February 12, 1924-January 8, 2014
to end up
-- Mary Oliver
In 1988 as I left this church for another place, Liz Smith stopped me at the door that last Sunday. She handed me a yellow piece of paper. As I sat in the car that morning I read what she had hand-written: “How hard it is to escape from places! However carefully one goes, they hold you—you leave bits of yourself fluttering on the fences, little rags and shreds of your very life.” The words came from Katherine Mansfield, poet and writer. Since that time those words have been under the glass top on my desk. I see them often. And so I know no better way to express my feelings today than to give back to dear Elizabeth the words she gave me years ago. “How hard it is to escape from places! However carefully one goes, they hold you—you leave bits of yourself fluttering on the fences, little rags and shreds of your very life.”
Liz Smith left a whole lot on our fences when she left us last week. And so we come to remember this special life. W.S. Merwin has a book called, Unframed Originals. Liz Smith was an unframed original. We have to begin at that primary place. Washington, North Carolina where she was born 89 years ago. With Mama and Papa—an only child. The Florist Shop. Later—after school and work not one but two good marriages. First Ed—the engineer. Do you know how hard it must have been for an artist and an engineer to pull it off? But they did—it was a great marriage. And then later, dear Morris came into her life. An artist and a lawyer. They pulled it off. But she did say that for a while she kept her house at Six Mile, “Because if we have a fuss I have a place to go.” But things must have worked out because she sold that house and built a house in Clemson. She left us a great legacy in her three children. She loved them fiercely and talked to me often about Shelley and Dale and Jed. And then there were her grandchildren: Claudia, Charlie and Jack and her Step-Grandchildren: Ali, Olivia and Patrick and two great-grandchildren.
But she left a whole lot fluttering on our fences as well. I don’t know where you begin and where you end. She talked often about making sure that people colored outside the lines. Well—Liz’s influence never stayed in the lines—they flowed out in all directions.
Friendship—I don’t know how many friends she had but there were many. And this room is filled with those friends. Her work as an art teacher at Daniel High School. Hundreds, literally hundreds of students found their lives changed because of this unframed original. Always telling them to color outside the lines. She was a hard taskmaster. She kept pushing them, saying: “You can do better.” She was named South Carolina Teacher of the Year. Do you know how rare it would be for this state or any state to select an art teacher—an art teacher—for this honor.
She left us her art. This month we have had a display of her work in our Art gallery. She was probably behind the creation of that gallery years ago. But her work was as rich and varied as her life. She painted her children. Ed and Morris. The Beach. Italy. Honduras. Chairs. Rooms. Churches. Windows. But that was not all. I wonder how many pictures she drew—big pictures—of a person’s face and gave this personal get-well card to them when they were in the hospital. Many of you still have those pictures somewhere. Liz drew a portrait of every High School graduate in our church and gave them that present. She drew faces on aprons of friends that tailgated and they wore them game after game.
Books and Casseroles
She gave out books to people who had lost loved ones. One of her favorites was a book called In the Midst of Winter. The books begins: “In the midst of winter I found a glorious summer.” She gave us that. And then there were those famous casseroles—macaroni and cheese with little bits of bacon on top. I call these: “casserole theology.” She didn’t talk much about faith she just did it.
She was part of the first Habitat House that was built by this church in Pickens Country and active in its work. And if we had time today—almost every one here could stand and tell a Liz story. For she left a whole lot fluttering on the fences of our lives.
Thank You Notes
Just last week I sat on her bed next to her as she talked and talked. About everything She was interested in everything and everybody. But as we talked she said loudly, “I’ve got to write some thank-you notes!” I told her to wait just a little while. Well—Liz, dear Liz—you gave us more thank-you notes than you knew. By your living and your love and fluttering on our fences are memories we can never forget because of you and who you were and what you did.
I haven’t talked much about her incredible faith—our Pastor will do that. But let us remember what the Apostle Paul said in Philippians, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
And so we remember: “How hard it is to escape places! However carefully one goes, they hold you—you leave bits and pieces of yourself fluttering on the fences, little rags and shreds of your very life.” Dear Elizabeth—we thank you for that.
"Into paradise may the angels lead her; at her coming may the martyrs take her up into eternal rest, and may the chorus of angels lead her to that holy city and the place of perpetual light."
(Elizabeth Cox-Smith's funeral was held at the First Baptist Church, Clemson, South Carolina, January 14, 2014. Years ago she asked me to speak at her funeral. Here are my remarks from that service.)