Robert Smith at Mason Ball, December 1, 2013.
I came to live in this little house on three acres in Moncure in late 1998. It was my first owned home, and I became part of a small black community here. Before I moved in, I’d met Robert and Emma Smith, my next door neighbors, and their four-year-old grandson Demetrius. The first time Emma saw me and my realtor, Liz, she said, “You’re like us.” Liz is black, and I’m white. Robert is black, and Emma, white. Meanwhile little Demetrius had thrown his arms around my legs and hugged me.
Demetrius, and later, in 2000, their puppy Lucky, made sure we became friends Both boy and puppy came over to help me plant flowers on the front and side of the house. Robert and I both grew vegetables, and I was going to my friend Debbie’s horse farm to get manure. I asked Robert if he’d like to come and get manure, too. He got his nephew and constant companion, Tutty, to come along, and for a few years it was our Easter weekend ritual, the Friday or Monday, when they didn’t have to work.
Gradually I got to know Robert’s friends in the neighborhood who gathered on his porch weekends and at night when it wasn’t too cold. I loved to hear them talking and laughing.
I’d been told by one of the African American judges for a minority book contest I sponsored in 1983 as editor of Carolina Wren Press (1976-91) that “All we have is our literature and our churches.” For Robert and his friends, there was Robert’s porch, where they were always welcome, and I’m sure they opened their hearts to each other, shared sorrows, and laughter. Sometimes I would go over with a question or to tell them about an upcoming election.
Later Emma told me I was their mama, and others began to help me, too, especially Chainsaw, who began bringing me firewood for my wood cookstove, and was delighted when I gave him eggs or a jar of fig preserves.
Another neighbor, Harold Taylor, with whom I’d worked against air pollution and unsafe nuclear storage at Shearon Harris, whose evacuation zone we lived, told me people asked him if I was Emma’s mama, and he said yes. I laughed, but that story has come true. Emma made it so.
Once when NC Warn was suing Progress Energy for not being safe enough, their lawyer went with me to talk to Robert’s porch folks and get them to give him statements to use in court. They willingly participated. More recently as I walked our road getting signatures against fracking and offering people yard signs (water = life; no fracking) the porch men all signed my petition. Several of them have told me that, for them, Robert’s porch was home.
Back in 2004, when many Chatham citizens were upset with our county commissioners letting in every development that came along, and we started the Chatham Coalition, and did win the elections, July primary, and then November, for our candidates, a friend of mine from Finland, Arja Holm, was visiting me in May. I asked Robert if he would cook a hog for our big party. He had a big traditional hog cooker, and he often gave barbecue parties to his large family and friends on holidays and birthdays. He did. Arja was fascinated. Robert and one or two friends sat up all night to cook that hog, and on Saturday he pulled the hog cooker, with several friends and Emma coming along, to our party site out in Silk Hope. Not a scrap of that hog was left.
In the beginning Robert lent me his smaller mower, and when that one broke down, I bought one and said we could both use it and left it with his machines and tools. He had a larger riding mower, but occasionally he used the new one, and he always repaired it. I had learned to use an electric weed-eater, and when I got a new one and didn’t understand how it worked, he helped me. I learned to use a chainsaw to cut my firewood to the right length, and when the chain came loose, he’d put it back.
One day Robert and Tutty came over to consult. I’d been using their clotheslines as Emma had a dryer, and I liked to dry my clothes in the fresh air. Would it be okay if they moved the clothesline closer to my house? I said fine. Tutty said, “Then you wouldn’t have to walk uphill.” This made me smile, as I was, in my walks to stay healthy, deliberately walking uphill. Nevertheless, I was happy to have it closer. I guessed they wanted more space in their backyard. Tutty dug the postholes and restrung the lines.
Robert, in his quiet way, held down the neighborhood. I realized fairly early that within this part of Moncure’s black community there were different social groups, divided, I thought, along different church affiliation lines. This part of Chatham was settled early by land grants in the 1700s, and of course there was slavery, and my neighbors are descended from those slaves, and as I’ve been told, most of the black population here is related, and they all keep track of relatives, including distant cousins. Bertha Thomas, another neighborhood friend, and her family, attended the Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist; Harold Taylor and his family and friends, attended Liberty Chapel. Robert and his porch friends didn’t attend church, and neither do it, except on special occasions.
I write poems Sunday morning, and Robert would welcome his men friends. Thinking about him a lot as I have these last months as he began to lose his six-year battle with cancer, I can’t think of anyone I’ve known who lived out the commandments of Jesus as well to treat others as you would want to be treated. Robert was so kind, so helpful. He didn’t say much, but he lived out his love for other people. He had flaws and weaknesses, as we all do, but he was so dependable and so determined to do right by other people. In his quiet way, it seemed to me, that he was a guardian spirit holding down the neighborhood. Emma told me that he had always worn a cross, which I hadn’t known.
One of the big ways he helped me was with the chickens. I got my first chicks in 2003, a straight run, i.e., a mixture of hens and cocks, and I ended up with sixteen roosters and ten hens. I asked him to help me kill the extra fifteen roosters. I’d gotten very attached to my chickens, and Robert, Tutty, Clarence, Tutty’s father, and LoMae, Robert’s sister, all knew this was hard for me. Their knowledge and understanding got me through it. Robert and Tutty killed the roosters, and LoMae taught me how to pluck and clean them, how to cut the bile sack off the liver, etc. I gave a chicken to each of my helpers. They had all grown up on a farm. That was my initiation. Years later, in 2012, when I discovered five hens had been eating eggs, I read up on the butchering process, and killed those hens myself. Then I told Robert. I felt like I’d graduated!
Robert and Tutty cared for the hens when I was out of town, once or twice a year. That one rooster was a problem though. He attacked everybody but me. So Robert and Tutty put a string from the people door of the coop over to the chicken door, so that they could shut the chickens out while they took the feed in.
Robert went through three surgeries, many chemo treatments and always went right back to work. I learned from Emma that he was in pain a lot the last months, but he kept going to work, which his boss, Buddy Kelly, at the Construction Equipment Parts Company, said at his service, he had found inspiring. Robert told me that he had to “keep moving.” Then last March he stopped going to work and began having regular Hospice visits. I’d see the UNC Hospital van come to bring new equipment. Still, occasionally he’d be outside. He asked me if was okay if he cut down some Rose of Sharon volunteer trees growing next to my fence. Earlier he’d gathered brush I’d thrown over the fence and made a fire to burn one of the pine stumps. He kept putting out vegetables from his small garden this year for anybody to help themselves.
Emma was right with him through his years long ordeal–three surgeries, a lot of chemo,–and his last difficult days--his daughters and son, too. The morning he died Emma came over to ask me to mail a letter when I went to the post office. She said he wouldn’t last much longer. Later that Monday morning, June 23, I saw funeral home limousine in their driveway. The photo below with him, his sisters and brother was taken on Father’s Day, eight days before he died. The Sunday before, the 22nd, many people came over–a hundred, I’d guess, and the day he died, people brought more food, and even a porta-john for the week. There were big gatherings Tuesday and Thursday nights and Friday after the funeral service and burial at Liberty Chapel Church.
Left to right, first row, LoMae (Lola Mae); Robert; Linda Smith;
back row: George Smith, Joann (Helen) Matthews; Carrie Hackney. Originally nine children; three brothers have gone before.
At his service, neighbors from all the different church groups came, and the porch friends, too. His extended family alone is about 200 people, and there were also many friends there. People who spoke about him talked about what a hard and conscientious worker he was, and also what a good friend. He was a good listener and sometimes gave advice. He was a quiet man with warming smile. He didn’t say much, but he always helped me. We grew our vegetables differently. I did mine organically, and he used conventional methods. We’d talk about our crops. His usually grew better than mine, but he was always curious about what I was growing. When I put in the lasagna (layered) garden last winter, I saw him and Emma looking at it, and I can imagine he was thinking what in the world was she doing now. Later I told him that the straw I put down was now growing wheat, and he wasn’t surprised. He’d already noticed that.
I, too, gave gifts–taking Lucky to the vet for shots and checkups (Emma said, “He’s half yours.”); getting fresh gravel for our two driveways; taking over eggs, or a pie, some flowers, a book, but I always felt more gifts came my way. I was adopted. I was trusted.
When Emma came over Wednesday morning to tell me she wanted my poem read at the service, and I was to have a reserved seat with the family, I felt very honored. Then one of his nieces, whom I’d met only briefly, when she came to see if it was okay to park in my yard, and I said yes, as she walked with the family into the sanctuary, pulled me over, “You come with us. You’re part of the family.”
Emma and Robert and their family and friends helped me make a home here. Others, too, but they have been my closest neighbors and the ones I’ve gone to first for help and advice about all the things you run into in the country.
Then there was the copperhead. Wednesday, I went into the garden late afternoon, tipped up the big tub to let out rainwater, and there was a coiled copperhead. I gently put the tub back and went in to have supper and think about what to do. My son Tim called, and I told him. As I talked, thinking about the 200 people next door, I told him I’d ask the neighbors to kill it. So I had supper and waited until 7, when they’d have finished eating. Then I approached the first young men I saw about killing a copperhead.
They clearly weren’t up for that, but Casca, Robert’s son, came out, and I told him. Clavin, Robert’s close friend and neighbor on his other side, was found, and another man who offered to do the deed. Clavin got him a hoe. A couple of other men followed to watch. I said, I hadn’t want to look again to see if it was still there. This man used the hoe to lift off the tub, and there was the still coiled snake, so chop, chop, he died.
Another man said, “You went in the house to think about it?” I said yes. I could tell they were amused. I’m laughing now myself. I’ll always be grateful to this relative of Robert’s, and I forgot to ask his name. When he saw me at the church, he asked, “Found any more copperheads?” “No,” I said, “and thank you so much.”
The Sunday before Robert died the next morning, thinking about gifts, I wrote this poem, the one that was read on Friday, June 27, the day we buried him. I think Robert might still be here guarding our neighborhood from harm.
June 22, 2014
... a gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift...the gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality....where the gift as a form of property is neither recognized nor honored, our inner gifts will find themselves excluded from the very commerce which is their nourishment. The Gift, Lewis Hyde
For Robert Smith, my neighbor 1998-2014.
When recognition comes and trust is extended
in ways I never expected, my spirits lift like
the slow, awkward ascent of a great blue heron.
Other people’s trust always surprises me,
even though my friends tell me, “You are
trustworthy.” Another’s trust is a gift. My
place is this world is verified, and it’s exactly
the space I already inhabit. I lowered my
expectations, but I kept working and giving
away poems, thoughts, even fears, keeping
in mind the welfare of others. In so many
ways we are all one. Let the surface
distinctions fall away. The family of man
exists after all. More hospital equipment
arrives for my good neighbor Robert whose
cancer is winning now. Six years he fought
to live and work, to stay among us. Now
his friends and family visit–not in crowds.
That last Memorial Day weekend party of
two hundred is past, but in twos and threes
they come by and then leave. Robert is
greatly loved. A few days before he began
to stay in bed, he told me he’d crank my
mower if I had any trouble. He has helped
me for fifteen years. We shoveled horse
manure together. He assembled the new
lawnmower and helped me figure out the
weedeater. He’d take the chainsaw apart
and get it working. I admired his neat
garden, and flourishing tomatoes and
peppers. He’d ask about mine, which was
never neat, but it did produce food. I
loved to make him smile. Our world here
will shift and be bereft when he is gone.
We already mourn, our gift in answer to
his quiet ones to so many people during
his sixty years of life.
From his Homegoing service, June 27, 2014, Liberty Chapel Church: Born: February 3, 1954; Died: June 23, 2014. 60 years old
Judy Hogan, Hoganvillaea Farm, Moncure. firstname.lastname@example.org