the Kincora in Oak Lawn, to keep a close eye on them and would remain there for decades. After her dad died, she cared for her mom for many years. She was “Sarge,” the family matriarch, our family’s keeper.
She reflected on her many years as a caretaker as no big deal. There was no other option in her mind than to step up and care for the people whom she loved. As Alice’s obituary ran in the paper this week, I couldn’t help but smile at her typical Irish humor:
“You do what you have to do. You just have to live every day. You check the death notices to see if your name is in it, and if not, you go on. “
Thanks, Alice, for being a role model of service, love, and loyalty to your family and the many friends you’ve made through the years. Your name may have been in the death notices, but your stories live on in all of us.
In loving memory of Alice Margaret Foley, 1938 - 2019