On sunny afternoons, we would sit on your small porch, barricaded in by the select five bonsai trees you had brought to your retirement home (you had really wanted to bring all 30). You skillfully tended to them — miniature firs, oaks, and eucalyptus — with quick puffs of mist from your spray can, tenderly coaxing them into healthy growth.
You wrapped brass wires around each tiny trunk, subtly training its direction, helping it form naturally around these makeshift braces, and taking them off when you felt it was right.
You had such meticulous, yet easy, control then as you cared for the plants. The same ease was evident when you soaked birch, bending and gluing the bark together to make small canoes that we could float in the water that rushed into the gutter on your street.
And then there was my dollhouse that you made — a brilliantly blue haven where I would play for hours, writing down categories for my parents to judge its rooms by: creativity, style, livability. My miniature doll family deserved the best.
You drew out the design for my birthday cake before using the icing. I had asked for you to draw a few friends holding hands, and you drew a few extremely brawny-looking women who appeared to be squeezing the life out of each other’s palms. My aunt secretly and tauntingly added construction hats and a few tools to the picture.
When you found your drawing had been altered, you didn’t take offense. Instead, you patiently erased the protruding muscles, the swollen ligaments, kindly smoothing out extremities, making the coarseness disappear, all the while humming a quirky tune. You were always able to erase the coarseness from my world.
We did not know then that you would one day lose that sharpness and fine-tuned dexterity of thought, speech, and action to Alzheimer’s. This is why those sunny afternoons were so special. Just you and me on your porch, our socked feet straight out in front of us, bathed in the light while the rest of our bodies remained in the shade.
One day we brought our sketchbooks out to your porch. I asked you to draw a portrait of me and said that I’d draw a portrait of you. We spent an hour peeking at each other from behind our respective sketchpads, forming and reforming the lines of our drawings.
Then it came time to show each other our portraits. I showed you my rudimentary representation of your graying features — strong jaw, gentle eyes, wavy hair. And you showed me your masterpiece. It was certainly not what I expected — a giant, realistic black apple. “You’re a good apple,” you explained, and it was then when I started really believing in the magic of those sunny afternoons.
~ My grandpa, Jack Earl Smith, passed away on March 12, a few weeks after I wrote this letter about our sunny afternoons. It’s an honor to have been able to call him Grandpa for my 23 years. We will miss him greatly. I have not met a more caring, intelligent, talented, and wise human being. Grandpa had a witty sense of humor that was endearing up to his last days. I have so many memories with my grandpa from over the years that reflect his warm, diligent, and generous nature.
Grandpa held several occupations over his lifetime, each impressive. After high school, he worked for Lockheed, building airplanes, until WWII started and he joined the Army. After basic training, he was ordered to Yale University to learn to be a dentist. After the war, he went to USC on the GI Bill and earned a master’s in economics. He later received a PhD in education from Nova University and became a lifelong educator. Grandpa was first a professor of economics and then worked in college administration for more than 20 years, serving finally as a Dean of Instruction at two community colleges.
In his last years, Grandpa was surrounded by family in Santa Barbara. He was married to Bernice, my grandma and his loving wife, for 61 years. My mom, Susan Cole, my uncle, Bryan Smith, and my aunts, Pam Smith and Sheri Parker, spent many hours with him. My brothers, Jeff and Miles Cole, would visit, as would grandchildren Alexa Canova-Parker and Grant Canova-Parker.
True to Grandpa’s lifelong passion for community colleges, the family asks that any remembrances go to the Santa Barbara City College Foundation.