An Ode to Vivien C. Smith

I woke a few mornings ago, feeling light and happy, enjoying the beauty of the Northeast’s autumn.  Innocently I turned to Facebook, to pass a bit of pleasant time reading what family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances might have to say that fine morning.  But the first message, from the day before, was from one of my nieces announcing that her “beautiful mother, Vivien C. Smith passed away at 9 PM tonight.”

Vivien C. Smith was the second of 12 children, 11 surviving when I knew her best, in the summer of 1968.  I was pregnant with Megan, my first child, and spending my first and only summer with my in-laws in Maine.  Vivien (and her sister Pat) lived in Greene, Maine, down the road from my husband’s parents at whose home we stayed.  Although Vivien had not come often to my mind over these years, the news of her death hit me like a brick falling out of the sky.  It shouldn’t have surprised me.  After all, she was almost as old as my own mother who is now 92—so I suppose she was in her 80s, but in my mind of course, she remained in her 40s.

I remember her inviting me into her traditional old Maine farmhouse, and accepting me, this strange academic young woman from the West, with open arms.  She lived on the top floor of a two story farmhouse, with her mother in law and father in law on the first floor.  Oddly, the two parents in law didn’t speak to each other, and hadn’t for years.  She’d refused to marry her husband unless he agreed that she should have her own kitchen, run her own life, and focus on the house rather than the farm.  She and her husband were both filled with curiosity about everything, and quickly looked up any topic that arose at the dinner table, in their encyclopedias.  She would surely have loved the internet, if she had a chance to become familiar with it.  And she loved opera.  In her youth, she’d played a motherly role to my ex-husband, her brother (number 8 in birth order), and inserted her cultured interests into his brain from an early age.  Surely her influence was felt as he sought and obtained a PhD.

They’d been raised on the banks of the Kennebec River near the small town of Hallowell, Maine.  Their father had been a strong union supporter, and the result had been that he was often unemployed.  They’d had to ski to school some significant distance, and they’d not always had enough to eat.  Michael, my ex-husband, wouldn’t touch rhubarb, because one summer that was all they’d had to eat.  Vivien had surely grown up in times of hardship, probably worse than my ex-husband endured.

But, where some grow bitter or hardened by want, Vivien remained caring, hospitable, and open to new people.  My mother and father, who had been working in Japan the previous year, came that summer to visit us.  They’d stopped in India, where my mother had contracted hepatitis, though at the time we weren’t sure what she had.  The obvious severity of her illness  frightened my parents-in-law, who rather heartlessly insisted that my ex-husband throw them out (causing my ex-husband great grief and embarrassment and my parents significant inconvenience and dismay).  As my mother lay, possibly dying, in the hospital and my worried father stayed in the van that we’d ‘babysat’ during their year abroad, Vivien (and Pat as well) came to visit her in the hospital. They brought the wonderful fresh tomatoes that only Maine can produce; and they brought their kindness, sweet words, and hospitality—all balm to our troubled souls.

I remember sitting at the long table on the ground floor of Vivien’s house, having Sunday supper, which was always popcorn served like cereal, with milk and sugar—a use of popcorn that was new to me.  Many things in Maine were new to me.  I delighted in people’s ways of speaking; I loved their accent. I sat in Vivien’s sister Pat’s kitchen snipping beans and shelling peas.  I learned how to knit from my mother in law.  My brothers in law delighted in my ignorance with regard to cow pies (one of which I stepped on, probably at their urging, thinking it was a stone).  And the whole family was amazed at both of our farming ignorance: Knowing we were in PhD programs, they assumed we would know a lot about the things that interested them (technical details of drilling wells, farm-related knowledge about which we were both utterly clueless). 

Through all these cherished memories, Vivien’s smiling friendly face recurs.  I learned from her about love apples:  the local word for tomatoes, believed to cause cancer and other bad things.  This resulted in my having access to all the tomatoes I could possibly eat that summer—quite a few!  And underlying all this fond personal experience was the love that my ex-husband felt for her.  She’d been a strong presence in his childhood, and I quickly learned to share his love for her.

So….it was not with happiness that I read the news of her death.  The depth of my sadness has surprised me, given that I have not seen her for decades—but my memories of her are cherished and tears flow as I contemplate her death.  The world is a poorer place without her.

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