Writer finds he's descended from long line of `exhorters'

August 26, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

Settling into my office one morning, scanning the e-mail, I found a message from one Colin Smith. Got my attention. My father's name was Colin. Mine is too, though to avoid confusion no one in the family had ever called me Colin.

Of course, there are enough Smiths in the world that a few of them were probably Colins. But who was this one?

My cousin, as it turns out. My Uncle Elmore named him after my father. I hadn't known.

We'd been separated for so long that family connections, usually the strongest, had been frayed and torn loose. The questions - whatever happened to my aunts, Ruth and Caroline and Emily, and my uncle Elmore? - had gone unasked for years. One of my twins was named Emily in honor of our lost aunt, but beyond that expression of kinship there had been no contact for almost a half-century.

But then, thanks to the Internet and cousin Colin's curiosity, one half of the family was finding the other half.

Nobody knows exactly why we lost track of each other so completely. There were stories of estrangement involving my grandmother - my father's mother - and my mother. Mostly, though, I think it was simply distance. Smiths on my father's side of the family lived in Oklahoma and Georgia. My mother and sister and I lived in North Carolina - and this was before the age of easy airplane commuting across the country.

Also, because contact was severed so sharply and completely, I never realized that Elmore was 13 years younger than his older brother, my father. If my father were alive today he'd be 100. I assumed Uncle Elmore would have been only a few years younger and that he, too, was dead.

Not at all.

His son, Colin, reported that his dad was alive and well and living in Tucson. We had a few brief telephone conversations and then, this summer, my oldest daughter, Jennifer, and I flew out to Tucson to see Elmore and his wife, Helen.

We spent two days staring at each other, looking for resemblances. We told stories - sagas of star-crossed family members, careers, health crises and temperaments: One aunt had been a talented dancer. My grandfather, Rembert, was a man of firm opinions. My father, much older than Elmore, loved being a big brother.

We sat at the kitchen table reading old letters aloud and naming the people in old photographs. As we did this, I realized, somewhat guiltily, that I had gotten used to the fact that Elmore had essentially disappeared. Such is life. But my children had made no such accommodation. They kept asking about the Smiths, as if something had conspired to deny them half their family history. They had so many cousins and aunts and uncles on the other side of the family. What had happened to them?

After we got back to Maryland, copies of the letters and photographs and documents we'd seen in Arizona arrived in a large envelope. These papers were filled with dates and family names to be scanned more carefully. There were tracings of my grandmother's family, the Frasers, reaching back to the American Revolution and to England and Scotland. There's a photo, developed from a daguerreotype, of Hugh Alexander Fraser, who came to the United States from Scotland and became a landowner of some standing in Marietta, Ga.

There was also a picture of my grandmother's father, Colin McKenzie Fraser, photographed, according to Elmore's careful record-keeping, by Dill & Maier, Whitworth Street over Holbrook's Hat Store in Atlanta.

There was an "In Memoriam" program printed for the funeral of my grandmother, Ruth Fraser Smith, who died in 1948. Also a picture of her in an elaborate, flowing dress and a lush, flowery white hat perched lightly on a bundle of dark brown hair. My grandfather, Rembert, had been a teacher at Emory University before becoming an itinerant Methodist minister, accepting calls to one church after another and never staying more than a year or two.

After his last posting, he became a newspaper columnist in Houston. There was a letter from the Methodist bishop of Dallas thanking him for his pamphlet, "Communism versus Civilization," and sending $25 to help with distribution.

My grandfather worried about the Communist Party and thought it had too much support in the church. He wrote several books on the subject, sounding the alarm. One was called "Moscow Over Methodism"; another, "Is This the Hour?" Workers of the world, he said, had a point. They were exploited. But the pamphlet warned, "Should communism triumph, it will slaughter civilization and bury it deep in an unmarked grave. ... If it gains and uses the power it covets, there will be an era far worse than the Dark Ages in Europe."

Elmore's research uncovered a letter describing the life of Isaac Smith, one of Rembert's forebears, to a grandson of Isaac's. Isaac Smith was a so-called "exhorter" in the Methodist church who lived in the 1800s.

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