Another Memorial Day rolls around, time to deliver the obligatory bouquets to the graves of departed friends and relatives. On my list of things to do is to pay my respects to Ellice Woodruff Smith, whose mortal remains repose in peace beneath a grassy swale in the City Cemetery, not far from a climbing rose bush that blossoms in June.
The roses remind me of Mrs. Smith, who some years back was my downstairs neighbor when we lived in an aging apartment building on First Avenue. About this time of year she would always waylay me on the second floor landing before I could manage to sneak past her door-- which just happened to be open."Mr. Menzies," she would begin, "I wonder if I could ask you to do me a little favor. That rose bush out back by the parking garage, don't you think it's looking a bit shabby? Do you think you could find time to prune it?"
What could I say? Mrs. Smith was such a sweet thing, nearly 90 and pretty much confined to her prized Queen Anne wing chair. Independent to a fault, she had nonetheless adapted to a life of dimininshed mobility, having just broken her hip for the fourth time. The heavy work would have to be farmed out to whoever happened along. So it came to pass I was frequently summoned to open a can of tuna, fetch her mail from the ground floor mailbox or change a burned out light bulb. In the spring I was enlisted to help scrub down her sea-green walls and woodwork and to dust off the books arranged in neat files on her shelves like leather bound soldiers. The complete works of Balzac in 20 volumes, abridged anthologies from the Reader's Digest, the history of Deseret as compiled by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers.
Ellice Smith was practically a charter member of that group. Born in Salt Lake City in 1887, she was the granddaughter of Wilford Woodruff and one of her earliest memories was riding in the prophet's funeral cortege. After her mother died of appendicitis, 8-year-old Ellice was taken in by a relative, future church President George Albert Smith. As a teenager she attended LDS Business School, and in 1908 was called to serve a mission to Independence, Mo. She agreed to go on one condition, that she not be required to preach.
"I can't preach," she declared, "but I can type."
Whether Ellice Smith ever preached or attempted to convert anyone is a matter lost to history. I do know that during the long train ride to the mission field she made the aquaintance of another young woman traveling from Chicago. The two became fast friends and remained pen pals for life.
After returning home, Ellice met an up-and-coming salesman by the name of Harold W. Smith -- no relation to her stepfamily. Not only was Hal not a member of the tribe, he wasn't even a member of the church -- a fact that caused no small amount of consternation whenever he came a-courting.
"My family wasn't at all keen on the idea of me dating him," she recalled. "But finally Hal marched down there and told them that he loved me and he wanted to marry me, and that was that."
For nearly a half a century the Smiths made their home in a two-story house on Third Avenue. Ellice never preached and Hal never converted; to the contrary, whenever the subject of religion came up, he took the role of devil's advocate. In time their children drifted away from Mormonism, but they never drifted far from home.
Hal Smith died in 1959; all I ever knew of him was a framed portrait that had to be dusted. Twenty years after his death, his widow never let it out of her sight.
"I miss him," she would say. "I look at that picture every day and I think he must be wondering, 'What's keeping her?'"
What was keeping her, I decided, was an uncommon inner strength and resilience, a natural buoyancy of spirit that nothing could deflate. Time and again I would try to get her to indulge in the sort of negative thinking to which I, as the descendant of dour Scots, am heir. For example, as part of her retirement plan she had sold the old family home to a neighbor on a low-interest, personal contract. The deal had been concluded with a handshake and once a month Mr. Cloward would come by her apartment to deliver his fixed monthly payment of $50. In the meantime, her own rent had climbed to four times that and was still rising.
"Mrs. Smith," I said one day after he had left, "aren't you sorry you sold out before inflation set in? I'll bet you thought you could keep yourself in style for 50 bucks a month and now it turns out to be just a drop in the bucket."
"Well, I don't know," she replied. "The way I look at it, he's happy there and he takes good care of the place. And once a month I know he's going to come and see me and we always have a nice little visit."
I was later to learn Mrs. Smith had weathered a lot worse than inflation. One day, during the course of the annual spring cleaning, we were sorting through a trunk of mementos. There were heirlooms and gifts from Hal and a sepia print of her as a young woman, looking gorgeous in a fur from Makoff's. There was another picture, too, one I had not seen before. It was of Harold Smith Jr., her eldest son, who had died at age 17 of an accidental gunshot wound.
"We had been out for the evening, it was a Saturday night," she said. Hal had found this old pistol, and when we came home and found him, he was dying. He told us it was an accident. Oh," she sighed,"that was a heartache."
She gently put the subject aside and the picture back in its place and we never spoke of him again. Instead, we talked about the weather, my work, her health, my health, her grandchildren, the garden, the burned-out light bulbs, the SALT talks. Come summer I would fetch her patio furniture from storage and together we would sit on the front porch watching the world go by.
"What are you writing, Mr. Menzies?" she asked me one day. "I can hear your typewriter thumping above my bedroom in the middle of the night. Are you writing a book or something?"
"I'm writing about everything that's wrong with the world," I answered. "I'm sorry, does the noise disturb you?"
"No," she said. "It's nice to know someone else is alive and awake in the building."
Alive and awake, indeed. Nothing bothers me more when I'm trying to work than noise and yet how curiously soothing were the dishrattling strains of champagne music that came welling up from the floorboards every Saturday night.
"Does my TV set bother you, Mr. Menzies? You know, I'm awfully hard of hearing."
"Not at all, Mrs. Smith. I don't know what's come over me; I'm actually developing a taste for Lawrence Welk."
Of course I wasn't the only one to fall under the spell of Mrs. Smith. Though the other tenants were generations removed from hers, somehow she managed to involve each of us in her life. We did her favors, carried out her orders, filled her in on current events. In October, we all gathered in her apartment for cake and ice cream. Melissa from Apartment 3 played her violin and we all sang happy birthday.
"Oh my!" she chirped at the conclusion of the chorus. "Imagine me living to be 90 years old. Well, now you've had your viewing..."
Life after 90, alas, is not so much a triumph as it is a succession of setbacks, both physical and emotional. Mrs. Smith's body grew progressively weaker, and one by one her little old lady friends who constituted the afternoon tea set of civilized society passed on. Mrs. Smith appeared less often at the front porch get-togethers. One afternoon I came home to find her standing there alone, precariously propped up by her walker, her cataract-glazed eyes fixed on a point somewhere beyond the southern horizon.
"What are you doing, Mrs. Smith?" I asked. "My mission companion died," she answered softly. They are burying her today in Panguitch, but I couldn't go. So I thought I would just stand here and look in that direction for a while."
The time came when it was no longer possible for Mrs. Smith to live alone in a second-floor apartment. It was decided that she would be better off at the Sarah Daft Home where she would still have her own apartment, but with prepared meals and nursing help close by. There wouldn't be much room, however, so it was necessary to part with most of the cherished antiques tha thad furnished her life for almost a century. The china closet and ornate dining set, the dresser and sofa were parceled out to her children. The wooden stepladder that had served so well for changing dozens of light bulbs was bequeathed to me.
"I'm leaving," she said, "but I don't want you to forget me. I'll expect you to come visit me every chance you get."
That I did, and for a time it wasn't all that much different. Mrs. Smith's new apartment was just a compressed version of the old one, with bedroom and sitting room combined. As always, she kept soft drinks in the fridge and M&M's in a bowl in case I should feel an attack of hypoglycemia coming on. I sat on the bed, she sat in her chair.
"How is the writing going, Mr. Menzies?" she never failed to ask.
"So so," I said. "The new tenant doesn't care for late-night typing. And sometimes it gets awful quiet on Saturday nights."
Indeed, the quality of our lives had suffered a distinct downturn. The rose bush ran rampant along the back fence and the flower beds were overrun with weeds. Porch gatherings were rare and nobody seemed to have much time to chat. And of course the rent continued to climb.
Eventually I decided it was time for me to move on as well. My wife and I bought a house in the suburbs and proceeded to lose track of our former friends and neighbors. All except Mrs. Smith, that is. If I ever failed to call on her, she'd call me.
"The people here are so old," she said, "we don't have much in common. And there's such a turnover."
One day as I was leaving, having filled my pockets with M&M's as ordered, I noticed a bouquet of a dozen long stemmed red roses standing in a vase. it had been sent by one of her former tenatns on the occasion of her 94th birthday. I dutifully remarked that they were very lovelyl.
"Yes...yes, they are. But you know, he could have saved himself a lot money by just coming over to visit me."
The seasons passed uneventfully for me, and time continued to wear away at Mrs. Smith. By degrees she grew more frail, more lame, more blind and more deaf. Most of her white hair fell out. As she became more helpless she was shuttled from one nursing home to another, finally settling at St. Joseph's Villa. Though it was fun by the Catholic Church, Mrs. Smith found it quite agreeable. Best of all, it was only a couple of blocks from the old family farmstead.
For me, the rest home phase was unsettling. The concentration of ill, lonely and often confused oldsters filled me with dread. Adding to my discomfort was the fact Mrs. Smith had all but lost her sight and sense of hearing. Sometimes she didn't even recognize me, not until I got close and fairly shouted at her. Once I had awakened her from a sound sleep, and it was several minutes before she could focus her mind. But once she got her teeth in and her wig and glasses on and her hearing aid in and was settled in her Queen Anne chair, she miraculously returned to her former self.
"Well, so it's you, Mr. Menzies. What's new in your life?"
On one visit I took her for a stroll in her wheelchair, around a city block that had been a cow pasture in her memory. When we returned to her tiny room I felt a sudden oppression, as if the walls were closing in and the light was growing dim around me. Then I saw it; outside her only window a crew of workmen were busy pouring concrete where the garden had been. In lieu of the view, they were raising a red brick wall.
"Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" I lamented. "Do you see what they're doing, Mrs. Smith? They're screwing up your view. They're building a brick wall right outside your window!"
"Yes, I know," she answered brightly. "They're adding a new wing. It's quite fascinating, really. I've been watching them for days and you know, I believe I know how to lay bricks now."
The days passed, the bricks mounted and I found myself busier than ever looking after the needs of my newborn son. Mrs. Smith found out about him via the grapevine and called to insist I bring him over for a visit. But I kept putting it off, the ordeal of trying to rouse her to consciousness still fresh in my mind.
"If I'm asleep when you come, don't you go away," she added. "Wake me up because I don't want to miss seeing you and the baby."
Four months elapsed before I managed to drag myself and the baby to the nursing home. Alex was agog at the strangeness that surrounded him, as was I. Getting no response when I rapped on her door, I gently pushed it open. There lay Mrs. Smith, sound asleep, shriveled and shrunken, toothless mouth agape. The sound of ragged breathing filled the darkened room.
For a long time I lingered in the doorway, calculating how long it would take to wak her, fetch her robe and cosmetic life support system and transport her to her Queen Anne chair.
"Another time," I finally whispered. "I'll come back another time."
Mrs. Smith did not call to remind me of my appointment. Instead, her daughter called a week later to inform me her mother was dead. Would I be able to make the funeral? She had left instructions on a piece of paper. Mr. Cloward, the man who had bought her house, was to deliver the eulogy; Melissa was to play her violin. I was to help carry her coffin to the grave.
Of course I would have preferred to give the talk, but it was too late for that, and now all that remained for me was the heavy work. And to tell the truth, it wasn't all that heavy, not compared to the burden I've carried since. I wanted, oh, how I wanted to say something. In fact, I told her one time, I said, "One of these days, Mrs. Smith. I'm going to write a story about you."
And so here it is. I only wish she could be here to read it, I know what she'd say. She'd say, "It's very nice, Mr. Menzies. But you know, you could have saved yourself a lot of time and trouble by just coming by to see me one more time."