Lift the Wings
How can the small flowers grow,
If the wild winds blow,
And the cold snow is all around?
Where will the frail birds fly,
If their homes on high,
Have been torn down to the ground?

Lift the wings,
That carry me away from here and,
Fill the sail,
That breaks the line to home.
But when I'm miles and miles apart from you,
I'm beside you, when I think of you,
a Stóirín, a Grá.

How can a tree stand tall,
If the rain won't fall,
To wash its branches down?
How can a heart survive,
Can it stay alive,
If its love's denied for long?

Lift the wings,
That carry me away from here and,
Fill the sail,
That breaks the line to home.
But when I'm miles and miles apart from you,
I'm beside you, when I think of you,
a Stóirín,
And I'm with you as I dream of you,
a Stóirín,
And this song will bring me near to you,
a Stóirín, a Grá.

I wanted to start out with this song because I think it beautifully expresses the relationship of Love, Connection, and Separation.  The song was written by Bill Whelan for “Riverdance”, the Irish dance-musical.  From our Grandmother, Laura Smith (Horan), we Smiths all have a wee bit of Irish blood.  The Irish Gaelic phrase that is sung throughout, “A Stóirín, a Grá”, means “My treasure, my love”.

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I remember how excited I was on my very first day of kindergarten.  I knew that Mom was excited for me too as we walked the 5 blocks from our house on Patricia Lane in Merced, CA to the John C. Fremont schoolyard.  A few hours later she met me outside the classroom and holding her hand we walked back home.  Eventually, Mom trusted that I had learned my way, and she would accompany me only the first 2 blocks, to the corner of V Street and West 22nd Street, and then let me walk the last 3 blocks by myself.  But, she was always there at that same corner to meet me when I returned from school. 

Then one sunny afternoon I reached that corner and she wasn’t there…  I stood on that corner, confused, bewildered, and disoriented.  Where was Mom?  And I started crying.

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On a different afternoon, a few years earlier, Mom was out swimming in the creek behind our house holding my brother Patrick who was one year older than me.  I was nearby, playing along the shore.  Suddenly something caused Patrick to panic, and he closed his arms tightly around Mom’s neck, strangling her and pulling her down.  I don’t remember the moment – Mom told us the story years later - but I must have instinctively understood the desperation of their struggle and I pushed a small raft that was on the shore out to her, quite possibly saving both of their lives.  Fifty-seven years later, as I stood by her bedside and watched her struggle to breathe, every fiber in my body wanted to push a raft to her.  But this time there was no raft at hand, and all I could do was grieve.

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Mom was an artist.  Before becoming a mother, she worked as a commercial artist, drawing pen-and-ink advertising for the Fresno Bee newspaper and creating department store window displays.  She turned down an offer to work as an illustrator for Walt Disney to be at home and to raise a family.  In later years, when the children were grown, she returned to painting and would ‘borrow’ paintings she liked; then make a copy to hang on the walls of our home.  Being an artist she was an emotionally centered person.  It gave her a big heart.  Mom was who we went to for refuge and for an ally when our oppositely-poled father would hand down what seemed to us unreasonably harsh or restrictive proclamations.  She was the umpire of our sibling spats; the wrangler corralling a stampede of eight Smith kids and getting us all where we needed to be.

Mom was resourceful.  Raising a growing family, often alone while Dad was away on military assignments.  Suddenly pulling us all out of school and driving us up to North Dakota to stay with an aunt during the Cuban missile crisis.  Making do with an officer’s salary.  Which meant simple (but always clean) clothes, hand-me-down bicycles, powdered milk, and a family garden to supplement the groceries.  Sometimes, to our great delight, it meant strawberry shortcake for dinner - that was it, just a big bowl of fresh strawberries and Bisquick shortcake.  Other times just a big pot of fresh artichokes.

Mom made the best pies in the whole world.  Her apple pie was the absolute definition of the icon.  Fortunately she passed her secrets to my sister Maureen - who I must say is getting pretty close, and with just a little more practice...

Mom was free-spirited and fun-loving.  When Dad was courting her, she would go up with him on unauthorized flights in military aircraft.  During her college days she hung out with her cousin, Joanne Copeland, who later became Johnny Carson’s second wife, and, as she would say, they would “get into mischief”.  One day a number of years ago, while shopping at a grocery store in Carmel, she struck up a conversation with a total stranger.  The two became quickly engaged with each other and Mom invited her out to her home in Carmel Valley for tea where they carried on with silly conversation for several hours.  Eventually the woman asked Mom if she knew who she was.  When Mom said that she did not, the woman introduced herself as Phyllis Diller, the famous comedian-actress.

Mom loved Dr. Pepper, buttered popcorn, and anchovy pizza.

Mom was a person of amazing strength and stamina, not in an athletic sense, but more in what it took to keep up with and care for 8 children.  Growing up I can’t remember a time when Mom was sick and bedridden.  If ever she was sick, she carried on.  It’s a strength she passed on to our youngest sister Jeanne who fought breast cancer for 9 years in order to raise her two children.  Mom’s children were the most important thing in her life.  As I looked through years’ worth of photos, the only ones I could find of her always included at least one of her children next to her.

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The quiet corner of V Street and West 22nd Street in Merced looks remarkably the same as when I was walking home from kindergarten 55 years ago.  The same house is still there.  The trees have grown.

I knew the way home from there, and I knew that I knew.  But Mom had always been there waiting for me.  For quite a long time I stood there: a little boy, crying, alone, unable to move.  Where was Mom?  Where was Mom?...  Until, after some time, a familiar face appeared, and my heart leapt with joy and relief.  And I walked the rest of the way home, hand in hand with my Aunt Hallie who was visiting my parents, and who had been sent out to find me. 

But a lot changed at that corner.  I knew from that moment that I would be able to walk all the way home by myself.  And that is what I did from that day on.

Eventually I left home, but I always knew the way, “the line to home”.  No matter where home may have moved.  It is often said that home is where the heart is --- home was where Mom lived.

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And Mom lived in a lot of places.  Born in Oakland, California, but losing both her biological parents at a very early age, she became by adoption the youngest member of the Safford family in Fresno, California.  There she grew up, attending school and graduating from Fresno State University in 1949 with a degree in art.  It was while attending FSU that she met Dad, a young Air Force lieutenant and upon graduation became a military officer’s wife.  In the course of Dad’s career the family lived in Texas, California, Nebraska, Maryland, Colorado, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.  Often with multiple addresses at each stay: we moved 4 times during the 8 years that we lived in Bellevue, Nebraska.  Mom also lived for a few years in Grant’s Pass, Oregon before returning to stay in her home state of California.  I don’t mean staying put: another 8 or so changes of address, and always off visiting one of us - when she could “find her stupid car keys”!

Mom loved to travel.  Dad would rent a plane from the base aero club and fly us cross-country to visit relatives.  She and Dad once took a vacation in Hawaii.  Years later her children would go off to live for a time in various countries around the world.  Mom visited Australia with Jeanne, the Philippines and Okinawa with Dan, and Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Italy with John.  She cruised to Alaska with her daughters Laura and Jeanne.  She loved the mountains, especially Hume Lake where we spent many summers, and Bass Lake where she and all her daughters would go annually for vacation.

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Gathered together from our various points, here we now stand on a familiar corner, a family corner.  At a gathering like this we expect to see Mom sitting quietly in a corner chair, watching and enjoying her children and grandchildren as we buzz about.  A sudden confusion, then sadness comes with not seeing her, and knowing that we will not see her again.  Yet, when we look around, we do see the familiar faces of our brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews, spouses, and friends.  We take hands, just as I once did with Aunt Hallie, and together we move on.  Home is still where Mom is now.  Whenever we look in our hearts we can see her; when we listen, it is Mom that sings to us:

Lift the wings,
That carry me away from here and,

Fill the sail,
That breaks the line to home.
But when I'm miles and miles apart from you,
I'm beside you, when I think of you,
a Stóirín,
And I'm with you as I dream of you,
a Stóirín,
And this song will bring me near to you,
a Stóirín, a Grá.