In Winfield, she finally felt at home. She attended the same school as her father. She excelled in academics and in track.
Her grandfather, Johnny Spann, found himself driving the girls to ball games, cheerleading practices, track meets, the movies -- at a time when all his friends were going on cruises and heading off to the golf course.
It was a job he relished.
I can never be your dad because you had a dad, he'd tell them, but I can try to do those things that your dad would've done for you.
He told them about their dad checking out the book at age 16 and knowing then that he'd join the CIA. He told them how their dad flew his airplane over football practice after he got his pilot's license.
He told them that kids screw up all the time -- and that when they did, just apologize. He told them to look around Winfield and talk with the town elders about what life had taught them.
Life's lessons are a whole lot better than reading out of a textbook, their grandfather would say, if you just listen to somebody tell it.
That was one of the things he stressed most, to listen and learn.
"I've always tried to use examples of people who were successful in life and what they did different than other people that made them stand out," he says. "I tell them all the time: Y'all have lost your mom and dad, and it sucks. There's just no way to say it; it's just bad. But you have to play with the cards you're dealt."
At 65, he's proud of how well his three grandchildren, especially Alison as the oldest, are doing in life. In Alabama-speak, "They've got their heads screwed on right."
"But I guess I've always been real positive that they would excel."
When grief strikes
Alison attended the University of Alabama for a semester before heading on to Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.
At one point early on, she and her Pepperdine suitemates gathered around to tell each other their life stories. Much of it was normal college banter: problems with parents, sibling rivalries, difficult boyfriends.
Then came Alison's turn to speak. Usually she kept her story to herself, but this time she told everything. "It felt good to open up to them, because trying to keep that kind of thing under wraps around people that I live with 24-7 would have been a huge burden. Those same people are still my closest friends."
One of them, Jordan Willner, still remembers that day and how everyone else "kind of wished we could take our stories back because it doesn't even compare."
"No one would ever guess in a million years that this girl has no parents," she says, "because she has such a high spirit about life."
It's strange how grief works. It differs with each person, each child. And when it comes, it can be paralyzing.
Alison had never really cried over her parents' deaths. It was as if she had tucked her sadness into a remote part of her brain. Mom and Dad will come back, she told herself.
"I just sort of put that in the background as if my parents hadn't died," she says, "and that caught up with me."
During her sophomore year, she spent a semester abroad in Italy. Traveling overseas wasn't unusual. She had vacationed in London and visited her friend Becky Card in Paris, and she loved it.
Yet there in Italy, she learned that the mother of one of her friends had died of cancer. Then, she was on Facebook when friends in Alabama started posting news of a 16-year-old boy who had been killed in a car crash in a neighboring town.
She didn't know the boy, but she flashed back to when her parents died: the rush of people at the house, the gifts, the flowers, the food.
Alison cried for a week. She couldn't leave her room.
Friends and family rallied around her. Her stepmother told her she was finally confronting her grief in ways she hadn't 10 years earlier: "This is you dealing with stuff that you never came face to face with."