I offer this to celebrate the life of Elmo Smoot, my father who made his transition on June 10, 2018.
My father was born in Louise, Arkansas to his parents, Ralph and Willie Mae on June 4, 1935. I never knew my grandfather. In fact, my only memory of my grandfather was at his funeral when I was 9 or 10.
My grandmother, on the other hand, was a different story. I have many fond and wonderful memories of her. Memories of the mason jars full of fruit preserves lining the walls. Threatening me and my cousins when we were acting out. And just her general kind and somewhat genteel nature. And being confused, when I was really young, because everyone called my dad Brother. I didn’t understand at the time it was a Southern affectation. I just thought it was weird that everyone, including his mother and step-father, called him Brother. For a northern kid like me, that was just weird.
I always tell people that I am half southern and half northern. That I partially grew up in Memphis. Until I was about 15 or 16, I spent every summer in Memphis with my dad, my grandmother and my aunts and cousins. I learned a lot about life during those times. And those southern sensibilities have never quite left me.
My father and I had an interesting relationship, to say the least. Oh sure, we loved each other. But there were times were there were problems. Despite those problems, my dad did his best and did what he could to instill in me certain things.
I remember when not too long after he married his third wife, Mary. I was at the house and I was about 11. He decided that day he was going to teach me how to BBQ. Because, every self-respecting Smoot man must learn how to cook. It is a trait my own son has learned and is on his way to mastering.
One morning he woke me up and told me he had purchased a couple of slabs of ribs. And he told me I was going to cook them. I was nervous and unsure, but I did. I messed up a couple, but he showed me how to regulate the temp on the coals, how to check the meat, when and why to baste, how to use seasonings and other stuff. It was a skill, he thought, that I needed to have.
If anyone knew my father, you knew that his ability to cook was legendary. I maintain to this day I have never had a better smothered chicken than my father’s. He put love and care into his cooking. It is something I that have tried to emulate in my own cooking.
Even though my parents divorced at an early age, some of the memories I have of my father from that time still make me realize I was fortunate. I remember when I was about 4, my father was exited. He kept talking about when this red fox would be coming on TV.
Now, I was confused because my father didn’t like cartoons and he didn’t always like me watching them. So why he wanted to watch this fox that was red on TV was confusing and more so, why he was so excited. As some of you have already guessed, he was referring to when Sanford and Son premiered.
That was a go to show for him. We always watched it, and I will always remember one day at his apartment when I was about 8 or 9, sitting in our underwear, him drinking a beer, me drinking kool-aid, watching Sanford and Son. That day, it was just me and him, nothing or no one else. Just us and that black and white tv. All was right with the world. I was with my dad. It was good.
Unfortunately, it didn’t always stay that way. But we tried. We did our best. But the reality is, we are both Smoot men. And some of you know what that means. It means we are stubborn, opinionated, and always right. Well, me moreso than anyone else because I am always right, but you get my point.
So my father and I butted heads. Often. Our mutual stubbornness often was in conflict with each other. That and the fact that we lived in different cities, it became a barrier. A barrier we never recovered from. Yet, when it is all said and done because of or in spite of that barrier, I am my father’s child.
I don’t have a ton of regrets in my life, but that we never removed that barrier, is one of my primary regrets. It always has been. And sadly, it always will be.
Yet, there was one constant. I know he loved me. And I loved him.
I’ll never will forget the day I was at work, when I was running a youth program, when out of the blue, my father called me. It was obvious he was crying. I asked him what was wrong and he said nothing. He said a couple of other things I didn’t really understand, but then he ended the conversation, telling me he loved me. It weirded me out a little bit because the only time I had ever known him to cry before that was the first time he held Christian. As weird as it was then, I’d give anything to get that call again.
My father was truly an interesting man. I always marveled at his friendships when I was younger. He had a group of loyal and reliable friends. His best friend, my Uncle Calvin, was an outstanding man and the two of them together were something to behold. They were truly two peas in a pod. In fact, because of how they were, you really would have thought they were brothers. And now, I have my own version of Uncle Calvin.
His relationship with Olia, a woman who taught me so much in her own right. That relationship showed me that men and women can truly be friends. Growing up, she was an aunt, a confidant, a babysitter, but I understood from an early stage that she had my father’s back and he had hers. And now, I have my own version of Ollie.
And then there was Oscar and Big Money and Ferguson, all men I grew up around and men who showed by example with my father the strength of Black Male friendships. And now, I have my own versions of Oscar, Big Money and Ferguson.
I think my membership in my fraternity and my membership in the Masonic lodge was sparked by the examples of friendship I saw demonstrated by my father and his friends. He provided for me a practical example of how men, especially black men, can form lasting bonds based on fellowship, camaraderie, common interests and for the betterment of all.
In most of the organizations I have belonged to, I always rose to a position of leadership. It was something I realized a long time ago was ingrained in me from a young age, in part because of my father.
When I was in 2nd grade, I was “elected” president of my 2nd grade class. What made this interesting to me, even at the time, is that my mother was the president of something, I forget exactly what, but my father was also president of the local Lion’s Club chapter. I remember, even then thinking, wow, all 3 of us are presidents. To my 2nd grade mind at the time, that was REALLY cool.
And then there was a bridge stuff. He used to jokingly say, or at least I assumed he was joking, that he didn’t understand how I never became a bridge player given his activities with bridge and my mother’s activity. Now, the perennial argument between my parents of not only who was the better bridge player, but who taught who how to play bridge is something that was never settled. But it was always a fun argument to watch them go back and forth about.
But I was very proud of my father’s accomplishments in the bridge world. Anyone who knows me has heard me mention once or twice that my father was at one time ranked as one of the best bridge players in the country. I remember when he told me about playing bridge with the actor Omar Shariff and how that game went. I was very proud of him and proud of how high he rose in the bridge world.
It was something he excelled in, and while I was never all that interested in bridge, I was actually proud of him for his accomplishments in that area.
As I begin to close, I want to bring up one more thing.
I remember when I first went into ministry and I called my dad to tell him about my intentions. Imagine my surprise when he told me something he had never told me before. That at one time, shortly after he graduated from high school, that he had an interest in going into ministry himself.
My father and I never talked much about religion or spirituality or the specifics of our faith. Yet, I knew it was there. When he was living in Chicago, he was a dedicated member of my home church. In fact, so much was that ingrained that when I preached my trial sermon, my father actually went to the wrong church. He was so used to our involvement with my home church he forgot I was delivering my trial sermon at a different church.
Ironically, aside from Christian, church was the thing we talked about most. We spoke at length about his activities with the church. It was, at least to me, his way of talking about his faith by talking about his activity within the church. Whether it was helping to set up, or catering, or helping out the pastor or minister in question, his way of talking to others about his faith was performing actions that were aligned with his faith.
I am reminded of that old saying my grandmother used to say all the time: “I would rather see a sermon in action than hear one.” In his own way, my father preached his sermons through his dedication and faithfulness to the church.
When I resigned from the pastorate, in one of the few direct statements he made to me on the subject, he urged me to hold on to my faith, to not be mad at God (because I was), and to find other ways to fulfill my calling. It was around that time that he talked to me again about his own call and how he wished he had gone into ministry himself. The important thing at that time for my father, was that I didn’t lose my faith.
Which brings me to the 11th Chapter of Hebrews, verses 1-4, where it says:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.
The way I see it, my father isn’t truly dead. Because of his faith, because of the impact he had on others, because of the way he made others feel, he lives on.
The one thing my father did used to talk to me about on a regular basis, was about being a Black man in today’s society. He talked to me about how it was his belief that there would come a time where collectively, things would improve. He would talk to me about the struggles that were present, not always in regards to himself, but in regards to others. He had faith that one day, things for Black men wouldn’t be so difficult. He had faith that one day, the treatment he received as a child growing up in Memphis would no longer be common place. He used his faith in those things to share with me his perspective and his experiences growing up as a Black Man in the south during Jim Crow. It is a perspective that I appreciate.
Because faith is one of the few things that we have that is all ours. Our faith belongs to us and us alone. We can allow others to damage it or we can allow others to bolster, but it is always up to us, in what we allow. No one can damage our faith unless we allow them to. And indirectly, that was a lesson I always got from my father. Given his upbringing, he had every reason NOT to have faith. But somehow he did. He kept his faith in God, he accepted Jesus, and he knew from where his help came.
I believe that God gives us the ability to embolden our faith, but we have to make the first step. I believe my father took those steps. I believe that God shows us how to maintain our faith, but we have to want to keep it. My father kept his. I believe that God makes it possible for us to have faith, even when there is no earthly reason to have faith. Somehow, in some way, my father kept his faith.
It is by faith, I believe, that my father was the type of man that he was. The type of man that took care of his mother and his sisters when no one else would or could. The type of man who formed these amazing friendships and bonds with people. The type of man who took the faith he had to excel in an area where black men were not always present. And the type of man who had faith that through me, he had a grandson who would grow up to be happy, successful and the type of Black Man all of us could be proud of.
It is that faith, my father’s faith, given to him by God that I will hold on to. It is that faith that will carry me on through these days of grief and sorrow. It is the faith that God has given us all that I will use to tell the story of my father, Elmo Smoot. A good man. A man that I loved. A man that I miss terribly. A man that I didn’t tell enough how much I loved him. A man I didn’t thank enough for what he showed me and tried to teach with me. A man who I never got the chance to tell him I’m sorry.
But God knows. God knows all. God gave me a good father. God gave me a good man. And it is through the faith of my father that I will always strive to be the best father I can be, and one day maybe, be the best grandfather I can be.
All because of faith. Because when it is all said and done. David said in Psalms, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
I’m weeping right now. Because I miss my father. But the joy comes because of my faith, of his faith, the faith that God has given us. The faith my father had in me, in us all.