My 95-year-old aunt died last night, peacefully, in my sister’s home, where she had lived these past few years. She was my mother’s older sister, and the last remaining member of her generation of our family.

She was also the mother that my own mother wasn’t able to be, for my sisters and me.

She was my first model of a truly sovereign woman. She took exquisite care of herself, and of the many people in her life whom she loved.

By any measure, she had a wonderfully successful career. One that didn’t make her rich, but that provided her with a life both independent and comfortable. And that offered daily opportunities to help people grow, learn and become themselves.

She never married, but she mothered thousands of children and young people in the boarding school she founded in the wilds of Western India when she was 21 years old and fresh out of university with a brand-new MEd degree.

She grew up in pre-Independence India, a woman–in many ways–visionary and at least a generation ahead of her time. She was cultured, a historian and lover of literature who read widely, and then traveled widely in her later years.

In a photo of her, taken when she was just 20 years old, she is beautiful–her warrior spirit evident in the fearless way she faced the camera, head-on, unsmiling, her brown eyes determined and bright with dreams.

We called her the Little General. She was less than five feet tall, and fierce, and funny, and very, very intelligent.

She loved gardening, beauty, and nature. She listened to music at deafening volumes, shattering the early morning silence with devotional music loud enough to wake the entire mountain village where she lived and worked.

Full of curiosity about the world around her, she was of the generation who believed in doing the right thing without making a fuss about it. She cared for her parents until they died, then for both of her sisters as well. And for various nephews and nieces, kids whose parents were in trouble, or who were trouble for their parents.

She did all this without a whiff of martyrdom or resentment.

She was demanding, impatient, imperious, and dictatorial. And she kept a stash of candy and goodies for the littlest ones-the kindergarten kids-who would flock into her room after school each afternoon for a snack, a hug and a visit. They adored her. So did my sisters and I.

She left the world more radiant for her passage through it.

I will miss her.

Her gifts to me were many–chief among them, the model of a life well-lived. A life in which caring for others was a natural extension of caring for herself.

Her giving flowed from a full, creative heart and an unwavering sense of inner freedom.

I wish this for all of us.