Friday, I was at the Super Storm Sandy anniversary action in the financial district.
And I got a phone call.
Ben, get home asap. Something has happened, Caroline told me.
We were going to go up to Garrison later that afternoon. But we needed to rush. Penelope was on her way to intensive care.
Penel was in trouble.
Uptown we drove to pick up Wyatt on 10th and Scarlett at school.
Just the night before, she’d been chatting with Caroline about her lovely room with a view in the local hospital. She seemed at peace with the prospect of a couple of days to rest. She loved her view. She called Al toward the end of Packers Cardinals game. What a game, she gushed to her husband of a half century. Hearing Al tell me the story, I remembered their calls when the Giants beat the Patriots over a decade ago, the exuberance in her voice.
Penelope was in trouble.
I thought of Penelope, who I had met 21 years prior, on her birthday. It's delicious, she said drinking Montrachet wine.
That was a long time ago, a zillion pool moments and meals to follow over the next two decades, thanksgiving most every year, a meeting in Switzerland, a BBQ party.
Two weeks prior, we’d hung out in Garrison, greeting each other for early morning coffee, looking out at the beginning of the day, six AM, at the birds and trees in the backyard, comparing notes.
She doesn't have any platelets, they said at the hospital. Her blood isn’t clotting.
She was in trouble.
She’s the one who takes care of these things, always has, since she came here on the Queen Elizabeth with her family after the war, taking care of her kids, of Caroline, when Al was on tour, coming to help us move into Long Beach in 2006, taking care of Judy, as she became sicker, cooking us meals, welcoming us with cheer, a hug, a smile, a glass of champagne on a crazy winter day, her Christmas lights shining against the white snow.
She’s not coming back, they told us.
I looked at her in the hospital, the machines keeping her breathing, the American way.
Al and their 50 years together, coming to a drastic end. He's beside me, watching. No one knows when the last meeting is the last.
This was not what anyone saw coming.
But everyone goes.
I think of Penelope building a community at the knitting store, stitching together fabric and lives, the person who joked and welcomed and greeted the birds, who gardened and nested in with Al, the person who created a hearth, the person who told us to love courageously at our wedding, the person who smiled, who liked my posts on Instagram, the person who loved grandkids and angels, who stitched hats, and cooked and crafted, made wedding dresses, the person who took care of the kids when Al was away, or we were, the person who made burgers for us at the pool, the person who called to say happy birthday, happy father’s day, happy anniversary.
“You are the most beautiful woman at this wedding,” Rob told her, seeming to hit on her at our wedding two decades ago.
My mind flashes back in the awe of that moment of meeting her and the family, after meeting Caroline, the first Seder Dinner, in Garrison. Weddings followed, then kids, then funerals, the seasons of our lives, meeting, celebrating and grieving when they shuffled off, always there for Steven and Judy and Tom. Caroline took a photo at that Seder Dinner in 2000, of Al, his sister, their families and kids. Less and less of those of us from that photo remain.
I look back at Penelope, breathing slowly.
Penelope, dream on, between this light and that! I think of you and the shimmers of light on the Hudson, a giggle in time, listening to old Elton John records, a sex joke and a chuckle, a caviar pie on Thanksgiving, a smile when my bike buddies invaded the pool, enjoying a glass of bubbly with my mom, a burger with the kids, stitching a community together, an early coffee moment in the morning greeting a Robin Red Breast, saying hello to the trees in the forest, going back to the garden,
All the kids are here now. We go out for a bite, some Italian food and red wine, tears. She wasn’t supposed to go first.
All weekend we bear witness and grieve.
The little one plays in the trees.
At Judson on Halloween, Andy acknowledges Scarli, wishing her well after the death in the family.
One of the kids plays "I will Survive", jamming on the Ukulele.
I think of Penelope who loved stories, Penelope who held her bible looking at the Hudson River, the water flowing, Penelope who knew the good news. We were all part of the kingdom, everyone was invited.
I think of Penelope who empathized when it was hard and joked whenever she could, taking the piss out of us all.
The modern testimony is “Praise What Comes” a poem by Jeanne Lohmann, from the Light of Invisible Bodies:
“Surprising as unplanned kisses,
all of you haven’t deserved
Of days and solitude,
Your body's immoderate good health
that lets you work in many kinds of weather,
Talk with just about anyone
And quiet intervals….
Finish my task in the world?
Learn at least one of the many names of God?
At the intersections,
the boundaries where one life began and another,
ended, the jumping off places between fear and
possibility, at the ragged edges of the pain,
Did I catch the smallest glimpse
of the Holy?”
I think she did.
RIP Penel, I think, walking out of Judson, where Al and Penel visited us, when the teenager was performing in one of the Sunday school plays two years prior. RIP I think, taking in Halloween,
walking through the East Village, past the garden, to the rally for East River Park, where Peter and I talk about her, remembering Penel laughing, through a holy Sunday, the kids cavorting in Cobble Hill Park, on the train to Washington, back to Princeton, on and on and on, thinking of Penel, on the other side, but somehow here with all of us, between this garden and that, all of us, dancing, “surprised as unplanned kisses…”
January 18, 1945 ~ October 31, 2021 (age 76)
Penelope Marie Smith, née Wood of Garrison, NY peacefully passed away on October 31, 2021.
Born on January 18, 1945 in London, England, Penelope came to the States at age 2 with her family aboard the Queen Elizabeth. She was raised in Ocean Grove, NJ by Dennis and Norma “Peaches” Wood (nee Westervelt). She attended Neptune High School and continued her studies at Newark School of the Arts, Kutztown State College and Parsons School of Fashion. Penelope spent her 20’s in the Lower East Side of NYC as an aspiring designer and illustrator.
She married Allen Jay Smith in 1971. They moved to Brooklyn and Tarrytown before eventually settling in Garrison in 1976, where they raised their children, Jocelyn, Wyatt and Caroline.
Self taught, Penelope was a skilled dressmaker specializing in heirloom bridal gowns. She was an active and passionate member of the Philipstown Garden Club. She is affectionately remembered as a lunch yard monitor at Garrison Union Free School in the ‘80’s, tireless hostess of legendary Fourth of July parties and proprietor of Knittingsmith in Cold Spring. Penelope embraced an unshakeable and joyful love of God.
She is survived by her husband Allen, children Wyatt, Jocelyn and Caroline and grandchildren Wiley, Maveric, Dodi and Scarlett. She was deeply loved, and will be dearly missed by her brothers and many adoring nieces, nephews,
cousins and friends.
Friends may call on Saturday November 6, 2021 from 1-4pm at Clinton Funeral Home, 21 Parrott Street, Cold Spring.
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Penelope Marie (Wood) Smith, please visit our floral store.
Caroline sent me a few lines about Penel:
"When Penelope Marie Wood decided that Allen Jay Smith was to be—as she understood it—the man she was destined for, he came with two things: a bag of dirty laundry and a two-year old baby from a previous relationship. That baby was me. It’s not easy to choose to be a stepmother in one’s early 20’s. She certainly had no idea what she was getting into. To say the least. And though our relationship went through many twists and turns over the years we always arrived back at a place of mutual love and, for my part, admiration.
Now I am certain everyone can celebrate how vivacious she was; her grace, her generosity and her care because she was all those things and shared those parts of herself so easily with those she loved, and some just liked. Or maybe you might choose to remember her for her yearly cartwheel, her perfect size 8 feet, or her miraculous hair that went from a mousy brown pixie cut due to not reading the instructions on the dye package properly, to a flaming red explosion of curls, and finally pin-straight and snow white. Or maybe you know her for the way she’d greet you with a soft hug and her beautiful smile that proudly exposed her vampire fangs. But right now I want most to honor how much of an inspiration she was for me.
Whenever I arrived at their home in Brooklyn, Tarrytown and finally Garrison I entered her aesthetic world. From the abundant gardens to the couch pillows covered in braided tassels to the knitted sweaters and elaborate lace wedding gowns, her creative fingerprint was everywhere. I remember still the hand-painted mural in our Tarrytown kitchen. Elaborate butterflies fluttered across a cerulean blue wall airbrushed with fluffy white clouds. It was unique and special and I knew that despite what my teachers claimed, it was ok to draw on the walls because she did! In fact, the message I took whether she meant me to or not was to believe my creative voice was the only rule to follow. That I could make anything I dreamed up. Does anyone remember her Christmas angles? I’d carefully examine all the details of each unique angel’s wings or the folds of material transformed into dresses or yarn spun hair, trying to decode her magic touch. They were astounding, and I was lucky enough to find a picture since she gave them all away.
But there is more. Dinner was never a simple bowl of mac and cheese. She always made something complicated and educational. She’d insist we eat food composed of bizarre things like mustard seeds, and curried eggplant and mama’s buttered eggs. (Those were good!) There were the delicious, decadent meals that rivaled any restaurant, and the NOT so delicious but always worldly, such as her staple ratatouille. Even when she decided we would eat nothing but pasta for years on end, she got her recipes from the best Italian cookbooks she could find. As a kid, I was a fan of Julia Childs because she was but I knew even then Penelope’s meals were just as good. There was nothing she wouldn’t eat--sweet breads, or fish lips she understood that making food is making art… and most importantly, that feeding your family is an act of love.
I could go on and on about her accomplished sewing and gardening and painting and singing and the AMAZING outfits she made for our school plays, graduations and weddings. In the 11thgrade, I proudly danced on stage in front of the entire school dressed as a giant pear, because my Styrofoam costume was that good! She put every bit of herself in everything she produced. She gave so much to us, and in turn I want to say: thank you, Penelope for the small things like combing every bit of silly putty out of my long hair instead of chopping it all off in first grade, and the big things, like sharing your wonderful parents who unquestionably loved me, and finally for your unquestionable love for Ben and our girls.
Thank you Nunu, for sharing your life with me. Im quite sure you rest in peace.