My great aunt, Glad, passed away yesterday morning. She was 103. I am, of course, saddened by the news of her passing, but I’m also eternally grateful for the times we spent together, for the brightness she shone on the world, and that her sweet soul can finally be at peace.
Some of my best memories of Glad were at the cabin where she and my uncle Doug lived in Woodstock, NY. It was a real rustic affair, with no electricity and no plumbing. It was the kind of place a young nature-lover such as myself could really sink her teeth into – surrounded by sweet-smelling woods, and tucked away into the Catskill Mountains.
The Catskills were among the first mountains I ever experienced, and to me, visiting them was like visiting old friends – their well-worn peaks comforting and familiar.
Glad and I used to talk for hours about the years she spent growing up in Woodstock. We’d riffle through old photos until I felt like I had been transported back in time. I loved that.
I remember one time, when I was 18 or 19, I went for a hike up Overlook Mt. in Woodstock. (I went to college in New Paltz, which was only 45 minutes away, so visits to Woodstock weren’t uncommon for me.) At the top of the mountain lies the remains of a hotel – one of many hotels in the Catskills that was destroyed by fire. Many of these hotels were purposely set ablaze to collect insurance money – a scam that Groucho Marx’s uncle Al had a big hand in (a weird tidbit of knowledge I picked up from being a die hard Marx Brothers fan).
As I walked around the remains, I saw that an artist had pasted old photographs of the hotel and grounds on the ruined stone walls, like an historic art installation. Looking at all of them was haunting and sad and beautiful all at once. In my mind, I could suddenly hear the footsteps above me as the hotel staff scuttled about. I could see the ladies and men dressed for dinner or donning their casual attire to take in the summit and go for a walk. I could imagine the horror and confusion when the hotel caught fire, and what the inferno looked like from the valley below.
Each photograph whispered to me, a moment long-since passed, a story nearly forgotten.
And then, I suddenly saw a photo of two little girls with bright faces standing in a clearing on the mountaintop. Two faces that I would recognize anywhere. It was my grandmother, Verna and aunt, Glad.
There they were, at the top of the mountain, young and full of life. And there, so was I, about three-quarters of a century later, perhaps feeling the same exhilaration as the did at the surrounding beauty. It was a magical moment.
As my cousin, Doug said so beautifully, “Her name bespoke the way she lived her life: Glad to be alive, Glad to be a part of the mystery of nature, Glad to love and be loved, and above all, Glad to know and express God.” I will miss her. But I know her bright light shines on in each person whose life she touched.