Ezra Smith was a real make-do Mainer – and he left us a few messages

cemetary casket

Dad’s eulogy, presented at his memorial service, November 8, 2014

Every day was a great day for Ezra Smith. In the Hospice Unit at the VA’s Togus facility since April, Dad thrived, thanks to the extraordinary care of the professionals there, and even in his final weeks, when he was on ever-heavier dosages of morphine and slept a lot, when he awoke, he’d exclaim, “Well, this is a great day!”

I have no doubt, if he could speak here today, he’d tell you, this is a great day.

Dad asked us to thank everyone who visited, called, and wrote him during his time at Togus. Every contact meant a lot to him. And the things you brought him, in addition to yourselves, delighted him. Roland Preble’s painting – Dad out in the boat fishing. Steve Cowperthwaite’s book of poetry.

DSCN7334Gordon Hardie, a volunteer at Togus, was an especially good friend to Dad, visiting with him for hours, making sure Dad had what he needed for painting.

Jon Olson’s sermon a few weeks ago at the North Wayne Community Church was about Dad and meant a lot to him. Dad did tell us he thought Jon might have exaggerated a bit when he compared Dad to the Apostle Paul! But he always smiled when he said that. He definitely liked the comparison.

The 1919 panoramic photo of Winthrop. A young lady purchased it at a yard sale, just before Dad saw it, and he tried to buy it from her that day but she wouldn’t sell it to him. When she found out he was in the Hospice Unit, she came to visit him and gave him the framed photo. So thoughtful.

Many of you here today spent lots of time with Dad, and he – and we- are so grateful.

The staff and volunteers at the Hospice Unit will forever be in the Smith family’s hearts. They are extraordinary. Dad could not have had better doctors than his primary care physician, Dr. Peter DeWolf – who even called on Dad at home and brought him treats made by Peter’s wife Lisa – and his Hospice Doctor, Jim Schneid. Peter and Jim are amazing, and we will never forget all that they did for Dad.

Thanks to the excellent care, love, and support, of the Hospice team, we had an opportunity to spend months of quality time with Dad, enjoy meals together (yes, he had a great appetite right up to the last few weeks), and reminisce.  As Dad shared his memories, we created new ones.

In one corner of his room, they set up a painting area for him. Dad completed about two dozen paintings there, giving most of them to Hospice workers and volunteers and visiting friends. One now hangs in the Hospice Unit.
church service Mike Val and casketDad really looked forward to the “Saturday afternoon singers” Mike and Val. He created a loon painting for them – and asked them to sing at his memorial service! Yes, Dad gave us lots of instructions for this service!

Dad even ordered up his own coffin, as you can see, a beautifully carved half of a canoe, done by Ralph Bisley in Milo. We didn’t know Dad had done this. He called me one day and said he had something to show me. When I got to his house, there it was in the yard, Dad’s coffin.

You can imagine my surprise. I said, “Dad, that is really beautiful. Too beautiful to bury. I’m going to keep it, and we’ll just put you in a burlap bag.”

The next day, he had Roberts Funeral Home come and get it! I think he was worried that I meant what I’d said!

1610775_10204465035295458_6884220038872712626_nLaura Benedict’s love for Dad also meant a lot to him and to us. Boy, did Dad love her Red Barn seafood stew. When Dad was still able to walk, the entire family mustered out to the Red Barn for a feast. And one day, when Dad was eating very little, I stopped by to give Laura an update on him and to thank her for the teddy bears she’d sent to every Hospice patient at Togus. She insisted I take Dad some chowder.

“Well, Laura,” I said, “He’s not eating much, but sure, you can send him some chowder. And if he doesn’t eat it, I might!” What a surprise I got when he wolfed down that chowder!

Dad was a real make-do Mainer. He never threw anything away. A relative created a video with Dad about his childhood. There he was, at the top of the North Wayne hill where, as a child, he got on a sled and slid down the hill to elementary school. And yes, there was the sled. He still had it. It’s hanging in his barn today.

There he was at Kents Hill School, where he arrived as a student by bicycle. And yes, there was the bicycle. He still had it and it is also hanging in the barn. In fact, we remember Dad riding that bike to work at Wilson’s Dollar Stores. It was kind of embarrassing for us. No one’s parents rode a bike to work. Dad was fifty years ahead of his time.

DSCN7327One of my favorite stories is this one. As a kid, one of Dad’s tasks was to go down to the lower pasture every evening and bring the cow up to the barn. He liked to ride the cow up to the barn. One stormy evening, when he got to the lower pasture, the cow took off and Dad was unable to catch up and ride.

Half way back to the barn, the cow was struck by lightning and killed. If Dad had been aboard, there’d have been no George, Gordon, and Edie!

Over the last 7 months, I thoroughly enjoyed going through Dad’s extensive collection of things at his home, and bringing some of them in to him, so he could tell me who the people are in the photos, and tell me his stories about them.

I found so many treasures, including folders with all the letters Dad wrote to the newspapers over the years. I took them in and read some of them to Dad. Boy, did he have strong opinions! Like these:

From the 1990s: In order to save money, the state government is closing nonessential departments some days. If indeed these departments are nonessential, why do we have them in the first place?

In 1980, in response to a negative letter from a lady in New Jersey who said her family intended to move here: I spent some time in New Jersey during the War and I can understand why a person would want to leave and come to Maine. I would suggest that the family come to Maine, find out what a great State we have and get to know the people who make it what it is. Yes, we do have sweet orchards but a lot of rotten apples are imported over the Kittery bridge. As we often hear about Maine (love it or leave it), or in this case, if you don’t like the way we run our State, don’t come.

DSCN5663Dad didn’t neglect local Winthrop issues. Here’s a more recent letter to the editor from 2011. I was pleased to see the photo of our new town manager, Jeff Woolston, and Police Chief Joe Young, as members of the Rotary Club. We are indeed fortunate to have men of this caliber serving our town. Now that the photo session is over, however, perhaps Chief Young will get serious about speeding in Winthrop. Hopefully, our new town manager can wake up those incompetent drones in Augusta and get our Main Street and railroad tracks repaired. Good luck to both of them, and my best wishes in their future efforts.

Here’s a couple of sentences from one of my favorite letters. I owe my existence, at least in part, to an old country Doctor who came to my rescue in a horse drawn buggy. Due to this primitive delivery, I probably am not even programmed right or qualified to make judgments.” — Of course, in that letter, he went on to make judgments!

DSCN3513During the 1982 referendum on moose hunting, Dad wrote a letter to the Sunday Telegram. Here’s his final paragraph: I was born on a little old farm in rural Maine. My Dad gave me a gun instead of a rattle. I have always considered hunting, fishing, trapping, etc., as a very special privilege and have supported the conservation of our wildlife by supporting the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. I trust the majority of people in Maine will vote wisely and let the people we pay to manage our wildlife do their job.  – And of course, the people followed Dad’s recommendation on this one!

In many of his letters, Dad was decades ahead of his time. Here’s one from 1983. The idea that our state government can control the cost of hospital care is like putting coyotes in the deer yards to save the deer herd. Government on any level is hardly the place to go for lessons in thrift.

Dad also left us a message, something I found in his letters to the editor, perhaps the first and only poem he ever wrote.

Days that are past are gone forever,

and those that are to come may not come to you.

Therefore, enjoy the present without regretting

the loss of what is past or

depending too much on that which is not yet there.

This instant is yours.

The next belongs to the future,

and you do not know what it may bring.

And then, of course, there was Dad’s “final letter,” in which he proclaimed that he was all done writing to the newspaper. I told Diane at the KJ that if she thought that was Dad’s final letter, she really didn’t know him.  And we both laughed. She certainly did know Dad. He would sometimes dress up in his suit and deliver his letters to her personally. And sure enough, four months after his final letter, he wrote another letter to the paper. He even wrote one from the Hospice Unit.

DSCN7313One day at his house, I found the deer tag from the first deer Dad ever shot, in 1942. The tags in those days were metal. He’d put it in an envelope with the date and the name of the nearby farm where he shot the deer. I was so excited. “Dad,” I said, “I want to write the story of your first deer.”

“Well,” he said, “I shot it at night!” Oh, oh.

It was a special privilege to hunt with Dad for 53 years, and a privilege to write about it. I can tell you, he never let me shoot a deer at night!

It was a real blessing that his memory remained extraordinary. I found an album of photos from his days in the service. He told me every person’s name, where they lived, and whether they were still alive. Just amazing. I kidded him because there were a lot of photos of very attractive young ladies!

When Dad returned from the service, a young lady from Lubec had arrived in Winthrop, and it didn’t take him long to rein her in and make her his wife. Mom and Dad were married 54 years when she died in 2000.

If there were any better parents than ours, we never met them. And Winthrop was an ideal wonderful small town in which to grow up.

Mom was our spiritual leader, making sure we attended church and sang in the choir. Dad was our outdoor leader, making sure we all had a good introduction to bird dogs, hunting, and fishing. They never missed anything from our sporting events to school ceremonies.

DSCN7328I remember Dad gave up beer at one time, to set a good example for us…. Ah, sorry Dad. That one didn’t work out! So many stories, so many great memories.

Of course, your own memories probably include Wilson’s Dollar Stores, where Dad worked his way up from clerk to part-owner. Gordon and I remember working there. Edie, the spoiled one, remembers playing there and in the warehouse.

Dad was the very definition of customer service and he drilled that into us. I remember one Christmas Eve, when he got out of bed to answer the phone, then got dressed and went down to the store to help a father who had forgotten to get his kids Christmas presents.

Dad sold his interest in the stores and retired in 1979 at the age of 55. We’re pretty sure he did that because both of our grandfathers died in their early 60s. We think Dad didn’t expect to live to the age of 91!

In his retirement, Dad had many interests. If you went to any yard sale, you saw him there. And his annual yard sales were famous and well attended. He went to the dump empty and came home with a full load.

Thanks to Dad’s special friend, Tom Diplock, another regular visitor during Dad’s stay in the Hospice Unit, Dad’s yard sales have continued – at Tom’s house. Given the amount of stuff Dad has left us, Tom’s going to be busy for a very long time to come!

In retirement, Dad also started carving and painting. A display of his work surrounds you here in the church today. He carved 100 loons, lots of ducks, a few other birds, and many fish, mostly brook trout. He enjoyed painting special scenes for friends, their homes, their camps, their dogs. His work is now in a lot of homes and even in Senator Angus King’s Washington office and Brunswick home.

Dad and Angus had a very special relationship. Dad appeared in an ad for Angus in his first campaign for governor. They filmed the ad at Mom and Dad’s house, in the living room. Essentially, Dad’s message was, “Yes, Angus King is from Virginia, but he’s still ok.” That ad got Angus 5 points in the polls! And they were fast friends ever after.

unnamed (1)I remember a year, sometime after Angus had completed his two terms as governor, when we were having a small family-only birthday party for Dad in his kitchen, when someone knocked on the front door. Edie answered the door, and there was Angus, complete with a birthday present. Unbeknownst to us, Dad had invited Angus to his party!

Dad was at Irma’s house in April, just out of the hospital and close to dying. Angus had just gotten back from an extended trip to the Middle East, with a long flight home. He slept a bit, then got in his car and drove to Winthrop to spend a couple hours with Dad. Dad has a big scrapbook that he titled, “The King and I.” You can see it at our celebration after this service.

Irma was the last love of Dad’s life. Irma and her husband Arthur were close friends of Mom and Dad. Arthur died a few years before Mom. It was a real blessing when Dad and Irma got together.

In Mom’s hospital room, right after she died, Dad turned to me and said, “My life is over.” Thanks to Irma, it was not. We love you Irma.

Dad loved his grandchildren: Rebekah, Joshua, Hilary, Devon, Erica, Nathan, and Ezra. And he loved his great grandchildren: Addison, Vishal, Quinn, and his new great granddaughter Ada, named for Mom.

One night after we’d left visiting with him at Togus, Dad got teary and told the Hospice staff that he hated to leave us. We hated for you to leave us too, Dad.

But we know you are having a great day in a great place now. Say hi to Mom.

Hospice Unit final photo

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.