by Hugh Frank Smith
[Note: This column was first published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal on May 14, 2005, and is posted here with permission.]
Knowing I will celebrate my 90th birthday on Sunday, a friend asked me recently: "What person has influenced you the most through the years?”
I didn't hesitate.
"My older sister, Nan," I said. "She practically raised me and was one of my best friends until she died six years ago at age 97."
Three of Nan's characteristics influenced me all my life: Her joy in living, her unfailing optimism and her oft-repeated advice: "Don't waste a minute worrying about something you cannot change or do anything about."
Nan was 12 when I was born at Smith Hill Farm, Alabama. She didn't even know Mama was pregnant, for women in those days would never discuss the subject (I wonder if they told their husbands) and hid their sudden weight gain with loose-fitting clothes. Nan wondered why Mama sent her and the other children to Grandma Stewart's house to spend the night. She was shocked when she returned home the next morning and saw Mama nursing a baby in bed.
"He's going to be mine," Nan told Mama. "You are letting my sister Mae raise Sam (an older brother), so now it's my turn."
Nan knew that Mama would be happy for her to take care of me because she was busy from morning till night with farm chores -- milking two cows, helping with the garden, quilting, using an iron pot and three tubs for washing clothes outdoors, canning fruits and vegetables and making clothes for all the children.
Nan taught me a lot through the years. She read to me nearly every day and was always reading a book herself -- one reason why I still read one or two books a week. She taught me how to drive our old Model T Ford -- at first in a hayfield, then later on a dirt road.
She always said, "Look straight ahead when you are driving." Once when we were rounding a curve I almost ran into a ditch. She couldn't understand why I was so reckless. "You told me always to look straight ahead," I explained, and I had been -- straight ahead into a cotton field.
I must have scored well in her other lessons because I have never had to report an accident in 78 years of driving.
Nan loved to fish, and we often gathered cane poles and worms and took off for Salt Creek, which ran through our farm. "You need to have patience when you fish," she said. "You may have to wait an hour or two before you even get a nibble, but don't give up, or you will never become a fisherman." We longed for rainy days when the creek would be muddy and we could catch catfish. Afterwards, Nan would make buttermilk hush puppies to go with the fish that she fried in a skillet sizzling in lard Mama had processed at hog-killing time.
Nan began her career as a schoolteacher and she taught me in the first grade. We drove six miles in an open buggy to one-room Hard Scrapple School. I remember that our mare Lucy was always in such a hurry to take off that I had to jump in the buggy as fast as possible. Once or twice I didn't make it and Nan had to turn around and come back to get me.
After my parents died, it was Nan who insisted that our large family retain the century-old home place and that we plan reunions once or twice a year. "Otherwise we will all just drift apart," she said. Before each get-together she made casseroles and cakes, along with her grandsons' favorite cookies. She was unmistakably in charge of the cooking, warning everybody, "Y'all stay out of the kitchen, don't get in my way and don't keep asking how long will it be before we eat."
She had strong opinions about religion and politics. If she disagreed with her pastor's sermon she went up afterwards and told him so. Both she and my father had been lifelong Democrats, but they left the party in the 1930s "because it has become too liberal." When she claimed she was an independent, I kidded her, "Yes, you are now an independent Republican."
After her husband's death, Nan became more enthusiastic than ever as an Alabama Crimson Tide football fan. She and I attended nearly every home game and traveled to out-of-state games in Florida, Massachusetts, Missouri, California, New York and New Jersey.
She always emphasized the importance of eating a balanced diet. Even after she became a widow and ate alone, she prepared meat, salad, vegetables, hot bread and dessert every night. And she rarely snacked – one lesson I failed to learn from her.
Nan traveled to Europe several times and drove her car on many road trips when she was in her 90s, including her annual visit to Germantown at Christmas. Finally I told her, "I'm coming to Birmingham to get you this Christmas and will drive you back home after the holidays."
"I don't need anybody to drive me anywhere," Nan protested. "I'm perfectly capable of doing it myself." I won her over, however, after several phone calls. A day or so after she arrived, I heard her tell a guest, "It sure was nice being chauffeured up here."
I was amused when I told another guest that "Nan is going on 93."
She quickly admonished me, "I'm still 92. Don't say I'm going on 93 – just let me be 92 until my next birthday."
Hugh Frank Smith, a former columnist and copy editor for the old Memphis Press-Scimitar, lives on a farm in Germantown, Tennessee. Contact Hugh Frank at Bugesmith
For more Hugh Frank Smith stories at USADS, click:
If You Hang A Gourd, They’ll Come
Deep South Holiday Travel
Circle of Love
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