Joel Riggs teaches Aikido, plays piano, enjoys California, and reads voraciously.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

1/27/08

Today would have been my grandfather's 100th birthday. Below are a few memories of him. Please add your own memories or corrections in the comments.
  1. Frellsen Fletcher Smith was born January 27, 1908 in Beech Creek, Louisiana, and died July 25, 1992 in Ruston, LA, where he lived most of his life and where he raised his family. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Ruston.
  2. He married Myrtle Carver of Simpson, LA, on August 4, 1934. She was born August 7, 1908 and died June 18, 1998, and is buried beside him.
  3. They had five children: Anita Beryl, Charles Robert (later Charles Robert Carver), Myrtle Marie (called 'Marie'), Lorna June, and Alvin Frellsen. Charles and Marie are twins.
  4. Frellsen and Myrtle first met in about 1922 when Frellsen, 14, and his father Charles Wilson Smith visited in the home of George Washington Carver and his wife Patsy Morrison Carver. The story I heard was that Patsy went to get her daughter Myrtle, also 14, and took her down the stairs to look at Frellsen in the living room. "What do you think of him?," her mother asked. "That old thing?!" Myrtle responded.
  5. Later, at 19, Frellsen and Myrtle met again in college and began a seven-year courtship. Their marriage was delayed by his going off to Harvard and then University of Texas to graduate school, plus starting his career teaching English as various Northern Louisiana schools and college. Finally, they married on a Saturday night, sitting in the front seat of their car in the driveway of a minister in Oak Grove (West Carroll Parish), LA, with the minister's wife serving as the witness. As Myrtle later would tell it, "I had to chase him for seven years before he caught me."
  6. When I was growing up, grandaddy would drive his Ford LTD (automatic shift) with one foot on the accelerator and one the brake, frequently using both at the same time. His driving frightened my dad, who would never ride in the car with him.
  7. Sometimes while driving, he would "throw his voice," sounding out calls for help as a man stuck in a well. To me, it always seemed he was just talking in a thin, high voice. I never got the illusion.
  8. He would mow his lawn wearing a dress shirt and tie, for as a professor those were the only clothes he would ever wear in public (the store, church, even to the weenie roasts out at our house). The only other thing I saw him wear was a wife-beater tee-shirt (the least apt name for a shirt for a man as sweet and gentle as he was) and PJ trousers and slippers, usually when he was telling us it was late and time to go to bed.
  9. In the mornings during the Christmas holidays, he would make breakfast for his kids and grandkids. Breakfast was his domain. Grits, sausage, scrambled eggs, and white bread toast for all, in an endless supply. For many, this was the primary opportunity to have a conversation alone with him.
  10. When I was in high school, he took the time to read me four Shakespeare plays: King Lear, Macbeth, Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet. He and I would sit on the couch in the living room, each with a copy of the play we were reading, and he would read the entire play out loud. He read a line at a time, explaining the nuances and layered meanings along the way. Grandaddy read from his heavily annotated text that he had used in graduate school. While at Harvard, he had taken a course in Shakespeare from George Lyman Kittredge, the foremost Shakespeare scholar of the early 20th century. (From Encyclopedia Brittanica: "As a teacher, Kittredge was both the terror and delight of undergraduate students, conducting his year-long course in Shakespeare as a painstaking, line-by-line study of six plays.")
  11. Sometimes as we sat on the couch reading, I would ask him a question. He had a very difficult time understanding me because his hearing had deteriorated so much. I might have to the repeat the question two or three times in a louder and louder voice before he would comprehend me. One morning, though, as we sat reading grandmother asked him from the kitchen, "Hon, would you like mashed potatoes or french fries today?" "French fries, please," he said. He could hear her! That day at lunch, I asked grandmother, "Can grandaddy read your mind?" She said, "No! Absolutely not! If he could, he would take out he garbage without my asking."
  12. I visited him for the last time just three months before he died. One day he asked me to drive him around town. Always the "backseat driver," he would grunt and groan in discomfort whenever I took a turn at a corner other than the one he thought was best. I had a recorder going that day in the car, so somewhere there's a tape of him going "Oh, oh, oh, that was the turn there ... OK, OK, this one will do, hmm, hmm, hmm."
  13. On that drive, he had me take him to Lincoln General Hospital so he could confirm that all his bills from the year before had been paid off. The end of his life, and he was settling his accounts. (The accounts receivable clerk at the hospital that day was Robert Royal Riser, my bus driver from 2nd through 12th grades.)
  14. He had me take him to the County Market to grocery shop. As we walked through the aisles, a woman I had never seen before walked up to him and said, "Hello, Dr. Smith!" "Hi, how are you?" he replied. "Fine, fine, thank you. Say 'hello' to Mrs. Smith for me," she said. "I will," he said, as she walked away. Once she had turned the corner at the end of the aisle, he whispered to me, "who was that?" I had no idea.
  15. Even though he could not see very well, he navigated his way around the store and found everything he needed -- grits, bacon, can of beans, a can of coffee -- purely by memory.
  16. That same trip home, I noticed that his ties were covered with food stains, since he had lost the ability to see them any more.
  17. When I was in elementary school, he spent a half hour every weekday evening glued to the TV watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
  18. Once I drove grandmother and grandaddy to KMart. I stayed with grandaddy while grandmother took off on her own. He first found a can of FiddleFaddle ("that's for me," he said), and then picked up a bag of peppermint sticks ("for Myrtle") a couple rows over. When the two of us got to the register, grandmother was just arriving there too, with an item in each hand. "I got you a can of Fiddle Faddle, and I got myself a bag of peppermint sticks," she said.
  19. He led a prayer at every meal I ever shared with him. And every prayer started with exactly the same words, "Lord, we thank thee for another day of life..."
  20. He had a small study, which had been converted from a small screened-in porch, where he kept his full-size Oxford English Dictionary, his three or four complete Shakespeare collections, and endless Bible commentaries and study books. He also had an IBM Selectric typewriter on a rickety stand that shook with every key you pressed and really lurched sideways each time the carriage return hurled back to the right. On this little set up he wrote a weekly church newsletter called The Reminder, a collection of news, opinion, and quotable quotes. This was his way of inserting himself into his community.
  21. My last two years of high school, I sat in on his 'Adult II' (usually the older adults) Sunday School class at church. I, unfortunately, can not remember very much of what he talked about. I do know that he frequently reminded me that a lot of fallacious Bible interpretation came from selective quotation. That the Bible had to be taken as a whole in order to be properly understood.
  22. He seemed quite content to think that evolution was God's chosen method of creating the universe and everything in it, including life itself. He saw no contradiction between science and religion.
  23. He had two jokes that I remember him liking. One involved a scholar at Harvard that had perfect scores in all his classes -- apparently this man was so proud of how smart he was that he broke his arm trying to pat himself on the back. The other was saying in a most understated way "I am the most humble person I know."
  24. Granddaddy was a big fish in a small pond. He had traveled a bit around the country (but never abroad), but lived most of his life within a 25-mile radius in north central Louisiana. His tastes had a similar local quality. Once I brought home from Boston a pound of exquisitely strong Colombian coffee and brewed him what I thought was a perfect cup. He took one sip -- one sip, mind you -- shook his head, and said "I ... I think I prefer my Folgers."
  25. Granddaddy told me that the single most significant change he had seen in the world during his lifetime was that when he was a child, everyone would trust a stranger -- invite them into your home for a meal, give them a coat if they needed one, let them borrow a tool -- but that at the end of his life no one would trust a stranger any more.
  26. This story is about the last time my grandmother ever drove a car. Two years before, grandaddy lost his driver's license due to his failing eyesight. From then on, grandmother did all the driving. One Sunday driving home after church, she stopped at a stop sign. A moment later she started into the intersection. Just then, a pickup smashed into their left front fender. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. Knowing there was nothing they could do, grandmother and grandaddy waited quietly in the front seat of their car. Many people stopped to help, and soon the police arrived. An officer came to check on them. He inspected grandmother's license, looked over the wreck, and then said, "Mrs. Smith, the truck had the right of way; it looks like this was your fault. Didn't you see the truck coming?" She smiled and said, "Frellsen always tells me if there's a car coming."
My granddaddy lived through a 1/27/08, on the day he was born. Now I have seen the only one I will ever see.

I loved my granddaddy, and he loved me. He did not say so with a lot of heart very often, but I always knew he did.