Living the Sweet Life: Learning Life from an Angel

By Alisa Murray
Nationally recognized
portrait artist and
award-winning columnist.

I went to North Carolina several years ago, and I visited my mother’s best friend Ellen. She welcomed James Edward and I in for some sausage balls and aioli in what we call “the big house.” While sitting there, I watched James Edward gazing at the walls and realized that in some uncanny ways, “the big house” was like my own. I had never really noticed as a child the pictures painted from the children hanging or the tiny plaques of hands from kindergartens long past, but like her home, I had decorated my own in the exact same way. Interesting, I thought at the time.

You see I spent a lot of time with Ellen throughout my childhood. She was my mother’s best friend and the first to arrive when the news came that my mother had been hit by a train and killed. It was Ellen that I turned to for everything that required “mothering.” As I grew older, I found myself understanding the world through her eyes and advice.

James Edward sitting in the kitchen in “the big house.” Notice the similarities in the color palates from our home here in Fort Bend!

When I left home to finish high school at an all girls boarding school, Ellen encouraged me to go find my place. She kept close to me and was never more than a phone call away to listen and then in her special way, advise. I did not recognize it then, but she had become my mother. When Brian and I decided to get married, I asked her to be my matron of honor, and she stood right beside me with I am sure an invisible yet ever present Lona Ann. When I came home pregnant with my only son, James Edward, to bury my father, it was Ellen who welcomed me with open arms. Through the years, I have lived life with a closeness to her that is like no other, and together, we have seen too much tragedy.

Recently when I was in North Carolina again, James Edward and I went to visit “mom.” As always, “the big house” was decorated for the holidays. Each room was carefully placed in the exact same way as it has always been. The elves, made when I was a child, playing their tricks on the stairs, the trees set perfectly, although new yet not “new” at all. Stepping into her home, I realized finally that the home I slept in had never really been my home, and her home is “home.” For years, I felt deeply hurt that I could not bring my children to my home as a child because it had been sold and everything was gone. Not so this past year. I was completely set free of those thoughts.

Alisa and “mom” Ellen in the kitchen.

As we got ready to go, Ellen went to “the little house” where she pulled out a notebook filled with newspaper clippings. She said, “Here, take these,” as she handed me a handful of columns. I looked down, and I was amazed to discover that she had been a very well-known columnist in our tiny town in Union County. What a surprise that there was an even deeper level of connection and similarity! As I read through her “stuff,” I came to recognize our “voices” were very much alike. She had never told me that she had been the local celebrity columnist, and she knew I had been writing my own column since 2006. As I read through her columns, I found the threads of the ties that bind us. She had written about the experience of going through the dark and murky waters of watching her daughter fight and lose the battle with cancer, as I had written about the horrific suicide of my nephew. She and I both had written what it means to be a mother, a wife and a friend. She wrote about my mother’s death, too. It was in that moment that it came all together. Her friendship with my mother was for a greater purpose though neither my mother or Ellen knew it at the time. She was put in place long before my mother was killed to become the mother I would almost have never had! That was why my home looked like hers! That was why my sense of holding onto the past and keeping it for the future was so strong! I had learned character, understanding, devotion and acceptance from her. I finally understood she was not merely in my life but rather had been placed there for a reason. I was moved and at the same time, I slipped comfortably into a space – a sense of belonging to a person perfectly, as is the unspeakable bond between a mother and a child.

Father Mike spoke at church on Sunday in his usual fantastic way. He tied up real nice the fact that God does not want anything for us tragic or crappy – only love. He sends to us angels who reinforce His caring; it is only for us to recognize them for who they are and why they have been sent to us. Life is not full of coincidences; God does not will tragedy. He does, however, in the most wonderful ways, connect us all to be good to each other.           

Take Care of YOU!