When I first heard that Alice Poor was headed to the Great Plains to chase storms I was more impressed than surprised. She is 86 years old after all and could be doing other things, or nothing at all, if she preferred.
But that’s not exactly how Alice rolls.
I’ve often thought about writing about Alice and her outlook on life and this 10-day trip with her 17-year-old grandson seemed the perfect time.
It’s the perfect time, in part, because of recent tragedies that have struck our community and those nearby — a Pittsfield family who recently lost their 14-year-old son to a brain aneurysm; a Winthrop family who suddenly lost their 16-year-old daughter to a pulmonary embolism; and this week, the loss of two beloved and well-known workers at the popular Paddy Murphy’s pub in downtown Bangor in a car crash.
We hear of these deaths and can’t help worry about the family members left behind. We wonder how their lives have changed and how they will carry on with their grief.
Alice has been “carrying on” herself for several years now.
She raised her family, alongside her husband, John, in a farmhouse in the middle of Kenduskeag Village. In 1999, John was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given about six months to live. Two months after the diagnosis, their daughter Kathy was brutally murdered inside her apartment just up the road.
John died six months later, and before the year was up, their oldest daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2007, her 27-year-old grandson was killed in Iraq and today his father, Doug Poor, Alice’s only son, is battling lung cancer.
In between, her best friend in the world suffered a stroke and died while the two were talking on the phone.
“Prior to 1999, we were just a normal family. No great losses,” Ann Kenny, Alice’s daughter, said. “Things just changed terribly and very quickly.”
Through all of it Alice has carried on and has been able to retain joy and enjoy her life.
I asked her how.
“I don’t know. I really don’t. Maybe it’s just in my genes. I know I could crawl into a corner and weep and live out the rest of my life grieving, but the other choice is to keep going, have fun and enjoy things. I guess that is what I’ve chosen to do. It doesn’t mean I don’t grieve. I most certainly do. I miss John and Kathy and I’m terribly worried about my son right now, but sitting around and being blue all day is not going to change any of it,” she said.
Alice is a petite woman who lights up a room when she walks into it. She gives long, warm hugs. Nearly all who know her call her “Nana,” because she is a nana through and through. She looks you directly in the eye when she speaks to you and will regularly grab and squeeze your arm during a conversation.
Before John’s death, Alice had not really been out of New England. In the years since that terrible year, she has been to Hawaii, England, Manitoba to watch the migration of the polar bears, Las Vegas, Florida, Prince Edward Island and Niagara Falls.
That was before her 10-day, storm-chasing road trip.
She’s in good health, except for a couple of bum knees that she refuses to have replaced. She did have to be reminded during a recent conversation that she had a heart attack a few years back, but she had such a good time during her hospital stay that she hardly remembers it as a bad experience.
“Oh we had fun in there,” she said, recounting between fits of laughter getting all tangled up when she attempted to put on her panties while hooked up to an IV. She had a male nurse and was determined to get them on before he arrived in her room.
Alice’s grandson Bradly, is a bit of a weather geek. He loves to drive, is an expert navigator and has a love for geography. He’s always wanted to go the Great Plains. There is good weather to watch there and it involves a lot of driving. With his senior year of high school and graduation looming, Bradly suggested it was time for the two of them to take a road trip.
At 5 a.m. on June 20 they set off.
Alice kept a brief journal, noting the conditions of motels, the quality of food and sights along the way. They journeyed through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. They went through Chicago, where they ran into the most severe thunderstorm either had ever witnessed. They saw acres and acres of corn and potato fields. They traveled through Iowa and encountered a supercell thunderstorm that did produce a tornado, but they didn’t see it.
By June 22, they had logged 1,773 miles.
They hit Nebraska where they saw the largest train yard in the world, marveled at hundreds of crows grazing in a vast field and crossed into Colorado where they had a “hairy ride” up and down the Rockies. They drove through Utah and into Arizona and Texas and New Mexico, into Oklahoma and saw more severe storms. They crossed into Kansas and Missouri and Kentucky, back to Pennsylvania and West Virginia and eventually back into New England and her Kenduskeag home.
Bradly graciously accommodated her need for frequent “knee stretching” breaks.
Her family left the next day to go to Washington, D.C., for the Fourth of July. Alice opted out.
Her favorite part of the trip was when Bradly drove her to the house in Springfield, Massachusetts, where she and John lived when they were first married and where her daughter Kathy was born.
“It brought back so many beautiful memories,” she sighed. “Oh, I was so pleased to see that house again.”
Alice loves her memories and she gets a bit sad on rainy days, perhaps because it was a rainy day when they learned that Kathy had been murdered. She still grieves, but Alice is carrying on in the most impressive way.
“I’m only 86 and I plan to live to be 100, and I’m going to live during that time. I wish I could tell you my secret, but I don’t have one. I just do it I guess,” she said.
Renee Ordway can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Alice Kenny and Bradly’s names.