By Anne Larme October 2008
A true River Road original, Jill Smith, died of cancer on October 10, 2008. All of you have your own stories, I’m sure, as she was a most memorable character. These are my stories, pieced together from many conversations and interactions over the years. (My apologies for any errors.)
My knowledge about the facts of Jill’s life is sketchy. She was a native of Coventry, England, and came from a large family. She remembered the bombing during World War II as a child. When her mother died at a young age, she went to live with an older sister. She married an American who was stationed in England in the military, and lived in Germany and various places in the U.S. before ending up in San Antonio. She had four children, three sons and a daughter, and eventually got divorced. An adult daughter, whom she dearly loved, was murdered by her significant other, and her daughter’s baby also died.
While I don’t know a lot of the details and facts of Jill’s life, I do know about her personality and character, as she was one of the most memorable people you could ever meet. Jill had a difficult family life to be sure, but she channeled her frustrations into different worthy causes, especially advocating for those who couldn’t speak for themselves–rescuing stray dogs and cats, being active in the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and protesting the death penalty, among others. She had a special spot in her heart for people who usually go unrecognized. For example, following a British custom, she would give a gift of appreciation to the garbage collectors over the holidays, usually a mug purchased at the thrift store, filled with homemade fudge. Her animal rescue work included catching feral cats, getting them spayed or neutered and then releasing them, and catching and fostering stray dogs until she could find them a home–although she ended up keeping many of them herself.
Her kindness extended to her neighbors. She drove “the ladies,” as she called them, her two older neighbors who didn’t drive, to the grocery store once a week. I, being in a wheelchair or walking with canes, also benefited from her concern. She helped me take care of my dogs when I traveled, often cut their toenails, and helped me to bury their ashes when they died. When she came to visit, she would straighten pillows on the sofa or even wash spots off the floor (all the while looking around and commenting on all my stuff–another quirk!). She would bring in my trash or recycling bin from the street, and always offered me the services of her son, Mark, if I needed them (“If you ever need anything, Anne, just call, and I’ll send Mark.”). In turn, I would bring her cheese from Wisconsin, which she and Mark, being vegetarians, loved. And when I found out she enjoyed a little glass of port in the evening, that became my annual Christmas gift.
Jill had a beautiful figure and posture, and was always impeccably dressed in comfortable and color-coordinated clothing that she had purchased a thrift stores. She had an energetic way of moving that belied her years. You could often see her traipsing down the street at a good clip, carrying food to feed stray cats or dogs along the river. She would get down on the floor at eye level to snuggle with my dog, Lucy. How many 70 year olds could do that???
Jill was quirky and unforgettable in so many ways. She didn’t want to cut a tree branch that was hanging low over her front sidewalk, because, why ruin a beautiful tree? She hated cutting grass, so covered her whole front yard with landscaping pebbles and decorated it with figurines and other objects. At 74, she was still driving a silver pick-up with bumper stickers touting her political and ethical views all over the tailgate. She never celebrated Christmas, because that was the season her daughter was killed, but for years she gave me a little tin of homemade fudge over the holidays.
Jill was opinionated and you didn’t want to get on her bad side, because, as far as I could tell, you could never get off. (Fortunately I think I stayed on the good side.) She loved to complain about family, neighbors, people who didn’t take care of animals. But beneath all that cantankerousness, she had a heart of gold.
I could go on and on! (And I’m sure you will have stories to add.)
Long story to cut short (one of her favorite expressions!), Jill had a challenging life, but she made the most of it. She often said she wished she could die, but this was just a way of venting. Because, after she was indeed diagnosed with a fatal illness this past June, I never saw anyone with a stronger will to live. She submitted to every treatment for her stomach cancer that the doctors recommended, including removing her stomach, and undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. After surgery she had problems getting enough nutrition, and, already a thin woman when diagnosed, by the time she died on October 10, she weighed only 75 pounds.
Jill was cremated, and did not want a funeral or obituary, as she felt these were a waste of money. So, it is gratifying to be together with you all today, to reminisce. I don’t know about you, but I sure needed it. Those who wish to honor her memory are encouraged to donate to an animal shelter, or better yet, adopt a stray dog or cat who needs a home. (As a matter of fact, last weekend after she died, two stray dogs adopted my yard for their home–I wonder if she sent them???)
That’s it for my tribute to Jill, a truly original, remarkable, unforgettable, woman. We miss you Jill! The River Road neighborhood will never be the same!
Jill with Drew Manger, 1983
Photo by Paula Manger