There was so much love in the room, Kay. It was dazzling.
Robin Smith’s memorial service on Saturday mesmerized everyone in attendance. As I drove to the service, held at the school where she taught second grade for 24 years, I wondered how on earth a mere memorial service could capture the spirit—the essence—of this woman whose generosity of time, love, and talent was such an inspiration to me.
Every year, Robin taught her students to knit, every one of them. My son Clif was lucky to have her as his teacher, and he became a knitter, for his brief tenure as a knitter, because of Robin’s patience and love.
The memorial service was packed—all ages, from current students to long-grown alums of her classroom. Throughout the audience, you could see people wearing the handknits she had made them. She was prolific, fast, and creative. Our conversations about knitting, through the years, covered a ton of ground. She loved making stuff, and she was really good at it.
I asked Robin’s daughter, Julie Schneider, if she would allow me to share her eulogy. It is a joy to have the opportunity to share Julie’s thoughts about her mom and the creative life they shared.
Eulogy for My Mom, the One and Only
Written and read by Julie Smith Schneider at the memorial service for Robin Lynn Smith held on Saturday, July 15, 2017 at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee
My mom was never shy about speaking her mind and telling it like it is. And she made her wishes clear for when her time came. She said, “I only want a religious service if the minister can stop herself from saying the phrase, ‘in a better place’ or stuff like that.”
And euphemisms aside, I agree with her on another level too: because, what better place could there be than here on this planet with us? She loved her life here with us: her family, friends, students, neighbors, and the random strangers she had a knack for befriending.
What better place than here? Here with toasty cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, with fresh markers and bright-eyed second graders on the first day of school. Here with Dean Dinners served on handmade plates, with a fountain pen poised over a letter, with knitting needles cast on with soft wool for a new project. Here with mountains of books left to read, with smooth round stones to collect from the shores of Little Cranberry Island.
What better place than here?
My mom will always be my mom. She is part of me indelibly. I see the lines of her face in the lines of my face. When I pull a sewing needle through the layers of a quilt, I follow the motions she taught me, trying to replicate her tiny perfect stitches. And I pass on the finished quilt as a gift made of love and thread, just like she would. I bet everyone in this room has a present from my mom; in her gifts—handmade and otherwise—she was incredibly generous and prolific.
I’ll think of my mom every time I garden. I’ll think of her when I harvest fava beans and garlic and cut blooms to put on the kitchen counter. I’ll think of her when I name the flowers I learned from her and her gardens (at home and at school): peony, foxglove, bee balm, columbine, nasturtium, lupine, forget-me-nots.
I’ll think of her every time I teach someone to sew or knit. Who remembers the rhyme my mom used to teach knitting? Say it with me if you do. “In the door, around the back, through the hole, and off pops Jack!”
I’ll think of her when my dad makes a pun and I laugh and Andrew groans. She tried to teach me to roll my eyes when my dad told a bad joke, but instead she ended up with a second member of the household who embraced even the worst wordplay.
I’ll think of her when I do the New York Times crossword puzzle—in pen—and maybe cheat a tiny bit, but just enough to keep the momentum going or to solve the last few pesky squares.
I’ll think of her when I hear Gillian Welch songs. I took my parents to see her play this past December as a Christmas present. Gillian Welch cassettes were a staple of many a family road trip to upstate New York and Maine. But I have to say it didn’t occur to me until the notes were floating through the pews of the Ryman Auditorium that evening how close to home the lyrics would feel at that very moment. When “I’m Not Afraid to Die” started, I turned to water inside. But even in the most emotional moments, my family has a way of finding the joy and the humor that’s intertwined with the gravity and sorrow. We went home that night with matching cowboy-boot-shaped beer koozies that my mom later shared online without explanation.
I’ll think of my mom when I roll out pie crusts. My mom loved cooking for a crowd. Her go-to ginger cookie recipe made at least 10 dozen cookies and she never made less than a full recipe. Though my dad did the daily cooking in our household, holidays were my mom’s time to shine and champion our family traditions. Thanksgiving meant a traditional menu of the hits: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, cranberry jelly, and cranberry relish—all homemade, of course. (Sometimes I would make a salad and that was considered a little edgy.) And for dessert, a counter lined with pies: pumpkin, apple, and pecan, and loaves of cranberry bread.
I’ll think of my mom on Christmas morning when we gather around a tree decorated in a hodgepodge of handmade ornaments. My mom would play Santa doling out the gifts. Somehow she often ended up with the final present to open herself. She would probably deny this, but history tells another story. One year (circa 1996) she wrapped up a plastic figurine of Quasimoto that came as a cereal box prize. Every year that followed, we would wrap it up and give it someone else, as a special surprise. If she didn’t have it in her gift stash that year, she’d worry that the tradition had faltered. But we never forgot. Goofy little traditions like these are a secret glue for our family.
And I’ll think of my mom on birthdays too. My mom made a point to celebrate the lives of those around her. She was always ready with handmade gifts and handwritten cards. And for some milestones, she went even further, drawing on her reserves of ingenuity, love, and, sometimes, stealth. For my dad’s 50th birthday, she threw a surprise party, stashing beer under the bed in my teenage bedroom. She was very trusting. On the big day, she filled the washing machine with ice and bottles. And for his 60th birthday, she orchestrated another surprise party: a dinner with close friends at City House, which by that point had become like a second home for my parents.
For her 57th birthday, her last, my mom and I went on our final road trip, a daytrip to the Alabama Chanin headquarters in Florence, Alabama, something of a pilgrimage for fans of handmade. I’ll never forget this day: the perfect sunny blue skies, the glowing autumn leaves, and the Amish buggies. And, of course, my mom was knitting in the passenger seat. We ate lunch together and went on a tour of the factory. (Factory tours were a staple of our family road trips in the summers growing up.) We drove back to Nashville straight to a birthday dinner with my dad, buzzing with so much happiness.
During the last few months, I recorded conversations with my mom, capturing her voice, her stories, and her talent for “solving the problems of the world,” as she liked to put it.
She told me this, “A life of gratitude, that’s probably the thing I would hope most for you and Andrew to have. To be grateful for every day. As Jacqueline Woodson put it, the gift of another day. You know, just to be happy for the days that you get. You can’t control how many you’re going to get, and I’m sorry that I’m not going to get a billion million of them, but I still got a lot of really great ones.”
She added, “No one is going to get out of this life alive, and I wouldn’t want to. The world is valuable because it is finite. And I’m very, very grateful for all those little, finite moments that I got to have.”
We both cried and laughed during those conversations. And I wish we could have more of them.
So I won’t pretend that my mom’s work was done here on earth with us. Or that she’s in a so-called “better place.” But I do know that she made this world a better place, and I’m infinitely grateful to have shared it with her.