I always referred to them as Mrs. Baker and Miss Alice. I'm not sure I ever knew their other names. Mrs. Baker was Miss Alice's daughter-in-law. They shared a modest house next to ours where they lived for 20 years following the death of Mrs. Baker's husband. Mr. Baker had been a successful banker who had died of cancer. His long battle with the disease had bonded the two ladies who had cared for him during his final months.
Mrs. Baker was utilitarian and paid little attention to her appearance. In summer, she would wear jeans, a flannel shirt, and a straw hat as she tended her garden. In the fall, she would rake the leaves in a moth-worn overcoat wearing large black boots, which looked suspiciously like those of her late husband.
Miss Alice had been a fashion model, and while her looks had long faded, she still paid attention to her appearance. She'd wear her signature ruby-red lipstick, rouge, and white gloves whenever she left the house. She'd visit the hair dresser every week for her shampoo and set, and even traveled to New York to shop twice a year.
Despite their differences, the pair complemented each other. Miss Alice was gregarious and full of life, Mrs. Baker taciturn and direct. They were content and close.
The time came when Miss Alice began misplacing things and forgetting names. A few years after that, she began having difficulty talking. She would start a sentence then forget her thought. Finally, she stopped talking.
Mrs. Baker also changed. Bags appeared under eyes, the creases on her face became deeply furrowed, and her stoop became more pronounced. Yet, she continued to guide Miss Alice on their daily walks. As the pair shuffled along the sidewalk, Mrs. Baker would talk, and Miss Alice would merely smile and laugh. They were utterly content in each other's company.
Miss Alice's doctor had recommended that she be moved to a nursing home, but Mrs. Baker's would never consent. “My heart would be broken when I imagine my life without her,” she said.
On Miss Alice's birthday, Mrs. Baker invited the neighbors for cake and ice cream. Miss Alice was radiant that day. Sitting on a chair with her sliver hair newly coiffed and wearing a pale white dress, she looked happy in the presence of the guests. Mrs. Baker was unusually talkative and in good spirits too.
We never knew Miss Alice's age. She was coy about about age, and no one asked the question even when it seemed appropriate on her birthday.
Thumbing through a photo album, Mrs. Baker pointed to a picture of Miss Alice as a young woman. “The beauty and passion are gone, but her spirit still lives. We've shared the ups and downs of our lives, and she makes my life full.”
As Mrs. Baker spoke, it was difficult to imagine how caring for Miss Alice could be rewarding. She needed help eating, dressing, and walking. Even conversation was one-sided.
“Not a day goes by when we don't laugh,” continued Mrs. Baker, lifting a fork with cake to Miss Alice's lips. “She's really no trouble. Alice has faded like the garden does in the fall, but I still get pleasure from it.”
A few days later, Miss Alice died in her sleep. “She looked peaceful when I found her,” Mrs. Baker said, tears streaming down her face.
For awhile, Mrs. Baker continued tending her garden and going on her daily walks, but there were periods when she would disappear, and then reappear looking frailer than before. Gradually, the garden faded and the walks stopped.
A year later, she was gone. Although the doctor said she died of a massive heart attack, we all believed she died of a broken heart.