Monday, April 4, 2011

Requiem: Donald Smith, 81

During the period from my late teens up until I got married and moved away my best friends were a set of brothers, Craig and Steve, and our little gang. The five of us (we three plus Kevin and S.H.) spent literally every day together, most of those days sitting around a coffee table in Craig and Steve's room (so close were these brothers that they requested and received permission to remove the wall between their rooms and made a huge room with a sleeping area and a lounge area - VERY cool).

Despite our taste for the various plant products that Mother Nature provides, we were all good kids, smart kids, respectful kids, and most of our respect was demanded by, and freely given to, Craig and Steve's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They more than put up with us; they encouraged our presence in their house, never anything but a completely welcoming set of adults.

Mr. Smith was like my own father in a lot of ways: he knew a lot of things about a lot of things; he was smart and cynical, and funny, and wise, and he treated us like adults while never letting us forget who the big dog was.

I liked Mr. Smith a lot.

One of our number lost his father early, under sudden and horrible circumstances. Nobody said anything - nobody had to - but on those occassions where he needed a father figure, someone to talk to, to help with some of the great imponderables, Mr. Smith stepped up, with no questions and certainly no complaint. That's the kind of man he was; something had to be done, and he did it. But it was more than a sense of obligation - it was his pleasure to give our friend that comfort.

One day I oohed and ahhed over his stamp collection, which was prodigious and well-kept; he offered to sell the whole thing to me lock stock and barrel. I thanked him but declined, citing a bad case of poverty. He waved that off with a look of contempt and said "You'll give me five bucks a week until it's paid off. I know where you live," and with that handed me his collection, and bade me catalog it and note the black book value of each stamp. He took my tally sheet - without even spot-checking it for accuracy - knocked 50% off the top, knocked $100 off THAT, and that's what I owed him. I think it came to a little over $500. And over the next maybe 18 months I'd hand him a crumpled up $5 or $10 bill whenever I'd see him and he'd notate it, and if a few weeks went by in between payments he never said a cross word about it. One time I let six weeks or so go by without giving him anything - but I made it right by crossing his palm with a 50-spot, because it was Mr. Smith, for chrissake, I had to make it right - and he never said a word about it, not then or ever after.

For years I spent Christmas Day under his roof (since I, being Kosher, had no family obligations that day). Gifts were always exchanged, toasts made, laughs and good times all around. They were every inch my second family, and even though my real family was loving and stable and happy I was none the less pleased to have my second one.

One time some years after I got married and moved to Ohio, we came back to New England to visit friends and family. Tootsie had the car so I walked around the pond to Craig's house to see what was up. He wasn't around but Mr. Smith was, painting something in the driveway.

We spent a few minutes catching up - we hadn't seen each other in a year or more - and were laughing about this or that when a neighbor friend of his came by to borrow something from him. By way of introduction, instead of presenting me as a friend of Craig's or Steve's, or even a friend of the family, he said "I'd like you to meet a friend of mine."

It was one of the proudest moments of my life. Mr. Smith was a man who chose his friends with great care, who could get a little curmudgeonly when faced with strangers or bullshit artists or the prospect of being in the presence of either. For him to call me friend was quite a thing, and I'll never forget it.

I could tell another easy dozen stories about him, just like these, but I'm afraid I've run out of time.

Day after tomorrow I'm going back up north to see Mr. Smith off, he having passed away this past April 1st. I know for a fact that I'm a better man for his influence on my life. I certainly have a better stamp collection because of him.

So long, Mr. Smith. Thanks for everything.

1 comment:

  1. The Mr. Smiths of the world are hard to find. I'm glad you were blessed to know this man.

    Thanks for sharing.