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Holiday Gift and Event Guide — The Altamont Enterprise, November 26, 2009

Octogenarian has a purple passion for prose and her Hilltown home

By Saranac Hale Spencer

HILLTOWNS — Gene Smith is better known as the color that defines her than by her given name.

For 30 years, she wrote a weekly column tracking the comings and goings of neighbors in Notes from Lilac.

“I’m a purple person,” she said, surrounded by shades of lavender.  Growing up, her mother never dressed her in purple because, Smith remembered being told, it wasn’t right for her coloring.  For the last 40 years, though, she’s worn little else.

“I don’t dare wear anything else but purple,” she said, explaining that friends will scold her otherwise.

Smith, 86, grew up on a Rensselaerville farm with two sisters and a brother and went to a one-room schoolhouse until it was absorbed into the Greenville central school district in 1951.

A big stove in the middle of the room kept students warm during the winter, Smith said, but on frigid days there would be no school at all.

Christmas time brought a tree to the schoolhouse that the students decorated with paper chains and popcorn, Smith said.

“We also had a play we were all in,” she said of the seven students, who performed for their parents.

Each year as a child, Smith would ride a horse-drawn sleigh into the woods with her father to pick their family’s Christmas tree.  The pair would then bring it back to the house and trim off objectionable branches before standing it in the old farmhouse.

Her mother bought ornaments, Smith said, and made pumpkin pie and applesauce cake.

One year, she asked for a white leather Bible, Smith said, unsure of why exactly other than that it was different from the traditionally black books.  “It probably cost her $10 or $15,” Smith said of the expense to her mother, but she got it.

When Smith herself was a mother, for her own daughter’s Christmas wishes, “Whatever she wanted, I’d think I’d have to get her.”

Smith raised her family in a cheerfully green house, a picture of which hangs next to her bed at the Dutch Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre in Rotterdam, where she has been for about a year and a half.

She misses the Hilltowns, where she has always lived, but says of moving to the facility, “It’s something different; you’ve got to realize life goes on.”

Smith spends many of her days now pursuing a life-long interest.  She colors in murals and keeps some hung on her walls, but gives most of them away.  Handmade gifts, most of them lavender, hang on her walls, and mementos of life in Medusa are all around.

A scrapbook of her Notes from Lilac columns is at the foot of her bed and she laughs when she says she used to think, “When I’m old and gray, like I am now, I’ll sit in my rocking chair and read.”  Sometimes she does, and she remembers that what she liked about writing the column was, “I like to tell people what I think they ought to know.”

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