Couple’s work keeps them, grandchildren busy

Published 12:30 am Sunday, July 11, 2010

CLAIBORNE COUNTY — In the years when Frank and Rita Smith were raising their sons, they used the family pool to teach them to swim.

Now, where that pool used to be, the Smiths are raising tomatoes and banana melons and teaching their grandchildren that potatoes don’t grow on trees.

“After 14 or 15 years we got burned out and decided to backfill it,” Frank Smith said of the pool. “It took 35 truckloads of dirt to fill it.”

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

That Frank is able to garden at the site is evidence of the same kind of dogged determination it took to keep bringing those trucks out to the family’s 4 1/2 acres near the Crossroads at Fisher Ferry and Old Port Gibson roads, nearly 20 miles south of Vicksburg.

“If it had not been for God, Dr. Ruth Fredericks and Dr. Mike McMullen, he would be in the ground,” Rita said.

Fredericks, a neurologist, and McMullen, a cardiologist, treated Frank Smith over the past few years, helping him deal with serious health issues.

Frank has worked hard on his own behalf, too, and the couple also credit some uncompromising physical therapists at Methodist Rehabilitation Center.

Rita says the garden has been Frank’s salvation. Already this year he’s harvested 100 pounds of Irish potatoes and nearly 200 tomatoes, and has about 50 banana melons ripening, which he hopes will be ready for eating in about two weeks.

For a few years after the pool was filled in, rose bushes and day lilies dominated that garden. Frank, 70, had 48 rose bushes, most blooming in the old pool but others scattered around the property among crepe myrtles and containers of zinnias, vinca, petunias and other blossoms. Their care took up a lot of his time.

One day about four years ago, without warning, Frank Smith collapsed as he was entering the house. “I was walking one minute and hit the floor the next, like a wet dishrag,” he said.

He was conscious but unable to move. Rita called their sons, Robert and Patrick, who live nearby, to help get Frank into the house. Initial fright gave way to the necessity for treatment, and Frank was eventually diagnosed with CIDP — Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy — a disease of the autoimmune system that deprives its victims of muscle strength.

CIDP affects about two in 100,000 people, and is related to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, Frank said.

As he recovered, Frank was in and out of hospitals for more than two months, and spent about a year in a wheelchair. The couple had ramps built at the front of their home and to a back room off the kitchen, where, behind a locked door, Frank would park his chair and work at pulling himself to standing, self-rehabbing and little-by-little rebuilding the strength in his legs.

After he got back on his feet, Frank suffered three heart attacks in 11 days.

Through the CIDP and heart trouble, Rita, 65, has taken care of Frank. She’s made all the right menu changes, eliminating red meat, animal fats, salt and most of the sugar in their diets. Frank walks and exercises daily.

Weekdays during the summer, they take care of their five grandchildren. Most of the rose bushes are gone, replaced by produce the children help harvest — and consume.

The kids now know that potatoes don’t grow on trees like plums, Frank said, and his bumper crop of tomatoes has come from just four plants — two Better Boys and two Celebrities — growing out of two bales of hay — a tip passed along by their friend, retired veterinarian and Wilkinson County farmer and woodcarver Dunbar McCurley.

“He told me what to do to put the tomatoes in the hay and I took it from there,” Frank said. The hay receives 14 days of prepping with water and fertilizer, and on the 15th day the tomatoes are planted. They then get watered once or twice a day and sprayed with Miracle Gro every Monday.

Frank also is tending all those banana melons that have sent vines all over the pool garden, almost crowding out the day lilies and having to be trained from overgrowing the nearby tomatoes. The melons are a sentimental fruit for him, his father having grown them when Frank was a boy.

Frank ordered the seeds from a nursery in Maine, and said they come from melon stock that dates to the early 1800s.

“I just like the looks of the vine,” he said, standing back to survey the leafy trails spreading in all directions, dozens of bees hovering over their small yellow flowers. “I told my wife, that’s a pretty flower.”

But the “C” in CIDP stands for “chronic,” Frank said, and doctors have told him the loss of muscle strength can come back at any time. He carries a cell phone with him on his daily walks and always has a walking stick in hand.

Both Frank, a retired construction pipefitter, and Rita, who’s always baking something for the grandkids, stress the importance of laughter, keeping busy and finding the positive in life. Besides the old pool, the couple has taken containers ranging from iron pots and old bathtubs to worn-out workboots and filled them with flowers.

“When I’m out working in my garden I never think about it,” he said of his illness. “Oh, it might cross my mind, but I don’t dwell on it.”