Wednesday, July 10, 2024

'Enjoy just being here' — At almost 110, she's still baking pie, with a little help

Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin

     Edith Renfrow Smith is baking a sour cherry pie.
     "I just love sour cherry," she confides. "My father planted a sour cherry tree in the yard. He was a cook ... all the fruit; he had peaches, he had plums, he had gooseberries, currants and grapes. Everything that momma could can, because we were poor."
      That yard was in Grinnell, Iowa, where Smith was born on July 14, 1914, two weeks before the start of World War I. Regular readers might remember meeting her in 2021 for her 107th birthday and learning her down-to-earth world view, "Nobody's better than you." I figured, if 107 was noteworthy, how could 108 not be? Or 109, for that matter? The year she got COVID-19 and weathered the deadly disease so easily she didn't even mention that she'd had it.
     For her 110th, this Sunday, I wondered how to shake things up. Such "supercentenarians" are an extreme rarity. Researchers estimate one person in a thousand who reaches age 100 will live to see 110, which makes Smith one woman out of a million, maybe out of 5 million.
     I asked her daughter, Alice Smith, 78, if her mother still makes homemade jelly and wine.
     She does, Alice said, inviting me to come by and watch production of a cherry pie last Friday, an offer I suspect she had reason to regret.
     "It takes 45 minutes to pit a quart of cherries," says Alice, arriving at her mother's apartment with a bag from a farmer's market. "I won't be doing that ever again."
     Alice is late, and perhaps not in the best mood, having had to fight NASCAR traffic from the South Side. "I'm only bringing this stuff," she says. "I'm not making the cherry pie. That's not something I want to make."
     But as daughters know, what you want to do, and what you end up doing, are two different things when your mother enters the equation. Alice is pressed unwillingly into the role of de facto pastry sous chef.
     "Open the cookbook right there and check," Edith says, gesturing to a 1960s-era Better Homes & Gardens ring binder cookbook on the floor.
     "Mother, I don't need to open the cookbook," snaps Alice. "I understand how to bake."
Not easy as pie
     The cookbook surprises me — I had anticipated cherished family baking traditions dating back to the 19th century, which is why it's always good to check your imagined notions against the yardstick of p but reality. Edith sets me right.
     "Momma didn't make pies," she explains. "She didn't give us dessert. She said children should have apples and peaches. 'No garbage.' She called cookies and doughnuts and what have you 'garbage' because they were not good for you. She didn't give us cookies. She didn't bake pie. She made bread, three times a week, and she only used graham flour."

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  1. Love this story. Even though I've been retired for almost two decades, I'm still interested in how the journalism sausage is made. Did you use a phone to record the conversation with mother and daughter? I was struck by the extent of the vivid dialogue. Surely your steel-trap memory and written notes couldn't have captured all that? Oh, how I wish phone audio-to-text apps were available to me back in the day. Woulda saved all those cassette tapes and the cost of transcribing them.

    1. No, I used a small digital tape recorder to backstop my notes. I could never capture that otherwise.

  2. "It’s wonderful to live long enough to enjoy just being here.”


  3. This is such a wonderful piece and captures her spunky personality so well. And kudos to the photographer for capturing such great images.

  4. She's a remarkable woman. If I make it to 110, I hope I'm as sharp and feisty as she is.

  5. "...I am looking forward to visiting her for her 111th and linger a moment, grasping her hand in mine, reflecting that here is a woman whose grandparents were born in slavery, and at one point in her life, over a century ago, she no doubt caressed them with this hand. That’s how close these things are to us in history. One person away."

    Kudos. What a great piece of wordsmithing, Mr. encapsulated the way your column made me feel. My father's mother was one of the original Bolsheviks, and she threw marbles at the horse soldiers of the Czar, so that the horses would stumble and fall. One person away.

    Enjoyed all of your visits with Mrs. Smith. Hope she makes it to 111. Loved the way you captured the sparks that flew between mother and daughter. Saw the same thing between my first wife and her mother, decades ago. You don't have to be 78 and 110 for that to happen, either. They were around 35 and 60. My mother-in-law had significant hearing loss. That tends to make people quite cranky.

  6. And the best thing is that her memory is intact.

  7. Lovely story. Her family is lucky to have her. Thank you.

  8. Your last paragraph should be required reading for every person on the planet.

  9. My wife will turn 77 on Sunday. She was born on Edith Renfrow Smith's 33rd birthday. Her mother passed away almost twenty years ago, at 89. Reading about someone my mother-in-law's age who is still breathing and is still reasonably healthy and who still has all her marbles intact? Mind-blowing.

  10. I have enjoyed your coverage of E. R Smith, and recognized her on the front page of the SunTimes, when the paper arrived. I'm glad your article got front page treatment! This year I resonated more with Alice than Edith. I recognize the tension between the lived lives - as one life recedes, and more assistance is required to live that wonderful life, the "assistant' can feel she's living another's life instead of her own. Those little protests of autonomy may be part of a long-standing mother-daughter dynamic, but are also a way to affirm and reclaim one's identity. Best wishes to Edith, and to Alice, too.

  11. Wonderful series of columns about an incredible woman -- perhaps you would consider covering the dedication of the building in Sept.? It is a beautiful building. Parts of the small downtown are much the same as when she lived there. Grinnell is only about 4 1/2 hours from here (yes, I'm an alum).

    1. I've been invited by someone in the community and definitely will try to go. It's a busy fall, but I'd say that's worth the drive.


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