Thursday, May 19, 2011

An Incredible Lady...An Incredible Life

We said goodbye to this special lady, my grandma, on Feb. 10. Today would have been her 90th birthday. And while her frail little body was no match for her indomitable spirit, in the end, she said goodbye on her terms and left as sweetly as the evening sun setting in the West. We still miss her and I'm sure we'll continue to miss her for a very long time. 

Since she chose to be cremated, we decided to take our time in planning her memorial service. We wanted it to be a grand tribute that would be fitting for a woman who spent most her life serving others. So, if you'll indulge me, I'd like to share some of the stories I told at her memorial. 

My earliest memories of Grandma include sitting at the piano with her as she warmed up her voice to countless show tunes she had sang countless times before. Now as an adult, I recognize that this was her way of saying, "I’m still a vocalist. I still have a song in my heart, and I will always perform – no matter if my audience is 5,000 serviceman at a USO camp show or my three-year-old granddaughter."

Before she joined the USO in 1942, she lived in Hollywood and sang professionally.
As I grew older, my sisters and I would look forward to our yearly birthday phone calls where Grandma would serenade us with her special rendition of the Hawaiian birthday song. Even if we happen to miss her call, she would leave the whole song on voicemail and what a treat it was to play it back when we had a quiet moment.

In addition to her birthday phone calls, Grandma was also known for her correspondence. Whether these letters were handwritten or typed on her trusty typewriter, you could always count on a sweet note to arrive in your mailbox exactly when you needed it the most, like this one:

“Hi Sweet Kelly…I have many projects and chores to do, but nothing tops the list more than sitting down at the ol' typewriter and sending a note to my sweet girl, to tell her how much she is loved.”

In these letters, she would always include photocopied quotes and newspaper clippings. Sometimes these photocopies were her aerobics class schedule at the local rec center…other times they would be more “newsworthy” items like the time she dressed up in her WWII uniform and sang “God Bless America” at the grand opening of a Chick-Fil-A restaurant. Of course, this made the local news. But then again, Grandma always made the news.

Once I entered college and decided to pursue journalism as my course study, a big thrill was to have one of my articles published about Grandma’s USO experience. It was a "fluff" piece I turned into my editor with no expectation of ever seeing it in print. You can imagine my surprise when I walked on campus on Veteran’s Day and picked up a copy of our school’s newspaper. Yep, this little "fluff" piece was staring me right in the face on the front page. Needless to say I had the best time calling Grandma that day to say, "I hope you're ready for the spotlight again."

In reading Grandma’s memoir of her USO experience, I know she viewed her stay in Cassino, Italy in 1944 as a special highlight, mainly because the men—who were so close to the fighting—needed the entertainment so badly. She wrote, “The men practically all had beards and most of them were sitting on the ground in the mud. Some were on top of trucks, and when I looked again, they were even hanging and sitting in the trees. I remember singing Embraceable You and saying, ‘Come to mama, come to mama,’ when a GI fell out of a tree in a swoon. Some of the men told me later that the Germans were sitting on top of the hill. They didn’t want to fight anymore – they wanted to see the show.”

And what a show Grandma gave us throughout her 89 years of life. So it’s no surprise that she picked Feb. 10 as the day of her final performance. As I was writing her obituary a few weeks ago, I came across that iconic photo of her from Cassino, Italy in 1944. I’ve seen it countless times over the course of my life. On a whim, I turned the photo over. On the back, in Grandma’s perfect penmanship, was the date “Feb. 10, 1944.” It seems she chose to leave this world on the very day she gave her greatest performance to a packed crowd of 5,000 servicemen, exactly 67 years ago.

She closed her memoirs by saying this about her USO experience, “You feel good down deep inside of you because you know you won’t be forgotten when you have finished because you are giving a part of you to somebody who needs you. When you looked at the shining eyes and the eager, boyish faces, and when you heard the music of their laughter and the thunder of their applause, you forgot all about the leaky tent and loose boards on the stage. You never felt so completely full in all your life. This was success.”


So when it came time to send out the invitations to her memorial, this iconic photo once again played a part in the extraordinary life of Norma A. Squires Smith:

One of my favorite quotes is: "A bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song." Grandma, thank you for sharing your life's song with me and those who were blessed to know you. Your stage will always be waiting for you, your voice will always be remembered.

All My Love,
Your Sweet Kelly


Ellie A. said...

(((HUGS)) So beautiful thank you for sharing your amazing grandma w/us.

Susan Neal said...

That was beautiful Kelly. You are a very lucky girl. I never knew my grandparents...but I'm going to be a great day.