As time goes on, most people seem to have an urgent drive to explore their past, yearning to remember the “Happy times”, and trying to make sense of the “Not so happy times.” What is it that forces that drive? Could it be the fear of forgetting a part of your life that seems so distant but yet so close? In my case I am not sure even now what inspired me to revisit a place that was once filled with happy memories before it was cut short by tragedy. That place was a rustic log cabin in walking distance to a small private beach, a safe haven for residents, and a part of the Upper Greenwood Lake Property Association.
In 1957, the excitement of going to the lake ended abruptly by a tragic accident. On July 4, 1957 my father’s life was cut short as he fell forward in the shallow of the lake and broke his neck. The Upper Greenwood Lake Ambulance Association responded professionally and my dad was brought to St. Anthony’s Hospital. He died eight days later on July 12, 1957. Since that time, I had never revisited the lake until this summer of 2013.
Within the past two years, 50 years plus after, I began to experience a nagging desire to revisit the spot of my father’s accident. Not knowing where or how to begin my search, my husband and I decided to start with modern technology and so we utilized Google Earth and panned the perimeter of the entire lake looking for a patch of sand. To our surprise, the only patch of sand that we could see was in Upper GreenwoodLake. When examining the topical view, I recognized the beach as the place to which I was searching, but at that point I was not one hundred percent certain.
Next, I “googled” Upper Greenwood Lake Properties and saw the Property Association Website. I viewed the anniversary video and knew then that I was clearly looking at my memories. Taking a risk, I sent an email to the Property Association, introducing myself and explaining the reason why I wished to visit the lake. That is where the story begins.
The immediate and heartfelt response received from two Upper Greenwood Lake residents, is one that will be treasured for many years to come. Julia Held and Tanya responded in a way that reassured me that people still care about people. Julia responded to my email by contacting me and inviting me come to the lake. She offered to bring me to the place that I, for so long, had hoped to go. Having the security that someone was there to welcome me meant a great deal. We, my son Joseph, age 17, my friend, Sister Elizabeth Myles, CSI, and I arrived at noon and spent a lovely time getting to know Julia and her husband. What a pleasure to meet Sam. He enriched our conversation with stories of his past along with memories of the lake. After a lovely time together, Julia took us to the lake, the place that take me back in time.
It’s difficult to explain how I felt. There was this urgency to rush to the chain link fence that surrounded the lake and take a look. Julia kept calling, “Come this way, come this way.” But I knew exactly which way to go and where to look because I remembered the spot in which my dad lie face down and we, my sisters and I, stood shaking him and begging him to get up. Then, there was the confusion, the tears, the quiet and leaving with a sadness that was never expected.
As I stood on the beach, on one of the most beautiful days of July 2013, on the exact spot in which I stood almost a lifetime ago, my thoughts ran wild. I couldn’t but notice the happiness of the children, swimming out to the raft, splashing, and the parents watching and relaxing in this most perfect safe haven. It was difficult to imagine that such an unwelcome event could have taken place right there. I noticed the new awning that covered the picnic benches and visualized the “old store” that we frequented to buy candy, plastic floats, sand toys and ice cream. I smiled when I saw that the raft was still out there and it looked so much closer that what i had remembered.
My memories took me back to yet another place, the Lake Shore inn where my Grandfather had taken us on numerous occasions for pretzels and Coca Cola. To get to the inn, we would run down a large hill, then cross the road. To get to the lake we then passed the Inn to the left, walked along a small path, over a bridge to a road parallel to the beach. I knew that if I could find that Inn, I could find my aunt’s bungalow. With the help of Julia Held, we were able to find both. As I observed the rundown, boarded up Inn and my Aunt’s rustic log cabin closed up, overgrown with nature’s blessings and uninhabited, I was ridden with disappointment. I had hoped to see it as I had remembered.
I had reconciled my Father’s death many years ago and revisiting the site wasn’t tearful for me as some may think. I loved seeing the children still enjoying what I had enjoyed as a child, I knew that no one was aware of who I was or why I was there. I associated my experience of standing alone possibly with the families of the 9/11 victims who visit the memorial. Where some go to honor history, others go to mourn.
In July of 2013 I fell in love with Upper Greenwood Lake all over again. If some may think that I experienced closure on that day, or sought closure, I did not. I experienced new life, the Clubhouse standing beautifully overlooking the lake, new friendships and new hope. I plan to go back to the lake again. Possibly make it an annual event. Who knows, maybe someday I will become a resident.
Some may ask if my Mom is still alive and if I have told her of my recent visit. Yes, she is still alive, 84 years young, and “No”, I have not as yet told her. That courage I have not been able to muster. Who knows maybe I will hand her this memoir, most likely the coward’s way out.
I would like to see the Lake Shore Inn come alive and my Aunt’s log cabin refurbished. That may only be a dream but as we know every dream has a beginning.
My personal gratitude is extended to Julia Held for making my first visit to Upper Greenwood Lake perfect. I am no longer afraid to remember. The “Good Memories” have stayed strong and the “Not so Good Memories”, have healed with time. Losing my Father at a young age taught me the value and importance of respecting human life. It has defined me and given me direction.
Finally, visiting the lake brought me to the place where the last happy memories with my Dad took place and that is the place where i want to stay.
With Gratitude……. JoAnn DiGangi-Vitiello
Special Thanks to Julia Held for providing this archive, and Ginny Rees For transcribing it.