Family Trees and Missing Limbs — a Ghost Story

What's the story with Alice?

Let me tell you a story about a woman I never knew.

Alice, my grandma-ghost, haunted the edges of my childhood. This not-quite-missing-missing person in my family was the biological mother of my mother. Long before I was born, someone — (The state? A relative?) — stashed Alice away in a facility for the old and infirm. There she stayed, somewhere in Snohomish Country, Washington, for the rest of her life.

The only consistent story about Alice tells of her suffering from a crippling rheumatoid arthritis. The story goes that she only experienced relief from its symptoms when pregnant. Subsequently, Alice and Ernie produced six children; three boys and three girls. My mother was their second child and first girl. However, once her children exited her womb, her pain returned with a vengeance. One by one, Alice sent all but one of her children to live with far-flung relations. Most of these families eventually adopted their charges. So, as Alice and Ernie’s family grew, so too, it simultaneously diminished. 

Locksbrook Cemetery. Weston, Bath. Photo by Author

Mattie Bundy, a second cousin to Alice’s father, adopted my mother in 1941. She and her husband, Randolf, enjoyed a well-heeled, but childless, life in Bellevue Washington. Both fell head over heels for the curly-haired toddler, and moved to adopt her immediately. As with all the families that took in the Dahlgren’s surplus, relationships between the children and their birth parents were encouraged and maintained. My mother often spent school holidays with Ernie, Alice and her siblings, but her allegiance always went to the Bundys — especially Randolf, who doted upon her from day one. I only knew the Bundys as Grandpa and Nana. My sister and I knew of the Dahlgrens, but Ernie died years before we were born and Alice was just a name. We saw no letters, no photos, nothing tangible to confirm her existence. No one phoned to speak to her or to enquire about her health. She was a name with no actual person attached. 

Mom spoke often about Ernie, but only Grandpa Bundy had her heart. When he died, still quite young, it devastated her. She made certain that my sister and I did not forget him, but she barely ever spoke of Alice. It never struck me as strange — just the way it was. I never questioned it.

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Years later, with three children and a divorce under my belt, my mother called me on the phone. She was worried about Mattie’s increasing senility. She told me that Mattie bullied her third husband, Walter, to the point of striking him. Horrified, Walter’s children removed him from the assisted living apartment he and Mattie shared. Now the facility warned they would kick Mattie out if she abused her neighbours or staff. Physical abuse was a new tactic for Mattie. Verbal intimidation and emotional cruelty were her standard forms of social communication. Once you became a target of her malice — something my dad experienced in spades, you remained so for life. I then remembered Alice. It had been years since my mom mentioned her.

‘What’s the story with Alice?‘ I asked. ‘Is she still in the nursing home?’

My mom burst into her nervous laugh — half giggle/half hysteria, 

‘Oh, God!’ She burst out, ‘Alice died years ago! Didn’t I tell you?’

She had not. Why would she? 

Alice lay six years in her grave before I learned she had gone. To my knowledge, none of her children attended her funeral.

I know for certain that Alice was born in Sandpoint, Idaho to Thomas McClelland and Lizzie Doan in 1916. I know Hattie Follis, the mother of Mattie, raised Alice from her early childhood; but I do not know why her own parents gave her up. Alice married Ernie Dahlgren in the mid-1930s. She gave birth to six living children, including my mother. She lost her husband in 1956, then she died alone in 1978. It’s what happened between Ernie’s death and her own that haunts me. It’s as though she vanished in what should have been plain sight. We rarely thought of her and less often spoke of her. Maybe someone visited her. Maybe someone loved her. I hope so.

Where she began

Where you'll find her now.

As a child, I imagined Alice as a gentle grandmother. I firmly believed that if she overcame her disability, she would love my sister and me like a real grandma. I imagined her telling us stories from my mother’s childhood and from her own. I imagined her as slim and petite, like my mother, with dark hair and eyes, and only a few greys. I convinced myself that if only my mother would reunite with Alice, she would act as an antidote to Mattie’s cruelty. I could not understand my mother’s preference for vile, old Mattie over the make-believe Alice living my head.

Of late, my mother tells me that Alice was a drunk, that she ‘stepped out’ on Ernie with an unnamed Native American man. She tells me she remembers Alice staggering in the hallway, drunk out of her mind and pissing herself. My mother claims that this mystery man fathered her, but Ernie never learned of the affair. Today my mother boasts of her Black Foot pedigree, and has developed a fondness for a Kevin Costner type version of Indigenous America culture. Of course it’s all fantasy. My mother is the spitting image of Ernie and his sister, Irene. I let it slide. Mom had a hard life. I cannot blame her for trying to invent a new and exotic identity for herself if it makes her happy. She’s in her eighties. Let her forge away.

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

But, in my family’s tradition of make believe, I endeavor to recreate Alice. I make up a life story with scraps of family gossip, old documents and the few ‘facts’ my mother handed down to me. I cobble together a life story and name it ‘Alice’.

I imagine her in 1922 stepping off the train at King Street Station: a small, unaccompanied child, meeting her foster family for the first time. In my mind, I see a thin, impoverished child—perhaps an orphan; or, like my mother, a child born into circumstances that could not support her. Perhaps orphaned by her mother and abandoned by her father, a child from the pages of Dickens. I wonder if her own mother, Lizzy, may have suffered from the same debilitating arthritis that would later affect Alice. I see her standing in the station, small and saucer-eyed, as Hattie spots her and rushes to greet her.

Standing only a foot from Hattie, Mattie and Gracie eyeball their new sister. Did the girls treat her with jealousy or compassion? Did Hattie see in her just another burden, or as the child of her kin, deserving of a full belly, a winter coat and a warm bed in which to sleep?

Hattie, I am told, was a kind and generous soul who took in several children through the years. So despite the children’s jealous rivalry, Alice grew up enveloped in Hattie’s practical, but loving care. She enjoyed warm food, clean clothes and a basic education. 

Yet, even before marrying Ernie, Arthritis struck her. By nineteen, the joints of her fingers already ached, swelled and twisted. With each passing year and between each pregnancy, Alice’s toes, ankles, knees and back deteriorated. By the time Ernie died, she could no longer walk or grasp so much as a spoon in her hands. Finally, tucked away in a nursing home, Alice became a living ghost.

Alice McClelland shuffles across my attic floor. She haunts me through an all too familiar chain of abandonment, poverty and neglect. Most of all, she haunts me with her loneliness. She is the forgotten I never could forget.

In the end, we are born alone and we die alone. What happens in the middle — the meaty parts — matters so much more. Loving our friends and children. Learning through our conflicts, pain and resolutions — all the little bits that make us feel alive.

I wish I knew Alice in her between time. I want to believe she shared those years with another, and that she was loved and loved in return.

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#fostercare #neglect #Familytrees #adoption #chronicillness #Stories

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