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I'd like to talk today about my grandmother, Ruth Smith - about who she was, what she meant to us, and what this day means.
Grandma was a homemaker and a lifelong resident of Marshall. This might seem like a constrained life to some, but I don't think Grandma would have agreed, and I'd like to explain why.
She was a person with great curiosity - she read all the time, she worked crossword puzzles every day, and she loved watching documentaries on television. In fact, she was working crossword puzzles right on up until the last month before she died, when she finally grew too ill to continue.
Her curiosity also greatly affected me - when my brother Gus and I were little, we used to play a card game called 'Authors,' and from playing that game so much with her, I knew at a very young age who Mark Twain and Shakespeare and Nathaniel Hawthorne and many others were. The way she said these authors' names stirred in me a great desire to read them, and now, later in life, when I have read those authors, and taught them, I can sincerely thank Grandma for first creating that desire in me.
I can also thank Grandma for inspiring a love of animals in my mother and in myself. Grandma always had a cat around her house that she cared for. She loved watching animal shows on television, especially if they involved cats. In fact, she considered herself a cat person, until she met my dog Alex. I say 'my dog,' but he's really my Mom's dog now, and for a lot of the time, when my Mom was traveling on business, it was my Grandma's dog too. We knew that both Grandma and Grandpa really like Alex when they let him sleep on the chest at the foot of their bed - now THAT was a big deal!
She loved Alex, and she loved Libby, my replacement dog that I got once Mom had stolen Alex from me. Nothing tickled Grandma more than watching Libby tear up and down the floor, running back and forth like puppies like to do. Mom told me that she mentioned Alex and Libby to Grandma just a few hours before she died, and that she smiled when she heard their names.
She also traveled widely - Grandpa always said that there was plenty here in Missouri to occupy someone, but Grandma felt a bit differently.
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My brother and I got to accompany Grandma and Grandpa on several trips in the car, and I will always remember those. Every summer, Grandpa and Grandma took Gus and I to the State Fair in Sedalia, and that was always great fun. We would travel to Michigan to visit Grandma's brother Russ and his wife Ted every couple of years, and the ritual was always the same: leave at 6 AM sharp, with Grandpa driving the white Buick, stop for dinner at the MCL Cafeteria in Terra Haute, Indiana, stop for ice cream at this one spot that Grandpa always stopped at, and arrive in Michigan late that night. We also traveled to White Cloud, Nebraska, several times to visit an all-day flea market. Since we were all collectors - Grandpa of tools, Grandma of cornbread tins and household knickknacks, Mom of antiques, and Gus and I of books - we all understood each other. We would all return to the white Buick for the ride home to Marshall, each with armloads of stuff that we'd found, but no one ever cast a disparaging comment, or said, 'You bought THAT?!'. We all understood.
I think the most important reason Grandma loved her life in Marshall was because her family was here. Family, and family history, meant something important to Grandma, as it did to Grandpa. I spent the first 17 years of my life in Marshall, and I saw Grandma and Grandpa almost every single day. Many was the time we would be eating or sitting in the family room, and we would hear Grandma or Grandpa driving slowly up the driveway in their white Buick. We always knew that we could stop by to say 'hi' or to borrow a tool (as long as we returned it). In particular, family dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas were always great times, in terms of the food and the conversation and the fun we had, and I will remember those dinners fondly the rest of my life.
By the way - this is an appropriate time to remember Grandma's mashed potatoes and gravy, and her absolutely delicious angel food cake with egg-white icing that she always made for my birthday, and the frozen pizzas she made for my brother Gus and I whenever we ate lunch. Grandpa did his part too to fill us up - he could be remarkably insistent that we eat cookies and ice cream after every meal. We rarely disagreed.
Grandma and Grandpa both loved to talk, but one of the things they talked about with the most pleasure, and communicated with the most urgency, was the need to remember the names of the past that together made up our family's history. Grandma and Grandpa wanted to pass down the value of valuing family, and they did - first to their daughter, and then to their grandsons.
I recently added someone to our family - Denise, my wife. We were married just a few months ago, on July 29th, and it pained me greatly that Grandma could not be there. When I was talking to Denise the other day about Grandma's funeral, she reminded me that today is Yom Kippur, the most important Jewish holiday. As Denise told me about Yom Kippur, it seemed to me fitting that we would be gathering today to remember Grandma. In fact, I can just see Grandma listening to me talk about Yom Kippur, and nodding and saying, 'Well, that's interesting.'
Yom Kippur is known as the Day Of Atonement. It is the day when Jews repent for any sins they may have committed during the past year and attempt to reconcile with anyone they have harmed. It is also the day on which a person's fate for the next year is thought to be sealed. Finally, and most importantly, it is the day that Jews remember the recently deceased in their families.
This recognition that family history is something that should be treasured is why many of us grieve today. For me, and for my brother Gus, the death of Grandma is the end of an era in our lives - our grandfather Edgar Smith, Grandma's husband, died in 1994. Our father died in 1997 of Alzheimer's. His parents died while we were little. And now our last grandparent is gone.
We have a small family now, but we are a close family, all of us - Mom, Gus, myself, and now Denise and Ray. We learned that closeness, that attention to family, from Edgar and Ruth Smith.
As Denise and I continue in our marriage, we hope to create a family. I can picture a day, many years from now, when Denise and I will bring our children to Marshall to see their grandmother, and we will tell them of the names of the past, the names that made up our family, chief among them, Edgar and Ruth Smith. We will pass down the value of valuing family, to their great-grandchildren. We will not forget them, and we will ensure that they are remembered by their descendants. So, today we may grieve, because one part of our family is gone, but we also smile, because we know that Edgar and Ruth Smith - and all those others who have come before us - will live on in our family and in our blood and in our memories forever as we go forward.