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April 9, 2014

Remembering Gamma

April 9th... The spring of 2009 will always be very vivid in my memory. I was a junior in college, and that's when my great-grandmother passed away suddenly. Telling teachers and other students what happened and why I needed to miss class to travel home, a few hours away, for the funeral brought some unexpected reactions. Almost like, because it was my great-grandmother as opposed to a nearer relative, like my grandmother, I can't be that upset by it. Were they ever wrong.

I grew up with Gamma never more than 25 minutes away from my house--she was not some old, distant relative. She was our Gamma--really the heart of our whole family. I think all of us expected her to live to 100, like her mother did (who passed away at 101 when I was 7 years old), so when she had the stroke at 92, at least I was very surprised. 

So when April 9th comes around, I can't help the sadness. Sometimes when it's not even close to April 9th I can't. But this year marking five years since that day, I had to do something special for my Gamma. And the best way I can think of is to share an article I wrote about her right after she passed away. So you can get a glimpse into the beautiful person of my Gamma, and so I can share why I love her so much.

Gamma: A Life Spent Doing All Doubly Well

Paulette Smith’s blue eyes twinkled as she schemed all she would accomplish the next day. With her daughter and son-in-law out of town, she would be free to misbehave all she wanted. She would clean her basement windows, and she would mow—yes, mowing the yard would be the highlight of her week. And they would never know until they returned and could do nothing about it, except scold her of course. But she would have her fun regardless. Sure enough, in her worn work clothes and favorite cream-colored bucket hat, my ninety-two-year-old great grandmother had a grand time mowing her yard.
But this was not her only escapade—whenever a family member called and she didn’t answer, we knew where she was: outside weeding her flower beds, raking her leaves to keep them from blowing into other people’s yards, or down on her hands and knees pulling those horrid dandelions out by the root, sometimes even out of her neighbors’ lawns. And after a big snow, she would be out raking the salt trucks' leftover cinders into the street and then sweeping them into bags until they weighed three times what she did.

Even if she wasn't outside working away, she was working away indoors, making progress on another sewing project, like dresses for her great-grandchildren, blankets and pillows for Christmas gifts, or another quilt. She was even known to drag her vacuum cleaner up the attic ladder and sweep her attic floor to make cleaning the attic easier for my grandparents.

Gamma lived alone and generally did as she pleased—except drive, one thrill that her daughter had convinced her to give up twenty years earlier. As she said once in defense of her constant activity, “Golly ding, I can’t sit around and do nothing.”  And she meant it. Nothing was too much for her to tackle. But before beginning a task, often something she wanted to save my grandparents from doing, she would say, “Now Lord, it’s just you and me,” and when the task was completed, thank Him and say, “Look at what all we got done today, Lord!" 
But her life was not always as carefree. Born in 1916 in Nicholas County, West Virginia, the second of seven children, Paulette Hamrick Smith began her life as a hard worker and never thought of letting up. With her father, Lee, chronically ill from the effects of typhoid fever and the few family funds being absorbed by his medical bills, the Hamrick family did all they could to scrape up a living. With Alouise, the oldest, busy with school and working for other people and Ruth, just under Paulette, sent to live with another family, Paulette was left to do all the “scrub” work, as she called it and was “the one that had to stay home” and “the second mother” to her five younger siblings.

She related to me one of many times that she stayed with a family for a weekend, babysitting their children, fixing their breakfasts, and doing the dishes, and her thrill afterwards when she was paid. “What do you think I got?” she asked me with a childlike grin of excitement. “A dollar! A whole dollar!” She told me of the times she spent staying with different families and cleaning for them and the times her mother, Sarah, was hired to clean after dances. She told me how she herself was paid to wash dishes and clean with her mother at the Webster Springs Hotel. By this time in her life, her mother had instilled in her the philosophy that “anything worth doing is worth doing doubly well,” and she never forgot this.
One of the few thrills of her early years was the day she got to make a new dress for herself with her mother. She described the suit dress to me in detail one summer afternoon, smiling broadly as she explained how they made it, and told of the green fabric they had used and exactly how they had designed and pleated it. Everyone just loved the dress, she said, and she always wanted a breeze to blow open the jacket to show the shiny green satin lining.

            Her dreams came true when, at nearly sixteen, she met Bert Smith. She told me that she and her siblings would take turns walking to the store to buy bread, and he was at the store once. Then one day “unbeknownst to [her],” he came to one of her basketball games—she was “one of the good forward players” in high school—and he was in a group that she walked home with. Then after another game, he asked to walk her home, and, as she put it with a fond smile, “that was it.” They were married two years later when she was eighteen and he twenty, and my grandmother was born soon after.
            She spent all of her married life working in retail stores, including Pardee and Curtin Lumber Company in Bergoo, West Virginia, selling dry goods and shoes; Heck’s in Charleston, working as a clerk in the electronics department; and at Acme and Allen’s in Princeton, running the delicatessen, which included catering meals for as many as 1,600 people at once. Although she had received no formal training in this area, she learned everything on her own. She would go to work at Allen’s at 3:00 in the morning to start preparing her food. In a letter of recommendation from the Pardee and Curtin Lumber company, her manager praised her for her hard work, calling her “a willing and good worker, honest and reliable, and very well-fitted in this line of work,” and he “very deeply [regretted]” her departure. Once Bert died in 1979, she finally retired and spent the next thirty years working in her yard and in her sewing room.
When thinking of my Gamma, I cannot help remembering her voice, her soft touch and small frame when hugging her, the oval sterling silver ring and ornate cuff bracelet she always wore, the clicking noise she often made with her tongue when thinking, and the way she loved to pop her Extra gum. Always there at every holiday, she would give all the children money at Christmas with our respective names lovingly scrawled on the envelopes. She was forever wanting to cook something for the family, whether it be potato soup to take home for dinner, baked beans to go with a meal, a chocolate cake for one of the grandchildren’s birthdays, or a fried chicken dinner for the whole family to enjoy together. Simply put, she was constantly doing her whole life and never strayed from her inherited philosophy.
My great grandmother had a strong constitution, as they say. Her mother lived to be 101, and I expected her to at least tie that record. But on March 24 of her ninety-second year, she was taken to the hospital after suffering a stroke. Her family rushed to be with her, and for the first day or so things looked hopeful. But after lapsing into a coma-like state for over two weeks, she left behind her sewing, her mowing, and her life in Princeton, West Virginia, to be reunited with her long-unseen husband and parents and to meet her beloved Savior.

            She also left behind her Bible, which she read every day and in whose margins she made journal-like entries about her life and her family. The entries overflow with love for her family and how dear they were to her. Looking back, it is evident that she knew that her time left on earth was short. She told her family that that past presidential election and that past Christmas would be her last, and her notes in her Bible and other comments she made indicated such thinking also. And she was ready, in every way.
           At her funeral, one of the flower arrangements was displayed in her tool box along with her yard clippers and spade, her worn hat resting on top. A small quilt was displayed nearby, along with a picture of her holding it—the quilt had been completed and the picture taken two days before her stroke. And on her calendar she had written down that she would mow her yard on April first.
           I still see her sitting on her front porch that summer day, her last summer with us, when my mother and I interviewed her for posterity’s sake. The birds were singing, a West Virginia breeze was blowing, and she sat there in a porch chair with her sunglasses, in her worn jeans and work shirt, with her favorite cream-colored bucket hat over her wavy gray and white hair, smiling and gesturing with her love-worn hands. That is my Gamma.         

I love you and miss you so much, Gamma. I wish you could have met Daniel--you would love him, and he's so tall and so handsome. And I'm sorry you never got to witness my jewelry--I know you would be proudly wearing it all the time and bragging to people that your great-granddaughter made it. Keep dancing with Daddy Bert, and I hope they let you mow now and then. See you soon. XO



  1. This is so beautiful, I have a poem on my blog that you might like, in fact it started/named the whole thing about how, as women, we are influenced by the wonderful women in our lives and become the Sum of their Stories. If you want to see it it's here (but no pressure, I hate the thought of being all spammy here and never normally leave my blog address in a comment) http://www.sumoftheirstories.com/p/wh.html

    1. Oh my gosh, Julia, I could not believe it when I went to that poem--I am such a Russian doll person. Russian and matryoshkas are so special to me, and the poem is beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing, and for your kind words! :D


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