My aunt’s soul lives on a bridge—a small bridge tucked away in a cove at one end of Lake Placid, in upstate New York. She loved it there, I’m told. It’s become for my family an outward complement to the place she still occupies within us. Every year, on her birthday, we go back.
I can’t clearly picture my aunt’s face, but the “Bobbie bridge” springs instantly and vividly to my mind when I think of it. The woods around it come right up to the shore, so dense that you hear the water long before you see the lake jump into view around the final bend of the trail. Its great expanse, blue and impossibly vast, extends as if into a fantasy, a fabrication, a Thomas Cole freed from its frame. It’s hard to fathom that real people might be looking back from the other side. Only a few feet from your feet, the water laps idly and tangibly to the shore and, after hesitating momentarily, it cascades in broad sheets over an embankment, rushing down into a lively stream. Astride the stony bed of the creek, the sturdy wooden footbridge neatly complements the natural architecture, barely belying man’s imposition on the sanctity of the place. When a few summers ago we arrived to find a plaque consecrating the bridge to the memory of someone named Harry W. Voege, my grandmother shook her head and sighed: a foreign sect had seized our holy ground and offered it up to a hollow, faceless deity. My grandmother, of course, has no trouble still picturing my aunt.
Deborah Norden, my maternal grandparents’ younger daughter, died in a field outside Pittsburgh on September 8th, 1994, along with the 126 other passengers of US Air Flight 427. She was 41; I was two. For my brother, my parents, and my mother’s parents, Bobbie—we generally refer to her by my brother’s impressively lasting childhood mispronunciation—is a figure of monumental significance, as much in death as she was in life. For me, she is mostly a monument, crafted from stories and photographs and rituals; a bridge back to a person I can never actually know.
I’ve heard the story about Bobbie cutting up grapes as a child to mock the mores of etiquette, and the one about her introducing my mom to my dad at Brown. I know she once wrote a note to her junior high principal that read, “Incidentally, Mr. Bentley, Colin’s just another name for asshole.” I know she loved the family vacations to Lake Placid even though she hated hiking. I know she was never quite the same after having an abortion. I can see in my brother her at his age, an over-invested, brilliant architecture student and public servant–the unmistakable influence of the third parent he had his first seven years. I’ve been told how much she adored me too many times to count. And yet I have only one true, personal, physical memory of her, one of my earliest memories of anything: her ashes, sifting down through the gentle mountain breeze and suddenly, unceremoniously disappearing under the bridge, whisked forever away into the bosom of the Adirondack earth.
When I was about twelve or thirteen—I think the occasion was the tenth anniversary of the crash—my grandmother had the idea to plant a tree in Bobbie’s memory at one end of the bridge. We carried gloves and tools and a small pine sapling all the way up the trail. By this time I had some understanding of the gravity of our ritual, having graduated from the innocent assumption that we visited the bridge because it was beautiful: our own little natural playground. (If I remember correctly, the scattering of Bobbie’s ashes was originally explained to me as a fun and exciting activity, a game I had the privilege to get to play.) At twelve, I still liked to splash around in the water and hop from rock to rock, but a cynicism was blossoming in me, pushing toward the forefront of my mind. The tree seemed somehow wrong, offensive even; it was no more a part of the landscape Bobbie loved than the Harry Voege plaque is now. Why smudge the Cole masterpiece? Why scrawl graffiti at the base of the monument?
It’s true that I was entering adolescence when these thoughts began to form in my head, but it’s probably more relevant that I was struggling, at the time, to cope with the anger and pain of my parents’ recent divorce. My father wasn’t with us that year; he could only assure us over the phone, in his restrained, wistful, broken voice, that he was thinking of Bobbie—that he was there in spirit. He’s made that call every August 20th since 2004 and I’ve grown accustomed to it, but back then it seemed entirely unfair that I, for whom the bridge and the day bore only vicarious significance, should be able to stand there in the flesh, while he, who knew her so long and loved her so well, grieved privately hundreds of miles away.
I didn’t understand at the time that the reason we were there—Bobbie’s death—was in many ways the very same reason my dad wasn’t: she had been a crutch on which my parents’ marriage leaned, glue holding it together, water that powered its mill. It was Bobbie who introduced my parents and Bobbie who babysat and mediated for so many years and Bobbie who was never farther away than her apartment down the street. I didn’t understand it in 2004, but without her my parents’ marriage had little chance of survival. I also didn’t understand that I was feeling then for the first time what the rest of my family had been feeling all along: the painful, unjustified absence of a loved one. If, at the time, I did subconsciously recognize the connections between Bobbie’s absence and my father’s, that recognition only led me to resent the focus on Bobbie even more; it drew attention away from my personal struggle.
Time and age have since turned that resentment into empathy—I’ve felt at least twinges of the emotions that course through my family members, dangled a foot in their stream of experience and felt the urgent tug of the current. But cautiously dangling a foot is not slipping, as they did, headfirst and backwards to the rocks below. I knew in advance that my dad wasn’t going to accompany us to Lake Placid, and I took comfort in the expectation of returning to him. But when Bobbie died, my family members watched helplessly as the landscape—the architecture—of their lives changed forever.
The landscape and architecture of Lake Placid—lake and town—have changed considerably since my family started taking summer vacations there sometime in the ‘60s. By then the grand commercialization that began with the arrival of resorts in the late 19th century was well under way: another new shop here, another new hotel there, everywhere more opportunities for money to change hands. The Lake Placid I know is a tamed and compromised version of the old wilderness, a version that features fine restaurants and mini-golf, tennis courts at the Holiday Inn and ice cream at a Howard Johnson’s whose parking lot marks the head of the trail to the bridge.
The area has always offered opportunities for natural recreation—hiking and skiing and fishing and boating and birdwatching and berry-picking—but in truth, its attractions all rely on man as much as nature. Like many “vacation destinations,” Lake Placid tames the exotic, offers access to the inaccessible; it is at its best when, in the fragile balance between man and nature, it still manages to attain equilibrium. We hike up trails that have been diligently cleared and marked. We eat breakfast on a deck high above the lake. We walk across the embankment by the bridge, letting the redirected water tug at our bare feet. We sit on the planks of the bridge and look out across the blue and remember the daughter, the sister, the aunt who we lost to an airplane, that most unnatural of human creations.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby that when Dutch colonists gazed on the “fresh, green breast of the new world,” man stood “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” That, I think, may well be why we make the trek to the Bobbie bridge every year: to rediscover our capacity for wonder, and for everyone but me, to live again in a fresh world, a green world, a world she knew. My mother and my brother stare out across the lake, and they see all the other forms Bobbie’s scattered ashes could have taken. They see everything she could have done, everything she could have built. I have little to remember of her, so I don’t stare out across the lake for long. I stare instead at the bridge, and think of our human history, of all those who designed, and forged, and influenced the architecture of our lives. Bobbie was an architect by trade, but we are all architects by nature. The wonders we work, the miracles of endeavor and influence, survive us long after we’re gone, just as the bridge, and the love Bobbie had for it, have survived her. I stare at the bridge and think of the human beings behind the blinking lights that cross the night sky, and the ones inside the pages of The Great Gatsby, and there, at the very edge of a world men and women have built, I find my capacity for wonder met yet again.
I’m not a religious person, but I have an abiding respect for the beliefs of other people. I believe in people, even—in human architects, if not divine ones.
When we went back to the bridge this year, my grandmother went looking, as she habitually does, for the tree we planted. I knew she was looking in the wrong place, and I knew that even in the right place she would find no tree, but I didn’t tell her. Better to let her keep looking; better to let her believe.
I’m not a religious person, but I still go to temple with my mother’s side of the family every year on the High Holidays. I don’t understand the Hebrew, but there’s something distinctly spiritual about singing and chanting in unison. The beauty of the rhythms and melodies takes you to a wonderful place—the synagogue becomes, literally, a space full of wonder.
After my grandmother gave up, at least temporarily, on her search for the tree, she and my mother headed back, leaving me to wait for my brother. At first I gave him his space, standing far across the bridge as he sat by the shore. He stared down at the water just beneath his feet for what seemed an eternity, as if at something invaluable that he couldn’t quite reach. The long minutes piled up, and I started across the bridge—quietly, slowly. I didn’t know what he was thinking or feeling, but I could feel the weight of whatever it was. I realized I wouldn’t have been able to disturb him even if I’d wanted to; I could only share his space for a spell. I’d found him, and that was enough.
Next year, we’ll go back.
Alec Joyner was born in New York City, but he has lived for most of his life in Newton, MA. If you come across him these days in the neutral territory of New Haven, he’ll probably look just fine, but know that his dueling identities as a New Yorker and a Bostonian are waging a constant battle within him. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.