When I was growing up in the Adirondacks Mountains of upstate New York, my years revolved around two events: Christmas, and Grandma’s Summer Camp, an unofficial camping trip led by my neighbor Claire, who spent a few weeks each summer adventuring with her grandchildren and neighborhood kids on nearby trails and lakes.
When I was born Claire was already nearly sixty, with short, silver-grey hair and reading glasses hanging constantly from a chain around her neck. I was too young to know what old was (when choosing ages in our imaginary games, I never thought of being older than an ancient, wizened 14), but Claire, unquestionably, was not old at all, especially not as she geared up to lead packs of intrepid little campers into the wilderness.
It was on these trips that I first learned how to stake a tent, build a fire, and hang a bear bag. I learned the proper strokes for paddling a canoe, how to make tea from pine needles, honey, and iodine-dosed stream water, and how to tell a good ghost story. I learned about endurance, patience, and teamwork, and about the incredible beauty and importance of the natural world. I learned all these things because of Claire, who led us up mountains, bandaged our wounds, made sure we fastened our life jackets and fed us gallon upon gallon of homemade trail mix.
A month and a half ago I went to the Adirondacks with my mother and sister to celebrate a friend’s graduation, and though Claire was in California with her husband, Irwin, she invited us to stay in her home. At first glance the house seemed the same as always, but slowly I began to notice that certain things had changed: bookshelves had been emptied, bags of clothing marked for donation, the old television sat unplugged beside a bag of video tapes in the corner of the basement. I suggested to my mother that maybe Claire was thinking of moving, and my mother said that Claire would never move, that she loved this house and these mountains too much to leave them.
And she was right. Claire wasn’t moving, she was dying.
A few months earlier she had been diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor.
She passed away a week ago.
I’ve often wished that I had lived in the Adirondacks longer, that I’d become an adult there, and that I could have known Claire better. I wish I could have known her as the full, eloquent and amazing woman she was rather than in that small way that a child is able to know an adult, seeing only a portion of that person’s life and failing to imagine (one of the few failures of children’s imaginations) the incredible complexity and originality of someone else’s mental life.
Claire was a traveler, a social worker and therapist, a sister, mother, and grandmother, a hiker, biker and skier, a gardener, a boatbuilder, a poet. She chopped her own wood, built her own fires, and shoveled her own snow. She traveled often and journeyed widely. Her curiosity about other people and places was earnest and inexhaustible. Though I only knew her as my neighbor, I can easily imagine Claire standing in a foreign city, speaking to strangers (who fast became friends) in her open, straightforward way, neither disguising nor flaunting her keen intelligence, and unconsciously demonstrating the exactitude of her memory, and her easy, joyous sense of humor.
Often when people have asked me those vague, difficult questions about what I want to do with my life, I think of Claire, and of the life she built for herself and the people with whom she shared it. And that’s why I’m writing about her here: simply because I admire her so much, and because it is so valuable to me—-the example she set for me without even knowing it—-the inspiration to live confidently and courageously, to give generously and often, and to surround yourself with beauty by emanating it yourself.
I moved away from the Adirondacks when I was nine, and I since then I’ve only seen Claire a handful of times, usually only for an evening, or even just a quick coffee on her porch. Even though I returned to the Adirondacks nearly every summer, she was often away, visiting her many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, living in California with Irwin, or traveling the world.
It’s possible that if I’d known Claire better, I might not be able to imagine her in this way, as close to immortal and larger than life. But I think one of the things about truly amazing people is that they get better upon closer inspection. They become more complex, more remarkable, more admirably and completely human. I’m sure Claire was like this, and I wish I had told her what an inspiration she has been to me—-an inspiration formed at such a young age and maintained at such a great distance, and one that has been so important to my ideas of who I want to be.
Yesterday I drove to the Adirondacks for her memorial service, and I wasn’t sure the mountains would feel quite the same without her. But when I crossed the border into the Adirondack Park, I felt Claire all around me. I saw her in the jagged profiles of the peaks and in the dark, crowded density of the forests, and I felt her in the reflective, rippling clarity of the lakes and streams. She still inhabits every part of this place she loved so well.
I wanted to write this not just “in loving memory,” but also in honor of Claire, and in honor of all the women who live so freely and so generously, and who, I’m sure, have inspired so many of us. They deserve our thanks, and more than that, our efforts, every day, to live as they have: joyously and compassionately, trying always to be the best that we can be.
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