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97 years after his mother's birth, son says her world 'seemed more like fiction than fact'
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97 years after his mother's birth, son says her world 'seemed more like fiction than fact'

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By the time Lela Smith could no longer live on her own, there were things she couldn’t remember.

Who came to visit yesterday and what she had for breakfast today.

But she could remember the past, clear as a moving picture.

And one day, when a nurse’s aide was visiting her room at Gateway Vista, Lela told her about the pony she rode to school as a girl. A black-and-white pony named Spot, who spent the school day in the communal barn waiting until it was time to carry her home.

The nurse’s aide wasn’t sure whether she should believe that.

But Lela Marie Burton Smith did ride a pony to the country school 2 miles from her family’s farm on the Kansas-Nebraska border, where she was born on May 1, 1924, the third of five sisters.

Lela died on her birthday this year.

And that aide’s question made Lela’s youngest son think about how much the world had changed since his mom entered it 97 years earlier.

He listed his mom’s date of birth and the day she died, enveloped in love.

She was born at home, he wrote, and rode that Shetland pony to the one-room school, where the students would hide the ruler from the teacher so she wouldn’t rap their hands.

She grew up in a house without electricity or running water. “Water came from the tank by the windmill or from the cistern in front of the house that gathered the rainwater from the roof.”

His list was a century-long sweep of history in two pages. Taking eggs and milk to the general store to swap for groceries. Watching silent movies on the side of a building. Listening to a radio powered by a battery that lost its charge as the days went by. “By the end of the week, they had their ears against the speaker.”

The phone was a party line, the son wrote, two words that sound like a wedding dance but meant something else altogether.

Those old stories were his mom’s way of being in the moment, Smith said.

Burt and his three older siblings grew up hearing the stories, but they heard them again in Lela’s last years, too.

“Mom could remember the far past, so if you wanted to have an intelligent conversation with her, you had to focus on that time frame.”

And they did.

The stories took on life and layers.

New details emerged.

And how she and her sisters hunted for violets and called their church the “Dunker Church,” because they dipped you under the water for baptism. How much she loved the fiddle.

The story of falling in love with Max Smith, the boy who bought her a malt on their first date and hitchhiked to their wedding before heading off to fight in World War II. Lela in her Rosie the Riveter days, working in a battery factory to help the war effort.

The hardscrabble of married life on the farm near Liberty. An outhouse bathroom. Saturday night bath night — everybody using the same water, youngest to oldest, the baby last in the kitchen sink. Leaving the farm and moving to Lincoln so the kids would have a better chance of going to college.

That first television set in 1962 — black-and-white with three channels. Heading out to the working world in the '70s when it was a big deal to wear pantsuits to work or have your own savings account.

Burt’s older brother Kevan compiled his own history when Lela turned 95, and he read it at her birthday party. The price of gasoline in 1924 (11 cents a gallon), the cost of a new car ($500), the average life expectancy (54 years).

Lela was in hospice her last days. Her family stayed close, and the staff hung a banner over her door and softly sang the happy birthday song.

After she died, the memories came flooding in, Burt Smith said. All the stories she told over the years. The stories she could still tell.

“The desire for knowledge never stopped for Lela,” they wrote. “Besides constantly reading the news and magazines, she had a desire to learn new skills.”

She learned to type when she was in her 70s and authored a two-volume cookbook for her kids and grandkids.

Lela and Max both had strokes when they were in their 80s — Max died in 2015.

“Both somewhat disabled, they made a team,” the brothers wrote. “Max doing the housework and Lela doing the talking. Lela said that when Max would say some malapropism or garbled words, when they should have been crying, they laughed instead.”

Dementia stole some of his mom’s reasoning ability those last years, Burt said.

So maybe that pony story seemed like the stuff of imagination, too, for someone born in an era of microchips and Mars landings.

“To a 20-something, it seemed more like fiction than fact,” the son said. “Young people today have no idea how much things have changed.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or

On Twitter @TheRealCLK


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