A death in the family

My cousin Olga died this week. She was my dad’s youngest cousin, and she lived for many years in the family house in Rosendale. Locals knew her as Renee Smith. Her family knew her by her middle name, Olga.

She lived a long, full life and died not long after a visit with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. In pictures of that visit, she looks frail. And she looks happy.

But she almost always looked happy.

When I think of her, I remember her laugh.  I can hear her dramatic delivery of superlatives, so much like her own mother, and my grandmother, her aunt. She was, as they would have described her, full of fun.


“It was simply hooorrrrible!” she would say of some experience, then laugh. “Unbelieeeeeevable!”

Her life was a series of entertaining stories, no matter what the reality of it may have been. Everyone she loved was simply perfect, and she loved everyone. She was no phony. She was never saccharine. It was how she chose to be. She saw the best in her family, without exception.

My father’s extended family spent every summer in the Rosendale house for three generations. On hot nights, the adults gathered on the back porch and told stories, argued, fought, and laughed while the children played in the woods or in the road.

Olga, a dark beauty who, in family lore, had once been mistaken for Elizabeth Taylor, always wore black eyeliner, pushed her curly hair around her face, and had a thing for hats. She was seldom without a hat, often a tall fake fur one, making her look like a glamorous Cossack.

She wrote poetry. She took care of her mother, her children, and her brother’s children when they needed her. She took care of me when I needed her, too.

When I moved back to Ulster County after many years away, one of the first things I did was take KB to meet her. We all went out for pie at the diner in New Paltz. It was a tradition when I was a kid. We used to go, two or three carloads of us, kids and adults, to get dessert. Even though everyone else was gone, it felt good to do that again with Olga, to share those memories over a slice of blueberry pie.

We spoke a few weeks ago. She didn’t mention she was bedridden. She laughed and asked about my family. And a few minutes later, she asked again.

Tonight, I imagine there’s a place that looks very much like the back porch in Rosendale. The family is there, waiting for Olga. All of them, all those dear people whom I adored though they were exasperating and difficult and sometimes unkind. They are family. They’ve been waiting for her, for the best of them.

“How was your life?” they ask her.

“Unbelieeeevable!” she will say, then burst out laughing.

And perhaps, later, they’ll go out for pie.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Susan Barnett.