Good Reads: About Alice by Calvin Trillin
My first impression was that she looked more alive than anyone Id ever seen. She seemed to glow. Calvin Trillin (upon meeting his wife for the first time)Calvin Bud Trillin has been a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine since 1963 and has written more than any single person for the magazine The Nation. Born in 1935 in Kansas City, Mo., he is a journalist, humorist and novelist. He is best known for his humorous writings about food and eating, but he has also written much serious journalism, comic verse, and several books of fiction. In 2006, four years after his wifes death, he wrote a slim book, About Alice. This short, eloquently written essay is a true contemporary love story, perhaps one of the most humorous, readable and endearing books of its kind I have read in a long time. He had often written about members of his family, notably his wife Alice whom he married in 1965. She was frequently portrayed as the wife who had a predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day and a mother who thought that if you didnt go to every performance of your childs school play, the county would come and take the child. There was Alice, creating boundaries for her wild and crazy husband. But what came through on every page was the complete adoration and love he had for her. Although we did know about Alice, we, the readers, did not really know Alice. Actually Alice Stewart Trillin was a graduate of Wellesley and Yale. A brainy beauty with common-sense wisdom, she was a teacher and a writer of some remarkable prose of her own. Much of her subject matter was of a serious nature, and she also edited Calvins writing. In 1976, at the age of 38, a non-smoker and the mother of two small daughters, Sarah and Abigail, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She immediately underwent radiation treatment and had a lobe of her lung removed. She later wrote about her long-shot survival of this deadly form of cancer in several places, including in a very famous essay for the New England Journal of Medicine called Of Dragons and Garden Peas.In 1981, she founded a TV production company Learning Designs, producing PBSs Behind the Scenes to teach children creative thinking. Her book Dear Bruno (1996) was intended to reassure children who had cancer. In 2001, she wrote a New Yorker piece about her 2000 scare that the cancer had returned, and about the kinds of choices patients make while navigating power-charged relationships with their physicians. She died rather suddenly later that year (ironically Sept. 11, 2001), not of the reoccurrence of the cancer she had feared but of heart failure precipitated in part by the damage done 25 years earlier by the powerful radiation treatments she received. Nora Ephron, author and a dear friend, said at Alices memorial service that Alice believed in helping people anyone she loved, or liked, or knew, or didnt quite know but knew someone who did, or didnt know from a hole in the wall but had just gotten a telephone call from because theyd found the number in the telephone book. Alice was a pioneer in college-level remediation because she always took it for granted people who wanted to learn could be taught, no matter what their background.Although Trillin got back to work right after Alice died, it took until 2006 before he could write again about Alice, first in an article Alice, Off the Page in the New Yorker and then the expanded version of which I recommend here, About Alice, published on Dec. 26, 2006. He has since lamented that his writing has suffered since the death of his wife, who used to edit his drafts. In doing so, Alice had offered him affirmation. He clearly worshipped his wife. She was his muse, his straight woman, his partner in crime and his devotion jumps off the page. The tenderness and affection he had for her and has for her memory is a touching tribute proclaimed in typical Trillin style: humorous, straight-forward and heartfelt. As he wrote in the dedication of the first book he wrote after her death, I wrote this for Alice. Actually, I wrote everything for Alice. We should all be as loved as Alice.
Barbara Perlman-Whyman’s Good Reads column appears in the Sun on Fridays. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.