Store and sanctuary

Ailing matriarch of Shirley's Boutique has helped many

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

FAIRFIELD - Isabelle Alonso, a 76-year-old woman who owns a local secondhand shop, spent the majority of her life helping others.

For years, she clothed the homeless with donated garments that fill her overcrowded store in Fairfield, only seldom receiving financial support.

They came every day to Shirley's Boutique, most nameless to the street passerby but of significance to Alonso, to find shoes for job interviews or to acquire clothing for children she would never meet.

And to some, she was known as the "confessor" in the neighborhood because people of all walks would spill their sins or tell their tales of woe to Alonso. And she listened for 14 years in her Jackson Street shop. She would have it no other way.

Alonso now lays on a San Rafael hospital bed in the intensive care unit pale and drained of emotion, the result of myriad complications that followed a heart attack four months ago.

She remains somewhat listless, with a feeble body dotted in bruises with a large tube attached to her throat. Yet her struggle for life is apparent through the slight reactions she has to gentle touches.

"No one wants to say if she'll survive," says her eldest daughter, Nelly Dolinsek, who visits her mother daily. "The doctors don't want to make promises, but I'm the eternal optimist. If anyone can make it out it's her."

No hay imposible con Dios

"For with God nothing shall be impossible," Luke 1:37. That's what Alonso would say to her daughter.

Dolinsek sits in Alonso's house, with remnants of healthier times permeating each room. A portrait of Alonso during her youth hangs prominently at one corner, while religious paintings and statues, musical instruments and overflowing plants fill the remaining empty spaces.

"My mother moved here to help a family member and she stayed because her work with the community at the boutique became very meaningful and rewarding to her," she says in regards to her mother's move from San Mateo County.

She pauses, closes her eyes, then softly says through a breath, "My eyes are all cried out."

Alonso immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1952, coming from a poor family of nine children. Here, she married, had three children of her own - Nelly Dolinsek and Shirley and Raymond Alonso - and worked at a denim factory where she made 10 cents for every pocket she sewed onto a pair of jeans.

"She took pride in everything she did, no matter what the circumstance," Dolinsek adds.

Feeling she had gained sufficient experience, she took a job at Schlage locks in San Francisco, where she spent years punching holes into metal plates using a large handle.

" 'Hay mi hija, I'm treated like a princess, it's like Reno,' " mimics Dolinsek gently of what her mother used to say. " 'I sit on this soft chair (which she pronounces as "share") and all these boys come talk to me. And all I have to do is pull this handle all day long.' "

Penny-pinching and hard work led to several financial successes in the Bay Area for Alonso, including real estate, which ultimately steered the course of opening the boutique in Fairfield.

"I would come and visit her and I was amazed," Dolinsek says. "It wasn't a business at all. People would come in and visit like she was their mother."

Shirley's Boutique

Racks of clothing, used furniture and tables of knick-knacks freckle the front entrance of the cluttered boutique.

Inside, perhaps a few degrees cooler than the 97-degree heat outside, is Shirley Alonso, Isabelle Alonso's youngest daughter and the boutique's namesake.

She is conversing with Muriel Petridis, an older woman wearing a royal blue dress, white sandals and a sparkling tiara on her head.

"There's just too much stuff in this store," complains Shirley Alonso as she moves some clothes from one area to the next.

"That's because Isabelle never says no," Petridis answered quickly of her good friend.

For the past three months, Shirley Alonso has been volunteering at the store, leaving behind her home in Marin County.

And almost daily, she tries to organize the walls, tables and floors that are crowded with old 45s, trophies, toasters, crutches and faceless dolls, to name but a few of the items found in the store. With little success in sprucing the disorder, donations continue to arrive.

"¿Hola, Maria, como estas?" Shirley Alonso asks a woman entering the store with a large bag. "Mire todo lo que quieras y yo le ayudaré cuando está lista."

Shirley Alonso tells the woman to look around. She will be at her disposal when she's ready, she says.

But the woman's objective is to donate a bag of clothes and ask about Isabelle Alonso. After a brief update, the woman leaves.

"Gracias para el donativo," Shirley Alonso says to her, and places the large plastic bag with the others.

She looks around the room, slightly agitated, then places her hands on her hips.

"Isn't my mother an amazing woman?" she says and begins to cry. And with a quivery voice, she continues. "She's done so much for everyone but herself. And now she's dying."

And for the rest of the hot afternoon with barely any sales in the register, patrons continue to frequent the store asking Shirley Alonso about her mother's health.

"That's the type of individual Isabelle is, helping the unfortunate," says Esperanza Vizoco of Fairfield, who met Isabelle Alonso seven years ago and helped at the boutique. "She never felt sorry for herself, she just wanted to be here and help others out.

"She would give money to the people that were having hard times, or buy them food or let them take some clothes, telling them to pay her later," Vizoco added. "It's rare to see a person like that because she's got a good heart. People respected her."

Siempre hay esperanza

There is always hope.

Dolinsek walks quietly into the hospital room to find her mother sitting alone on a large chair. Above her, the television is turned on, but Isabelle Alonso's eyes are closed.

A photo of Jesus rests on the window sill directly behind Alonso, which sits next to a plethora of stuffed animals. And a continuous steam escapes the large tube from her throat, which disappears into the bright backdrop, while smaller tubes weave around her arms.

Alonso's blanched face appears calm, but her shut eyes and deepened frown portray otherwise. Dolinsek kisses her affectionately and begins to speak to her mother in their native language of Spanish.

"Vine darle un masaje," she tells her in a hopeful voice - I came to give you a massage. Dolinsek takes out a brush and begins to fix her mother's thin, white hair. Alonso remains quiet, her eyes remain closed.

"¿Quiere más almohadas?" she asks her mother if she needs more pillows. And again, there is no reply. "Mama, abre sus ojos, open your eyes."

But they remain closed.

For the next 15 minutes or so, Dolinsek gently massages her mother's shoulders, legs and arms. She touches her mother's face tenderly, her younger hands caressing the older skin of a woman once full of life, then gently strokes her mother's short hair away from the pained face. All the while, she whispers words only a daughter says to her mother.

And again, there is no response.

With a pained effort, Dolinsek appears hopeful before her mother, smiling and making plans for various activities.

But the angst Dolinsek bears within her heart emerges during her moments alone, when deep breaths tame her fractured soul.

"We've seen miracles before in this family. I'm hopeful we'll see it again," Dolinsek says.