A Heart without Borders

Once there has been a true meeting, there can never be a separation.

The above quote was told to me a multitude of times by one of my most cherished and amusing travel companions who died last week. In a real way he was the first person to acquaint me with travel. This man not only stretched the experience of my physical existence, he also connected me with my past and gave me the tools necessary to create my future: my present as it exists today. He was funny, charming, incisive, handsome and generous. He convinced me that I could be President of the United States, and once aggravated me to the point that I momentarily considered deserting him in a bar. He would give me the keys to his luxury pick up truck and tell me to drive. Where? I’d ask. Anywhere. He’d respond. Wherever you want to go. Before he became a daily part of my life he was already a legend. My grandmother’s face would lift whenever she spoke of him. Rooms froze in silence as he orated, and the trajectories of lives were altered— even if only mildly— after an instant in his presence. 

This is a tribute to Henry Lee Smith.

It was the summer of ‘99. I’d recently graduated from middle school and I was eagerly awaiting the next grand phase of my life: West Catholic Preparatory High School. Up until that point, although my mind was growing, my world was still small. Yes, I’d been out of Philly— I spent a summer in Hackensack, New Jersey, went to New York City for my 8th grade class trip and my southernmost extreme had been a church trip to Washington D.C.—but my globe trotting had not surpassed the mid-Atlantic. 

This particular summer held the promise of something different. This would be the summer when my grandmother’s dearest nephew— my mother’s first cousin, Uncle Lee to me and “Pop” to a multitude with no relation— would take me south. I was electrified by the prospect. By that age I had developed quite an adroitness as a fisherman and I was told the river Santee and Lake Marion were an angler’s Eden. As Uncle Lee told it, I could fish in his backyard. In fact, I may be able to do so from the convenience of the back porch, even the living room. 

We would head south sometime that July. Prior to going south, I would need to go north to the North Philly residence of my Aunt & Uncle, which also served as a de facto food bank. There were no cars owned by my household. Yet the Smiths seemed to own a fleet. My grandmother told me, as her nephew had told her, that he had purchased his current town car in cash. A suitcase of cash. I never challenged this claim of extravagance. I’d seen him drape my grandmother in a new fur coat simply because it was the winter and he was her nephew, her favorite by my estimation.  The new Lincoln would serve as my transport to a foreign side of my hometown. As we cruised across the city I recorded the route. I was gripped by the sections of the city I knew existed but had never experienced directly.   

We arrived. I stayed next door with their son, Chubby, and his children. Aunt Anne, my grandmother’s sister, stayed next door to us. Aunt Anne was well into her nineties. Buddy Boy and his wife had recently moved Aunt Anne to Philadelphia from L.A. so that she could be closer to more immediate family. Uncle Lee and Aunt Lil rode a Greyhound bus for three days across the expanse of United States in order to get her and move her to the east coast. Later, my Uncle would tell me that he could have flown charter had he wanted, but he and his wife resolved to take the bus. It would make for a more relaxing journey, allowing them to sleep and take in the countryside. In addition to his magnanimity, Uncle Lee had been a jazz bandleader for most of his adult life. He was well conditioned for the interstate. While others would have been driven mad by the hours and miles of asphalt, I believe he found a meditative quality in it.    

On the day of our departure we were a full car. Their Lincoln allowed for three, maybe four passengers in the front. We were eight in total; four adults, three children, and me. That morning Uncle Lee had been complaining of sharp pain in his legs. He was in his mid seventies. As we pulled down Broad Street rolling towards the expressway, he pleaded for his wife to take him back home; he’d make the next trip. She didn’t oblige. I believe in time, he was grateful for her reluctance. Surely I was. 

As we crossed into Virginia I knew I had reached a new vista. I had carefully studied my atlas, gifted to me by Msgr. Albert Norell, and had determined the journey to eclipse 500 miles. My mind was abuzz. The interstate was simple yet chaotic to me. There were so many green signs offering instructions and the names of towns and hamlets in the vicinity. Lanes that ran parallel with our own would become absorbed with ours. At times our lane would splinter out toward the west. I didn’t quite understand how Aunt Lil, who did most of the driving, didn’t get lost along the way. While she drove, Uncle Lee would engage the rest of us in between his naps. There were jokes, sing alongs and anecdotes. Eventually one of the signs on I-95 indicated that we were near Emporia, Virginia. This brought up a discussion about relatives in the area. Perhaps we could stop there on our return trip. Or maybe even visit Purdy, the town that bore his mother, Virginia, and my grandmother, Alice.  

South Carolina was a delightful experience. Though I had never been south of D.C., I always felt a connection with this region of Americana. I knew the south possessed my roots, at least the roots I could unearth. This was my taglit. I was introduced to David, Aunt Lil’s nephew. David stood easily over 6 feet and his face possessed the features of his indigenous ancestors. He greeted me with a powerful handshake and assured me that we were fittin to catch some fish. More than once he came to the house at 5:30 in the morning so we could go out on the lake. I was usually already up, while some of my younger cousins opted to snooze in. We impressed the others upon our return hours later. We caught strings full of fish. My arms buckled from the weight of our catch as I scampered from the boat to the back patio. Aunt Lil would see to it that I froze some to take to my grandmother back home. Aunt Lil would call my grandmother for me. She’d ask me if I was enjoying the south and I’d give a general description of the surroundings.  Uncle Lee had developed the land for her sister, but she died before ever seeing the property. At the end of our conversation my grandmother told me she loved me. It was the only time I ever heard those words leave her mouth. Though I always knew her feelings, I doubt I would have ever heard them expressed without this trip. She passed that December. 

Considering my recent graduation, I had a sizeable budget for the trip. The angler that I was, I thought it opportune to indulge myself with fishing supplies from Jack's Creek Marina up the road. Stanley, the white proprietor, knew me as Mr. Smith’s nephew and eagerly took my Jacksons as I ran up a bill accumulating all sorts of lures, tackle and a new fishing rod. I walked back to the house. Aunt Lil and Uncle Lee had gone into town with Aunt Anne. Chubby was painting the back porch. Hours later when they returned Uncle Lee quickly learned of my acquisition. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I had failed to be financially prudent under his supervision. Most of the items I bought he already had. There were 3 fishing rods for every person in the house. What did I need with another one? I went back to Stanley and returned the most irrelevant items from my purchase. I learned to prioritize my budget, especially while on vacation. He later made it clear that he wasn’t angry with me. He explained that I was under his supervision and he only had my best interests in heart. Our conversation then developed into what I was going to do with my life. Following our conversation I had a new appreciation for having intention and financial discipline. 

On the way out of South Carolina we stopped at South of the Border. I bought a coffee mug that I still use. We made the necessary stops in North Carolina for gas and the lavatory. As we approached the Virginia state line, a declaration was made. We would stop in Purdy. This was my Spotsylvania. The birthplace of my grandmother and everyone else in her lineage whom I could trace. There wasn’t much too it. I do recall a pond, and wondering how many fish inhabited it. I could only imagine my grandmother, decades younger, parading those hilly country roads with the other Ruffin sisters. My grandmother would eventually leave Purdy to come to the North and assist her sister, Virginia— Uncle Lee’s mother— while she was pregnant with Lee’s younger siblings. That was the motive for my grandmother to leave the South. She would spend the rest of her life living in Philadelphia.  

I always felt connected to him. In this trip he connected me to a past in a manner that no one had ever previously done. I had the pleasure of returning to South Carolina with him and my Aunt years later and on various occasions. I went from being a young adolescent squeezed into the middle seat, to the co-pilot on a voyage that would take upwards of 10 hours each way. I often enjoyed the conversations. Some tidbit of family history that would never be relevant in any other context would offer itself during these journeys. I believe he savored these trips as well. It provided him an oasis. His wife, Aunt Lil, was a product of the south. The land where they built their home was once owned by her mother Sara, a Santee Indian.  On one trip he told me how someone back in Philadelphia admired him and his success in choosing a spouse. (At this point he had been married to Aunt Lil for about 60 years.) His interlocutor marvelled and expressed the frustrations he was having in his own love life. "Mr Smith, how can I get a wife like yours?" My Uncle would retort, “The problem is that you’re fishing in the Schuylkill, I went to South Carolina to get mine.” David and I would be reconnected and we'd fish as we did that first summer, but on his boat instead of on my uncle’s pontoon. Our bond was steadfast, though our conversations had evolved into more mature topics. 

La Dolce Vita - Chicago 2007

Uncle Lee gave me a special sense of connection and I wanted to share that with others. When his first-cousin, my aunt, who was named Virginia after his mother, died in early 2006 we drove together, along with his wife, my mother and another relative, for 16 hours to Chicago to attend the funeral. We drove in his new car. He impressed others and himself with the fact that his car had been more advanced than the year. “Sean, what nigga you know can drive a 2006 in the year 2005?” (He had nothing against using the n-word. He once said to me, “How the hell is the NAACP going to ban the n-word when niggas still exist?”). Thankfully I had visited this aunt a couple of months before her death and his recent truck was the second thing she mentioned to me, after she asked “How are Lee & Lilian?”. This newest ride in the series was GPS equipped. Go straight and turn right in 500 feet, we were offered in a soothing, neutral accent. If we were to get lost he assured us that his white woman would lead us back on course. Eventually we arrived at our destination on Chicago’s south side. There he would connect with other relatives who had known him vicariously at best. 

There was one family member in particular I imagined Uncle Lee would get along with marvelously. Sarge was an old school Vietnam War veteran who never said too much about his war experience— his only offering that he had seen his best friend get killed. He was kind yet full of bravado. In another recollection Sarge told me that after he got back from the war he told his therapist that all he wanted to do was shoot white people. He and Sarge would get along quite well. Sarge took Uncle Lee directly to the basement where he had a full sized bar, floor to ceiling, wall to wall. I didn’t drink. I needed every bit of awareness to soak up this moment. There was a picture of Sarge with his wife Vanessa, circa 1981, taken at a Rick James concert. Sarge, never self-deprecating, played up his outfit and how he had wooed my cousin into his possession.  Uncle Lee, never modest, would inform Sarge about his personal relationship with Rick who referred to him adoringly as Pop Pop. As they drank, they discussed jazz, politics, and anything else that was offered. Eventually Aunt Lil retrieved Uncle Lee from the basement. We did have a funeral to attend in the morning. The next day after the repas, Uncle Lee would inquire about Sarge’s den. His wife asked, “Didn’t you get enough to drink last night‽”. He replied “I don’t want to drink. I just want to look at it.”  We would return to Chicago the next year for a wedding.  The ability and the choice to be mobile had given him the opportunity to tap into family that he hadn’t previously known well. New relationships blossomed and flourished. 

I will forever be grateful to this man. He introduced me to so much. He showed me a lot, much of which was by his example. He was loquacious, but words were not always necessary for him to teach. In the summer of 2008 we took a trip to South Carolina. Coincidentally I was to go to Dubai in a few weeks and Dubai World had been trying to acquire some land in the area. A few weeks later, Aunt Lil and Uncle Lee drove me from Philly to JFK in Queens so that I could leave for Emirates. I thought about some of his own international adventures. He told me that he could never spend any money in Germany. He would go to the bar and his money would be refused. He had become admired and revered in Berlin by simply being himself. Hopefully I could gain some level of esteem on this trip by being authentic as well. My first trip with Pop Pop had been the longest trip in my life to that point. This trip, eight years later,  would now be the longest time I would be spending away from home. I was excited about the adventure, but also melancholy. By now he was in his eighties, and though his health was stable one knows not the hour or the day. I was intent on telling him that I loved him. I wasn’t sure if that would be the last time I’d see him or not. It wasn’t. That would be another 5 and half years later. As I strive to push myself to further heights, at times I feel out of my league. But then I remember, and reflect on another maxim he gave me: “You’re from good shit— ain’t no bum niggas here!”