By Ray Rogers
101. Mon Dieu! What a life. My dear friend Gladys Collier passed away this summer, just over a month after we celebrated her 101st birthday. We met 18 years ago, when she was 83, going on 84. A friend of a friend had been renting a darling artist studio from Gladys for several years and was pondering a move to Miami but didn’t really want to give up this magical space on 7-plus wooded acres near Georgica Beach just yet. She sublet to me that first year, after careful consideration. “Gladys is very particular. It has to be the right person,” she told me. “And I think you’re it.” Boy, was she right. Gladys and I struck up a friendship almost immediately. And it only intensified over the years that I’ve lived down the dirt driveway and around the bend in the wood-and-glass jewel box her ex-husband built in the ’50s when the young couple moved to East Hampton.
We both relished time by the sea, and savored many trips to her favorite bay beach, Louse Point, where we’d routinely swim out to the buoy side by side. We swam together up until her early 90s. During our last outing there, when her mind had started to falter, it felt like a scene out of the movie Cocoon. As soon as she got in the water for our swim out to the buoy, her mind was razor sharp again, vividly recalling all sorts of details from her prior nine decades, including stories about her father teaching her to swim as a child. (One fun fact: She graduated magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr on D-Day in 1944. Her mother was listening to the news on the radio and missed her daughter’s distinction, a fact Gladys never forgot.)
We also shared a love of yoga and meditation. One time I took her to a guided meditation on the grounds of a picturesque winery in Bridgehampton. The instructor, a friend of mine, came over to give me a hug. I introduced her to Gladys, and she asked her in a gentle, sing-song yoga teacher voice, “Gladys, may I give you a hug?” The retort was classic Gladys: “Better not.” She was so genuinely, unapologetically herself and did not mince words.
She had excellent wisdom to impart. “Life’s awfully difficult; bear up,” was a familiar refrain, in her slightly Southern deadpan drawl. She and I looked after each other—and helped each other bear up through life’s ups and downs. After a crushing breakup I went through years ago, she asked her therapist how she might help me. She took me out to brunches and swimming at the Y in what she called “the ancients pool—I don’t mean old, I mean ancient,” she said. She was 87 at the time.
When she had a fender bender that ended her driving days, I took her out for a spin to calm her nerves. We went over to look at the sea at Gerard Drive, where an elderly lady asked me if Gladys was my grandmother. “Oh, no, we’re like Harold and Maude—without the romance,” I replied. We really did have some great adventures together, and an undeniable bond. She amused herself and took pleasure in amusing me, too. Whenever I’d take her to Starbucks for madeleines, she’d ask the barista if they had linden tea to go with them, referring of course to Proust. “Nobody ever knows what I’m talking about, but I like to say it anyway,” she’d quip, with a twinkle in her eye.
She delighted in saying her signature phrases, one of which was “Mon Dieu.” And she did not suffer fools, even in her later years. When a temporary aide complained about her repeated use of the phrase, Gladys didn’t miss a beat, announcing to the dinner table after a minute’s pause: “Wouldn’t you agree that Mon Dieu is an appropriate saying for just about anything?”
Gladys lived a singular life, strong-willed and authentic to the core, right up to the very end.
In the early morning hours on June 27, she left her earthly body in her sleep, with what appeared to be a smile on her face. She seemed to have a look of wonder in her eyes, welcoming the next chapter into the great beyond. What a beautiful way to go and a fascinating sight to behold. It gave me great comfort to witness.
Shortly after she passed, I took a drive over to Louse Point that morning and had a celebratory swim in the cool, quiet waters in honor of Gladys, and our many jaunts together out to the buoy and back. I recalled her often reciting the names of dearly departed friends who she used to convene with at that very spot over the years—names like Patsy, Mina and Jupie. And now, Gladys is with them. And it is I who will recite her name, in fond and loving remembrance of things past. Mon Dieu!