In her book “all about love: new visions”, author bell hooks refers to psychoanalyst Alice Miller’s writing and work. In particular, hooks is taken with Miller’s concept of the “enlightened witnesses” present in the lives of most adults- particularly those of us who experienced pain and needless suffering in childhood. “Enlightened witnesses” are those individuals who have shown a certain kindness, tenderness and concern in the person undergoing difficulty so as to restore that individual’s hope and belief in the good in their life. These witnesses are thus persons who offer “hope, love and guidance to a wounded child in any dysfunctional setting” (hooks, 2000, p. 234). So as to restore belief that the individual has something of worth to live for. Something of value to strive for. And something of significance to show for their life.
Enlightened witnesses can be those who themselves have risen from the depths. Individuals who have overcome great odds and great adversity. Sometimes this is the very thing required to create lasting empathy and feeling. For when we identify, we can extend ourselves that much more.
Of my many enlightened witnesses, Alice was one of the most memorable. My “adopted” mother, she was an elegant woman with immaculate nails and gorgeous ebony skin. She and her father lived in a neighborhood on the far side of town where they owned a little piece of land that boasted lush flower gardens and a bountiful vegetable garden. I came to live with Alice when I was seventeen years old. Our family had to make an unexpected move in my Grade 12 year, and I was not ready to leave my childhood home town in the final year of high school. The dilemma posed for my parents was this: to allow me to stay in the area and graduate with my friends or to force me to move against my will and thus inflict on me feelings of resentment and anger. They, with love and open-mindedness, allowed me to stay behind. The next issue was deciding with whom I would stay. After exhausting a list of possibilities, we thought of my mother’s dear friend who happened to be unattached to any other familial responsibilities, and the decision was made to send me to live with Alice and her father, Stanley.
Prior to my knowing, Alice had indicated to my mother that she was more than willing to let me live at her house. However, being that she was a reflective woman, she was mindful that there might be unforeseen concerns on the horizon. Most obvious of which was that I was an active, vivacious teenager on the go and in need of transportation, food and supervision. But, a more subtle concern to Alice was the slight issue of my skin colour. For I was as white as flour paste compared to her beautiful dark skin. We had different histories, different stories, and different cultural understandings of self and our place in this world. She expressed to my mother, unbeknownst to me, that she was worried about our differences. My mother assured her that this was a non-issue in our books. But still Alice fretted over it. In spite of these concerns, it was decided that Alice was the best fit for my needs. So I packed my bags, even as my family were unpacking theirs in another province, and settled into a little room on the far side of town where I lived with Alice and her father for the remainder of my final school year.
After Alice and I had been under the same roof for quite some time, we found ourselves one day in the kitchen doing dishes together. I wiped the wet bowls and plates while she carefully washed. There was an easy banter between us, when out of the blue, Alice asked me an odd question. “Do you mind staying here?”
“Why?” I asked, looking at her strangely.
“Because we’re Black,” she said pointedly.
“You’re not black,” I replied, looking at her strangely, not knowing what to say, but thinking that option was surely not one of my choices.
“Yes, I am.” she said looking at me square on. Challenging me with her eyes. I looked at her as well, and then I shrugged. Not flippantly, not disrespectfully- just nonchalantly. I held her gaze and then smiled. And as soon as I did, something happened. We both started laughing. And we laughed hard. Because truthfully, it did not matter anymore. None of it did. It didn’t matter that I was white and she was black. I was a teen and she was a middle-aged woman. I was the tenant and she the landlord. It didn’t matter. We released these differences, and let them wash away as cleanly as the grease on the plates in the sink.
We were simply Alice and Lori after that. And that was that.
Over the year that I lived with Alice, our relationship became more than just functional. We became close- fast friends. And then in time, a deeper relationship developed. She became, in essence, a surrogate mother to me and continued to be one over the years that followed. As I graduated from university, and later got married, Alice was there to share my joy. In time, she made a visit to my home in Prince Edward Island after the birth of my second child. Our bond continued to solidify over the years, and we remained close in spite of the miles that separated us. She died just after Mother’s Day in 2007 while I was expecting our last child. It grieves me that my four children never really knew their surrogate grandmother. She took great interest in the older three during their early years, calling often to find out how everyone was doing. Each birthday and special holiday was marked by cards and gifts specially selected by Alice for each child according to their interests and preferences. She had a knack of picking out things that suited the receiver to a T.
Alice’s influence on me over the years has given me pause for reflection, not the least of which, for reflecting on what it means to be a mother. Although she never had an opportunity to birth and raise children of her own, she certainly was a mother-at-heart to me until she passed on. To me, Alice epitomizes what a mother truly is: a nurturing caregiver with the attitude to parent those in their protection. Alice had the desire to be a mother. She never had the opportunity to have children of her own, and this pained her, I am sure. But she was everything a mother should be and more. And in my time of need, she was an enlightened witness to my grief of the loss in my life, not the least of which was my childhood home and family. My own mother and father living in another province. In my heart, I believe that I was part of Alice’s reason for why she was placed here on this earth. I needed her influence in my life: to challenge me to accept people for who they are, where they are and how they are. But on a personal level, I just needed her love. And she gave it freely.
She was an enlightened witness- my special angel here on earth: and I am forever grateful for her legacy of love and hope.