Who Was Cousin Alice?

By Matthias, John; Matthias, John Edward | Chicago Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Who Was Cousin Alice?


Matthias, John, Matthias, John Edward, Chicago Review


I've been trying for some time to remember all the rooms in my grandfather's house. The downstairs is not difficult. There was a large living room full of heavy furniture; a "music room" that contained two pianos, one in tune and one not, and lots of Victorian bric-a-brac; a dining room that could seat maybe twenty people; a long passageway full of cabinets and shelves that led to the kitchen; and, behind the kitchen, a pantry. The house was very dark, even when the sun was shining. Made of large, split stones mortared together in an irregular pattern, its appearance of solidity belied its actual fragility. Even when I was young a large stone from high on the tall chimney might come tumbling down having loosened itself from the mortar. Uncle Edward, suffering from the after-effects of the Spanish Influenza, which he had been among the first to contract after the First World War, sat immobile in his corner of the living room--frozen like a statue most of the time, one of those unfortunates whose survival of the flu itself brought on the Parkinsonian condition made famous by Oliver Sacks in Awakenings. Uncle Edward was the specter of my childhood.

Upstairs, there were many bedrooms, all named for someone. There was "Grandfathers Room," directly at the top of the stairs, "Grandmother's Room," down the hall to the left, and "Uncle Edwards Room" to the right. At this point I become confused. Somewhere beyond Edwards room, down the right side of the hall, was "Mary Derbyshire's Room"--Mary was my grandfathers widowed sister --and beyond that, back where the house became darker and darker, way back where the hallway turned behind the attic stairs, was "Cousin Alices Room." But who was Cousin Alice? My cousins were Jim, Robert, Richard, Marilyn, Nancy, Judy, and Joan. Cousin Alice's room, though always empty, was kept tidy and clean, as if Cousin Alice were expected back at any moment. Now and then I'd ask about her. Who is Cousin Alice? Oh, someone would say, Aunt Alice was named for Cousin Alice. That confused me a lot--how could an aunt be named for a cousin, who was obviously much younger? Or sometimes people would say: she's very rich, you know. She went to Paris. She went to China. She was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. One day I asked Fanny, the cook who seemed actually to live in the kitchen (which, of course, was called "Fanny's Room") about Cousin Alice. You know, she said, your Cousin Alice actually owns Bogue Banks. Immediately I thought of a whole lot of banks along a street called Bogue where possibly family members had their accounts. Does she have a lot of money, Fanny? Piles of it! Johnny, she's got money to burn. But you know, the Bankers nearly burned her out one year. Your father had to go and fix things up. This of course made no sense at all. Burned her out? I asked. Burned her out, said Fanny, burned her out. Then they all went back and fished, she said. That was all they ever really wanted.

I'm looking at a rather elaborately produced "Christmas Greeting" from "The Matthias Household, 2135 Iuka Avenue, Columbus, Ohio." Fifteen pages in length and bound with a gold ribbon between black, imitation-leather boards, its glossy pages are still in very good condition. There's no date, but it must have been sent out in the late 1920s. It contains two photographs of the house on Iuka, a summer scene and a winter scene, along with a photograph of an earlier house in Van Wert, Ohio, under which a picture of youthful Grandfather M. appears in his Spanish-American War uniform and another of a youthful Mary Crouch in a dress suit with a kind of bow tie. Then comes Mary Crouch Matthias's poem, "Goodbye, Old Home." The poem was a farewell to the home in Van Wert, written when they moved to Columbus when my grandfather began the first of many terms on the Ohio Supreme Court. Then there is a photograph of the children: Edward, John, Mary, and the twins, Florence and Alice. Pictured sitting in a rocking chair before the fire is Mary Green Crouch, my great grandmother, known to everyone as "Grandma Crouch. …

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