20 years


“People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life
which bears no relation to true immortality
but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts
in the same way as when they were alive.
It is as though they were traveling abroad.”

Marcel Proust, 1871-1922
French novelist, suffered from asthma



Roberta (Aunt Toby) Smith SwineyMay 16, 1942-Oct 21, 1993

20 years ago today my world changed completely. I was a senior in college and for the first time I learned what death and real pain and loss and confusion were about. I lost a woman who was my best friend — an aunt whom I had adored since birth and whom I spent every weekend with when I was in college.

I had always loved and admired her tenderness, her compassion, her acceptance of the realities of life, her ability to laugh at herself and life in general, her quirky ways and love of life even when it beat her down, her recognition of beauty even in the mundane and insignificant, her intelligence, her eagerness to try new things and enjoy exploring and experiencing life and our mountains, her beautiful writings, her faithful loyalty to her family, her sisters, and her lifelong group of girlfriends, and a faith that lived simply and loved deeply. I always wanted to be like her and still do. I hope I am.

My mom (her sister) asked me the day of her funeral, “Would you give up all your memories with Aunt Toby just so you wouldn’t have to experience this pain?” Of course not. As hard as it still is, she was so worth it. And 20 years later I still walk in her footsteps and try to be like her. She’s the reason I am who I am. She’s the very essence of “beauty and wisdom from Appalachia” and the reason I’ve found my home is Tennessee. She’s the reason I’ve given my hand and heart to Milligan College (she was an alum). She’s the reason my heart aches for those less fortunate. She and my parents are the reason that today I’m a foster mother. She’s the reason I’m a lifelong learner, always striving to understand more. She’s the reason I laugh and smile and giggle — at myself, at friends, at life.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years without her. I don’t want to forget her and the lessons she taught me and I don’t want her grandchildren to not know her and all they can learn from who she was. In the days after her death (from an asthma attack at age 51), I kept a half sheet of paper with me everywhere I went and jotted down random memories of her. Each one has a story that continues to make me smile.

AUNT TOBY (Roberta Lynn Smith)
May 16, 1942 – October 21, 1993

swing * walking at Rooster Front Park after dark with Sam scaring us *
Shepherd’s Pie * cooking * chocolate chip cookies and Krispy Kreme donuts
’til we were sick * laundry, laundry, laundry * “To the only star we know” *
Pardee Hall * bleaching clothes * puppies biting our ankles *
guinea pigs * Henry (the guinea pig) peeing on me * possum poop in my hair *
her sense of direction (or lack their of) * emergency room visit *
Biltmore House * Garfield comics about dieting *
“My car! My car! Someone touched my car!” * Food Lion visits 3-4 times a weekend *
trying to use a rolled up sleeping bag as a pillow *
Mack falling off his chair at the dinner table *
“hick-a-choo fart” * “Let’s drive by my house!” * Appalachian Caverns *
Patrick Bratrick * TCBY’s & Big Lots * Stormy and his favorite past-time *
sled-riding down the driveway * trips back and forth between Milligan and Bristol *
the Knobs * Madrigal Dinners * Shamrocks * Steele Creek Park swinging bridge *
Autumn Chase Festival moonshiners * her old curlers * burning biscuits *
hearing stories over and over and still laughing every time * caring * Smith blood *
turning around and going back after the girl in my green jacket *
Gretta * midweek phone calls * her driving technique at the wheel *
“a jinx on the Jeep” * “who needs a bulldozer when you’ve got Mom in a Buick?” *
my childhood memories in Ohio, Tennessee, and Alabama
* strawberries * clarinet * worrying about James
* poems * boxes of memories * Slim-fast and a candy bar for breakfast *
doing Sam’s homework * infuriation with Ted Kennedy and politics in general *
unbuttoning top pant’s button in order to eat more * weak bladder *
taking sandwiches to the homeless guy at the park *
listening to my college stories * swinging on the tire at Aunt Pat’s *
riding/walking on the Creeper Trail * Abingdon library * White’s Mill *
animals * lack of coordination * the peacock *
joking about winning the lottery but never buying tickets *
“Let’s see—where did I put that?” * hated spiders but wouldn’t dare kill one *
watching stars and eating cookies on the hood of the car *
walks * laughing * giggling * loving


Aunt Toby

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