Bay Reflections

Vol. 8, No. 24
June 15-21, 2000
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At the Center of It All, My Grandpa
A Father’s Day Reflection

By Eric Smith

A big brown chair sits in a corner of my grandparents’ living room. It’s a plain armchair, featuring a little lever on the side that you can pull to make the footrest come out. It is old, having been in that same spot for as long as I can remember and probably much longer than that. It is soft, having so many years of use that you sink into it when you sit. You sink back so much that I still can’t quite get my feet to touch the ground when I sit in it. The material is corduroy and it is a dark, soft brown. It is my grandpa’s chair.

The chair is ringed by papers. Newspapers, magazines, and mail surround it like a sea. It is like my grandfather, surrounded by a sea of life and people and energy. He looms in the center, like a Titan in the ocean, keeping it all together.

From his chair, he reads the paper, does his cross-word puzzles and watches football and baseball games. He is up often, though. It is a relaxing retreat, a soft, cushioned rest place after his daily eight-mile bike rides or after visits with his many guests.

I know he also looks forward to its brown softness after long but exciting travels abroad. Some are cruises to such exotic places as India, Thailand, New Zealand or Brazil. He goes free for giving historical or political speeches and lectures. Other trips are to Hawaii, to visit his only daughter, Amy, whom he and my grandma adopted while he was teaching in Japan, in the ’50s, as a Fulbright Scholar.

He, like the chair, is comfortable with people, not flashy or bragging about his accomplishments. He’s more of a soft brown corduroy than a red velvet. He was once offered another chair — the Andrew Jackson Chair of History at Vanderbilt University — but turned it down to remain with family and familiarity. His brown corduroy stayed put in the Chesapeake Bay beach community of Fairhaven.

Like the supporting, soft chair, he has helped and even provided temporary lodging for friends in need. Whether escaping from economic troubles in Russia or just getting a break from the university, many people have come to their old history professor. He has supported them so they can relax for a little while, away from the rest of life.

This chair was not always old, worn, and soft. It was once a hard-backed, new armchair, not used to people sitting on it, not yet broken in by hours of lounging. Grandpa, too was once young and new, a naive youth from back-country Tennessee. He was ready to change the world, as was his generation.

He served in the Navy in World War II. He married his wife, Jean Smith, and they raised five wild children. He earned a Ph.D. in history and went on to teach in universities here and abroad. He got involved in politics, serving as a speech writer and even running for senate as a Democrat in Iowa. He has been shaped. Not shaped in the way clay is shaped but gradually modified, over time becoming radically different. This change is like the hour hand on a clock: It does not appear to move; it was on the four and is now on the five.

Much like his comfortable, brown armchair is my grandfather. He is supportive — but without being obsequious. He is tough — but without edges. He is giving — but without expecting thanks. From playing college football to babysitting grandchildren … from a Tennessee farm to prestigious universities … from the thousands of memories behind and to the millions of adventures ahead, he is E.B., Dr. Smith, dad — and my grandpa.

At 14, Eric Smith, of Fairhaven, is the youngest writer to appear in this space. A 2000 graduate of St. Peter’s Elementary School in Washington, D.C., he’ll be a freshman at Gonzaga High School in September.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly