Monday, August 15, 2011

My Grandmother

Beth with Gobby and mom in the background!

Gobby and Beth...December 1968

Along with all the emotions of the last day of school, my grandmother, Pauline Keeton Mitchel Smith, passed away at the age of 103 on June 2, 2011.  As the first grandchild, I named her Gobby, and she has always been a huge part of my life.  Although it was horribly sad to know that I would not see her again in this life, I celebrated the fact that she was now with Jesus and with my grandfather.  She lived a wonderful life and had so many experiences and was always surrounded by family and friends.  She had a huge influence on my faith and always had a blind love for me.  She was loved immensely and will be greatly missed.

My brother, Bill, gave the Eulogy at her service on June 8, 2011, and did an amazing job preparing and delivering the story of her life.  Below are his words.  I know she would have been so pleased.

Good Afternoon.  My name is Bill Howell.  I was, according to my grandmother, Pauline Smith’s favorite grandson - a distinction I didn’t realize until my early 20s was not as special as one might think, given that I am her only grandson.
While my career does allow me some opportunities to speak in public, I am not the grizzled veteran of public speaking that my wife is.  I also know that if I don’t say something funny early, I will lose the attention of my children quickly.  So, to help me ease into this, I begin with a  story that the minister at my church told our congregation a few months ago.  A friend of his was running late to a very important job interview in downtown Ft. Worth and had pulled into a parking lot next to the downtown building where the interview was to take place.  After circling the lot a couple of times, unable to find a parking spot and growing ever more anxious, he looked upward and said “God, if you will just help me find a parking spot now I promise to attend church every Sunday for the next year and to live a more virtuous life.”  At that moment as he rounded the corner, he saw a car pulling out of a spot near the front entrance of the building.  Relieved, he quickly pulled into the spot and as he turned off the ignition and grabbed his briefcase, he looked up again and said “Nevermind, God.  I found a spot on my own.”
On behalf of my family, Pauline’s daughter and my mother, Linda Howell, Pauline’s son, Newman Smith, her granddaughter, Beth Semadeni, her five great grandchildren, Allison, Katherine, Caroline, Will and Libby, and her extended family, I want to extend our gratitude for your prayers and your presence.  For a woman whose peers have been gone on average more than 20 years, it’s tempting to say that I’m overwhelmed by the number of people here today and the outpouring of support we have received.  However, I knew my grandmother and her wide network of friends and admirers and her ability to draw people toward her too well to be surprised.  It was 17 years ago when my grandfather and Pauline’s husband, Newman Smith, passed away.  I was in college at the time and I remember distinctly the feeling of immense pride at the gathering of people there to celebrate his life.  I feel again that same pride today.
I may periodically slip between referring to my grandmother as Pauline and Gobby.  You see my sister, just learning to talk and unable to enunciate Grandma, began to call Pauline “Gobby” as a small child.  For some reason it stuck, and it has been her name to our entire family and many of her friends for some 40 years now.  I don’t know whether my grandmother liked the name or not - she certainly never complained about it or tried to change it - but I suspect she always felt a little bit like her husband, who my sister named Da, got the raw end of the deal.
Born in 1907, Gobby lived to be 103 1/2.  For most of us, this kind of longevity is almost unimaginable.  During her lifetime, she saw two world wars, the Great Depression, numerous stock market and real estate booms and busts, 26 presidential elections, the launch of man into space and man’s first step on the moon, the desegregation of our public schools, the formation and subsequent fall of the Soviet Union and the expansion of our union from 46 states to 50 states.  I could go on forever about the history she saw, the changes in technology during her lifetime and the world events that shaped her generation. But I think what is even more compelling is her personal story and the impact that she had on those around her.
Death is obviously an emotional subject.  I believe death evokes different feelings in different people depending on the circumstances.  The loss of a child can make us angry and overwhelmed with grief.  The death of a life partner can leave us feeling empty and sad.  And although we are clearly sad at the loss of Pauline, I believe the death of someone who has lived such a long and full life leaves us reflective - reflective on our own lives and the impact we are having on the lives of others and what we want our legacies to be.  I’d like to share with you today how I believe my grandmother would have wanted us to remember her and her legacy.
First, Pauline was a geography junky and a world traveler.  She was fascinated by different cultures and peoples.  She travelled to more than 85 countries on 6 continents in addition to extensive travels in the US and multiple cruises to the Caribbean and Alaska.  Well into her 100s, my grandmother could remember details about each trip and the sights she saw like she had returned from her travels the week before.  In the home she shared with my grandfather for more than 30 years, dozens and dozens of souvenir plates lined the walls of her kitchen and breakfast room; and with every plate came a story of a different destination that she could recount without hesitation.  I remember waiting for her to return from each trip, anxiously anticipating her stories and the small souvenirs she would bring us.  Her love of new things and her willingness to explore outside her comfort zone, generated a lifetime of memories and stories that can be passed along to my children and beyond.
Gobby was also strong willed and feisty.  I think to live until the age of 103, you have to be a little fiery.  Although only 5’2” and extremely petite, she was never short of something to talk about and she could debate with the best of them.  She battled obstacles and afflictions, including breast cancer in her 80s, with an aggressive spirit and will to overcome.  But most impressive to me was her insistence that blindness would not detract from her life experiences.  Declared legally blind in 1973, she spent the last almost 40 years of her life learning to cope with the darkness and finding new ways to appreciate her surroundings and her loved ones.  She even continued to be a voracious reader up until her death through a book on tape program run by the public library system.  Her strength of mind, body and character shaped the woman she was and her impact on those around her.
Pauline was an educator at heart.  She taught English and Spanish classes at various public schools in Texas for more than 20 years.  Education was a passion she shared with Newman and passed along to her children and grandchildren.  I believe she was most proud of the incredible honor bestowed on her husband when, in 1975 the Carrollton/Farmers Branch school district named its newest high school Newman Smith High School.  Then, in 1988, the high school further honored our family and named its new theater the Pauline Keeton Smith Performing Arts Center.  Her affiliation with the school was a great source of pride for her and our family and she continued to follow its successes and challenges late into her life.  Her commitment to education and her belief in its importance to our society are foundations for our family that I believe will be passed along for generations to come.
Pauline was a dedicated and loyal member of her faith family.  She was a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church for almost 50 years, and served as an elder of the church during many of those years.  Her church was for her a social outlet, a conduit for community service, a moral compass and a place of worship.  Even in her later years, when she became unable to attend services, it was members of the church - some of them 20 or 30 years her junior - that continued to provide her with great pleasure through their weekly visits.  Her deep commitment to her faith family is an important and lasting part of her legacy.
But what I believe my grandmother would have said should be her most important legacy was her abiding commitment to family.  She firmly believed that family was the material that held the fabric of our society together.  I remember distinctly her telling me when I got engaged in 1997 that life was meant to be lived two by two.  Believe me when I say that I know, as we all do, that marriage and parenting are hard.  But Gobby’s values, learned by the example that she and my grandfather set during their 58 years of marriage, have instilled in me and the rest of our family the confidence and trust that by sticking together and putting family and God first, all things can be accomplished.
For those of you who knew Pauline the last 20 years or so, you know that, although her short-term memory sometimes lapsed, she remembered vividly details from years past.  And she loved to tell stories (loved to tell stories) - over and over and over again.  One of her favorite stories to tell was how my sister and I would come to visit them and argue over who got to sit next to my grandfather at the dinner table.  Being younger than my sister - much younger mind you - I usually won that argument and got my way.  As Gobby told the story, she would comfort my sister by telling her that sitting next to her was not a bad consolation prize.  I am confident that my grandmother today sits with my grandfather at a grand and glorious table; and I hope she saves me a seat right next to her because that is one consolation prize that I would be honored to win.
Thank you.