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Meredith C. Carroll: Guest opinion

The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

Ask most people in any of Colorado’s ski towns why they moved there, and their answers will likely be the same: They came for the winter but stayed for the summer.

Ask them several years later why they’re still there, and their answers will probably be the same as one another’s again: the community.

Up until recently, Ben and Alyssa Genshaft didn’t give much thought to why they call Snowmass Village home. With fond memories of a post-college season spent working ski patrol in Aspen dancing in his head, Ben dragged Alyssa out to Colorado. What started as a proposed three-year adventure as a newly married couple has turned into nine years, three kids, a thriving law practice for Ben and a full and meaningful volunteer career for Alyssa.

They’ve never needed to articulate what’s kept them in the area. But last month, they were forced to put a voice to their feelings in order to make the most heartbreaking decision of their lives: whether to bury their youngest child here or do it in Ohio, where they’re both from and where their extended families still live.

Seventeen-month-old Max, the youngest of Ben and Alyssa’s three children, was found dead in his crib at home on Jan. 18. His passing was sudden, unexpected and too profoundly sad for words. He wasn’t sick, and the initial autopsy showed no obvious explanation of why his life should have tragically ended so soon after it began.

Ben and Alyssa grew up in Bexley, Ohio, where Alyssa always lovingly envisioned settling with her own family. When it was time to figure out where Max would be laid to rest, though, “something was pulling me to the fact that this is where he’s meant to be,” Alyssa said.

The standing-room-only crowd at his funeral – family, friends, colleagues, teachers, neighbors, familiar faces from Max’s music class – all made Alyssa realize “this was how it was meant to be. The ceremony honored him and his life, which was here. As soon as I walked into the service, I knew we made the right decision.”

In the few weeks since Max’s death, it has been those same faces and even more that have helped keep the family afloat when they’ve felt most inclined to collapse and disappear with grief. The first life jacket arrived almost instantly, when the deputy coroner for Pitkin County gently told them he’d personally drive Max in his car to Grand Junction for the autopsy so they’d know he was being watched over closely and compassionately.

As part of the Jewish custom of shemira – a religious ritual where someone watches over the body of a deceased person from their death until the burial – friends and acquaintances took turns sitting with Max’s body and reading and singing to him in a funeral home 40 miles away, from the time he returned from Grand Junction on Friday until the funeral Monday morning – including a pair of strangers who volunteered to take a 3-to-9 a.m. shift.

The Genshafts have received countless notes and letters of sympathy, including one from a local supermarket employee who also lost a young child. Their daughter’s second-grade class sent over a stack of poignant, handmade cards. Then there was the delivery of a cashmere blanket by a friend who thought being wrapped in something cozy might provide them with a small amount of solace.

One friend brought a bowl teeming with grapes because just a few days before Max died, she had seen him cheerfully monopolizing a bowl full of them at a birthday party. The party host had taken pictures of Max that same day and brought a canvas print to the funeral so a large, bright photo of his darling face could loom tenderly next to his tiny coffin.

The rabbi and cantor at the Aspen Jewish Congregation have been arranging daily prayer minyans during the initial 30-day mourning period, including one every Saturday on Snowmass. After Alyssa hiked up for the first mountain service, a friend went out and bought her a pair of sneakers designed for uphilling.

Another friend who lost a brother years ago brushed snow off his nearby grave on the day of the burial so he could “watch over Max.” “When we went to the cemetery to pick out Max’s plot, it struck me how empty and lonely the space felt,” Alyssa said. “But knowing that he’s not alone there gives me some kind of peace.”

The local community wasn’t why Ben and Alyssa moved here, but in a short period of time, they’ve realized it’s why they’re staying. In a place necessarily known for its natural beauty, it’s remarkable how the beauty has moved from the mountains into the faces of people who were once strangers but are now more like family.

“I don’t have a desire to go back to Ohio to live anymore,” Alyssa said. “Losing Max made me realize that this is my home, and it brings me the comfort, community, closeness and love I always imagined was somewhere else.”

Meredith C. Carroll lives in Aspen and writes a weekly column for The Denver Post. Contact her at meredithccarroll@hotmail.com or on Twitter @mccarroll.


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