On Grace

by JAKE NORTON

April 2023
It's my mother's birthday today. She would have been 78, but sadly passed away from Acute Myeloid Leukemia in July 2022. Rather than mourn her today, rather than lament her absence, I'm instead going to celebrate her and her existence for 77+ years and the beauty she brought - and shared - throughout her life. […]

It's my mother's birthday today. She would have been 78, but sadly passed away from Acute Myeloid Leukemia in July 2022. Rather than mourn her today, rather than lament her absence, I'm instead going to celebrate her and her existence for 77+ years and the beauty she brought - and shared - throughout her life. The following is a brief remembrance I shared with our extended community at her Celebration of Life. Enjoy.


A couple weeks back, while going through boxes of things in my Mom’s house, I came upon an old t-shirt. It was rumpled, red, smelled slightly of mold, and had one word in bold, white lettering across the chest: GRACE.

Some of may know, some may not, but this nickname of hers came about during her time at Middlebury, a tongue-in-cheek reference to her at-times-remarkable ability to slip, fall, and tumble in the most surprising circumstances. I’ve heard rumors of gravity-defying cartwheels down gangplanks, and I personally witnessed seemingly impossible slips morphing into airborne pirouettes on but the smallest bits of ice.

But, despite it’s sarcastic roots, the moniker Grace is, in fact, quite apropos for Mom. It’s the word that most comes to mind when I think of her and the way she elegantly - dare I say gracefully - danced the waltz of life. And yet her grace had nothing to do with tumbles and cartwheels.

When we hear that word, grace, many of us think of the Christian version, the asking for or receiving of divine favor or intervention. But, all of us know Alice asked for very little in her life, so that meaning is not quite right.

Alice Gaines Milnor Norton, circa 1970
Alice Gaines Milnor Norton, circa 1970

We may also think of the Three Graces from Greek mythology, daughters of Zeus and Hera, and the goddesses of charm and beauty. This concept of grace is a bit more fitting for - with all Oedipal references aside - Alice was a woman of great charm and incredible beauty. But, her grace was much more than mere superficial aspects and polite manner.

If you look in the dictionary, you’ll see grace defined as “beauty of form, manner, motion, or action” and possession of “moral strength.” Trace its roots to the Sanskrit gūrtí, and you can add on the steadfast promotion of goodness and well-being, benediction.

But, Alice was more than some rote dictionary definition, and while all the above meanings apply, none fit perfectly. Alice was Grace of her own creation: beauty and charm, full of moral strength and an unyielding, powerful desire to promote goodness and well-being. She was determined: determined to do good and build good all around her, no matter the personal sacrifice or cost. She moved through life, well, gracefully, meeting obstacles and challenges - of which, for her, there were many - head on, rarely complaining or asking for help, greeting each day and each encounter with a smile, with love, with good will.

While going through her house, garage, and storage unit over the past months made me want to posthumously enter her into the Hoarders show, it also reminded me of the grace - her unique and beautiful grace - she brought to us all.

  • I found letters from students in her Third Grade class at Applewild School, circa 1970, thanking her for taking the time to not just teach them, but to engage them, help them, take interest in them and help them as people with unique challenges, complex lives, and promising futures. Grace.
  • I found a receipt from 1980 for a garage-full of coal, which we burned in a tubular Vermont Castings stove when oil was too expensive to buy. We only had part of a garage for the next decade, but we were warm. And that receipt was beside more than a dozen uncashed checks, generous offerings of help from my grandparents, refused by my Mom wanting to do it on her own. Yes, a healthy dash of stubbornness coupled beautifully with pride was part of her unique grace.
  • Her Massachusetts CPA certificate, earned through countless late nights, studying until 4:00 AM, in an effort to secure our lives and prove herself as a capable professional woman.
  • Photo after photo of her living her best life in diverse situations, from a Rough Rider at Teton Valley Ranch to elegant parties in 1960s Paris, 1970s housewife to corporate executive, proud and dedicated Mom, devoted friend, daughter, and sister, giver beyond words to all those in need of help…and always with her signature, infectious smile.
  • Memories from her climbs of many Fourteeners, attempts on Rainier, making it to 21,000 feet on Everest at 54 and to the summit of Kilimanjaro at 57.
  • Innumerable acts of kindness and charity, from the little things and gifts given to those in need, to raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to better lives across the country and around the world.

The list could go on and on.

Grace indeed.

But, perhaps her greatest act of grace was the one she never anticipated, never wanted, but nonetheless embraced and managed as, well, her coup-de-grace. When she was diagnosed with AML back in early 2021, there were moments of sadness for sure, bits of fear and frustration. But, overall, there was a remarkable acceptance of the situation, and a concomitant determination to live her days - who knew how many were left - with intention and attention, love and gratitude and grace.

Alice Norton dancing at Bhadrawati Palace, Rajasthan, India, 2005.
Alice Norton dancing at Bhadrawati Palace, Rajasthan, India, 2005.

None of her doctors were able to explain it. None of the science could say why it happened, because it shouldn’t have. But, with no treatment and an aggressive disease, she stayed strong from January 2021 until July 2022. During that time, she hosted parties and celebrated birthdays. She worked as a docent and helped all she could. She traveled to Wyoming and Vail and Zion and Santa Fe and Alton, smiling and laughing and loving with those she cherished. She nearly bled out into her abdomen while attending her granddaughter, Sonya’s, dance recital in May, drove herself home, and then popped into her other granddaughter, Lila’s, 8th grade graduation, not 24 hours after being released from the ER. She got Covid, and had fewer symptoms and impacts than all of us who weren’t officially dying. And, until the very end, Aiya was smiling, loving, and always offering to, looking for ways to help, host, and love everyone around her.

Grace. Indeed she was.

So, let’s all raise a glass to Mom, to Alice, and enthusiastically accept one last and final gift from her: the gift of grace. When the going gets tough in each of our lives - as it has, and as it will - remember her, and her grace. Dig deep, draw on that wellspring of strength and determination she showed us all for 77+ years. Remember her, celebrate her and her spirit by living, loving, giving and caring and carrying on with a smile.

If we all live with grace, then she is not gone, but alive and well inside us all.

16 comments on “On Grace”

  1. Beautiful. ❤️ I wonder if people just get better before they die? Not that they even know death is imminent, like my mom before the accident, but surely it is written in the stars and we are, after all, stardust.

    It seemed like she got wiser. It sure seemed my dad got more patient and porous to others’ revelations.

    Just … better. It gave me more peace in that they died in a happier state. More enlightened. Then it was my turn to be more accepting and enlightened.

    I dunno. But it seems so.

    1. Thanks, Jenny. I think you're definitely on to something with this line of thought. Whether people become "better" per se or not, I'm not sure, but I do think many, as the inevitable creeps closer, begin to expand their horizons more, allow themselves to be more vulnerable, more open, more retrospective in a positive and productive way. Have you read Gratitude by Oliver Sacks? He delves into some of that. Great book.

      And, again, your thought on the reciprocity of it: I think we also get to open up more, accept more, learn more through the whole process.

      Death... So hard, so inevitable, so painful, yet so wonderful in its own strange and mysterious ways.

    1. Thank you, Carol. I wish you two had met as well - I know you would have gotten along famously and had a lot of stories to share! I hope all is well with you, and please tell all my friends in Sigomere hello!

  2. What beautiful and poignant story about your mother.Herlife will give strength to all who know her.I really liked the part when she went to attend her grand daughters graduation after coming out of ER.
    Lovely person indeed.

    1. Thank you, Monica. She was quite amazing, and blew us all away by making it to the graduation, and looking like nothing had happened! Thank you again, and all best to you and Hemant. I hope our paths will cross again one day!

  3. great stuff....the stuff of legend, in fact. her memorial service alone would have been enough material for a few movies, some on Hallmark and others not. memorable, indeed!

    1. Thank you, Mark. Yes, the memorial was quite a time - especially with the wind! She was laughing for sure, teaching us all what happens when we praise her too much! Thanks again, and best to you all!

  4. Jake, Our paths crossed many years ago, but I wanted you to know that I really enjoyed reading this tribute to your mom, what an amazing lady! Her legacy lives on in the family she has left behind - may her memory be eternal.

    Hope you are well my friend.

    Dave

    1. Hi Dave,
      Thanks for your note, and great to hear from you after so many years! And, thanks for the kind words about my mom...much appreciated!

      I hope this finds you well, and please let me know if you're out in Colorado anytime soon - it would be great to reconnect in person!

      All best,
      Jake

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