Edith Renfrow Smith, who will celebrate her 110th birthday on July 14, is the first Black woman to graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa. She's planning to return to her alma mater later this year for the dedication of a dormitory named in her honor.

Edith Renfrow Smith, who will celebrate her 110th birthday on July 14, is the first Black woman to graduate from Grinnell College in Iowa. She’s planning to return to her alma mater later this year for the dedication of a dormitory named in her honor.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

'Enjoy just being here' — At almost 110, she's still baking pie, with a little help

Edith Renfrow Smith, Grinnell College class of ’37, is a rare “supercentenarian.” In the fall her alma mater is naming a new dorm after her.

Edith Renfrow Smith is baking a sour cherry pie.

“I just love sour cherry,” she confides. “My father planted a sour cherry tree in the yard. He was a cook ... all the fruit; he had peaches, he had plums, he had gooseberries, currants and grapes. Everything that momma could can, because we were poor.”

That yard was in Grinnell, Iowa, where Smith was born on July 14, 1914, two weeks before the start of World War I. Regular readers might remember meeting her in 2021 for her 107th birthday and learning her down-to-earth world view, “Nobody’s better than you.” I figured, if 107 was noteworthy, how could 108 not be? Or 109, for that matter? The year she got COVID-19 and weathered the deadly disease so easily she didn’t even mention that she’d had it.

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For her 110th, this Sunday, I wondered how to shake things up. Such “supercentenarians” are an extreme rarity. Researchers estimate one person in a thousand who reaches age 100 will live to see 110, which makes Smith one woman out of a million, maybe out of 5 million.

I asked her daughter, Alice Smith, 78, if her mother still makes homemade jelly and wine.

She does, Alice said, inviting me to come by and watch production of a cherry pie last Friday, an offer I suspect she had reason to regret.

Edith Renfrow Smith, who will celebrate her 110th birthday on July 14, bakes a cherry pie at her North Side home last week, Friday, July 5, 2024. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Edith Renfrow Smith, who turns 110 on July 14, bakes a sour cherry pie at her North Side home last week.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“It takes 45 minutes to pit a quart of cherries,” says Alice, arriving at her mother’s apartment with a bag from a farmer’s market. “I won’t be doing that ever again.”

Alice is late, and perhaps not in the best mood, having had to fight NASCAR traffic from the South Side. “I’m only bringing this stuff,” she says. “I’m not making the cherry pie. That’s not something I want to make.”

But as daughters know, what you want to do, and what you end up doing, are two different things when your mother enters the equation. Alice is pressed unwillingly into the role of de facto pastry sous chef.

“Open the cookbook right there and check,” Edith says, gesturing to a 1960s-era Better Homes & Gardens ring binder cookbook on the floor.

“Mother, I don’t need to open the cookbook,” snaps Alice. “I understand how to bake.”

Not easy as pie

The cookbook surprises me — I had anticipated cherished family baking traditions dating back to the 19th century, which is why it’s always good to check your imagined notions against the yardstick of reality. Edith sets me right.

“Momma didn’t make pies,” she explains. “She didn’t give us dessert. She said children should have apples and peaches. ‘No garbage.’ She called cookies and doughnuts and what have you ‘garbage’ because they were not good for you. She didn’t give us cookies. She didn’t bake pie. She made bread, three times a week, and she only used graham flour.”

A pie needs sugar, and Edith directs her daughter to fetch it.

“The sugar’s right there on the counter,” she says. “Turn the light on.”

“Mother, I don’t need the light on,” replies Alice. “I’m not blind!”

Edith Renfrow Smith, who will celebrate her 110th birthday on July 14, asks her daughter, Alice, to hand her a spoon as she bakes a cherry pie at her North Side home, Friday, July 5, 2024.

Edith Renfrow Smith (left), gets a spoon from her daughter, Alice, as they make a pie in Smith’s North Side home last week. She turns 110 on July 14.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Edith flips the switch anyway.

“Mother, turn the light off,” says Alice. “I don’t need the light. I can see perfectly fine without it.”

“Excuse me,” says Edith, with formality.

“I found the sugar. I knew where the sugar was,” Alice says, then, as an aside to me: “This is why we don’t cook together. Or live together.”

I decided to share the sometimes messy process of pie-making, not to embarrass anybody, or because it is in any way unusual, but because it is so ordinary. The relationship between mothers and daughters is often fraught, and if there are daughters in their 20s reading this, thinking about their own mothers in their 50s, wondering if it will be any different half a century hence, the honest answer is: probably not.

“Mother, mother, mother!” exclaims Alice. “I will mix it ... never mind, I’ll let you dirty up all you want, because I’m not cleaning up.”

Edith stands at a small table, assembling the pie. For maybe 20 minutes. Alice stands in the kitchenette of her one-room apartment. Communication is called back and forth, at a distance.

“It’s better that I walk away, ‘cause I have a bad habit of doing it myself,” says Alice.

“How much sugar?” asks Edith.

“One and a half cups,” calls Alice. “And you need three cups of cherries. That’s barely two cups. So you need one more cup of cherries.”

Edith Renfrow Smith, who will celebrate her 110th birthday on July 14, bakes a cherry pie at her North Side home, Friday, July 5, 2024.

Edith Renfrow Smith adds sugar to the sour cherry pie she and her daughter Alice were making last week.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Flour is requested.

“Why are you putting flour in there? You’re already using corn starch?” asks Alice.

“May I have the flour, please?” asks Edith, coolly.

“I’m handing it to you, mother,” Alice says.

‘That’s just how we are’

One of the preconceptions I had was that the pie would be made for others — and the guard at the front desk did say that Mrs. Smith is known to regularly show up with a slice for whomever is on duty. But Edith is making this pie for herself. Why? Aren’t bakery pies adequate?

“‘They don’t make ‘em like I like,” she says.

Alice certainly isn’t touching it.

“It’s her pie,” she says. “I don’t eat that stuff.”

“I need half a cup of sugar,” says Edith, abruptly.

Why?” asks Alice. “I’m asking ‘Why’? You don’t need it.”

“Because they’re sour cherries,” says her mother.

“They’re not that sour,” says Alice.

Edith Renfrow Smith, who will celebrate her 110th birthday on July 14, bakes a cherry pie at her North Side home, Friday, July 5, 2024.

Edith Renfrow Smith pats some cream on top of the sour cherry pie before it goes in the oven. Her daughter suggested brushing it with egg whites, but she prefers using cream to help brown the top crust.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

As the process winds up, credit is given.

“She does a much better job than anybody I know on crimping, making it look pretty,” says Alice. “That looks nice, mom.”

But that doesn’t last long. Cream is requested.

“I will get the cream for you,” says Alice. “I will take the brush and brush cream across the top.”

“No, you will give it to me,” says Edith.

“Why, don’t you trust me?”

“No,” replies Edith, who previously pressed down on each cherry with a spoon, to make sure her daughter hadn’t missed a pit. She shrugs off Alice’s suggestion of a pastry brush and egg white and massages the cream onto the top of the crust with her fingertips. “This will make it a pretty golden brown,” she says.

Alice leaves. A few days later, not wanting to cause anybody any unease by sharing the sticky pie-making process, I phone her to sound her out. She doesn’t mind.

“That’s just how we are,” Alice says. “We still love each other.”

‘Don’t let life pass you by’

Her mother’s 109th year, by the way, was unexceptional — except maybe for the publication of a children’s book about her life, “No One Is Better Than You” by Monique McLay Shore, with illustrations by Erica Lauren Butler.

“I feel great,” Edith says. “Very good. Not sick one day. I’m very, very fortunate.”

She does need a caregiver when she goes out, which she plans to do to mark her 110th birthday.

“My daughter and I are going to tea,” she adds, with the regal lilt such a sentence demands. “I haven’t been to tea for a good while. The last time we went to tea was at the Peninsula. It’s a very lovely place. It’s very nice to have such nice places to go.”

Edith Renfrow Smith, who will celebrate her 110th birthday on July 14, is the first Black woman graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa. She's planning to return to her alma mater later this year for the dedication of a dormitory named in her honor.

Edith Renfrow Smith, who will celebrate her 110th birthday on July 14, is the first Black woman graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa. She’s planning to return to her alma mater later this year for the dedication of a dormitory named in her honor.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In September, Edith Renfrow Smith, class of ’37 and the first Black woman to graduate from Grinnell College, plans to return to her alma mater for the dedication of the building named in her honor, Renfrow Hall, a dormitory/community center. There is already a gallery named after her.

When I say goodbye to Edith, I tell her that I am looking forward to visiting her for her 111th and linger a moment, grasping her hand in mine, reflecting that here is a woman whose grandparents were born in slavery, and at one point in her life, over a century ago, she no doubt caressed them with this hand. That’s how close these things are to us in history. One person away.

I ask for any parting thoughts.

“The Lord gives you the birthdays, and you take ‘em,” says Edith. “You have no choice. Take what you have, make use of it, and be thankful for what you have. Don’t let life pass you by. Remember, this is your life. It’s wonderful to live long enough to enjoy just being here.”

Edith Renfrow Smith, who will celebrate her 110th birthday on July 14, bakes a cherry pie at her North Side home, Friday, July 5, 2024. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Edith Renfrow Smith, who will celebrate her 110th birthday on July 14, bakes a sour cherry pie at her North Side home.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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