Ed Grisamore

Gris: A living care package

When you meet Relinda Smith, she will let you know she is “The Relinda Smith.”

Not that there is another one. Or ever could be.

The world would be a better place if there was, though.

“There is nobody else like her, and she realizes that,” said her boss, Mitzy Campbell, executive director of Morningside of Macon, an assisted living facility. “Relinda is such a unique person, it’s difficult to know where to begin and how best to describe her.” Relinda has been a caregiver at Morningside since the doors opened in 1998. She is the only employee that has been there from the beginning, when the paint was still wet.

A few weeks ago in Atlanta, she was presented with the coveted “Hero Award,” for caregivers by the Georgia Senior Living Association. The award was heartfelt and well-deserved.

Relinda Smith -- pardon me, THE Relinda Smith -- is one of Macon’s great treasures. Anybody who has ever been at Morningside or had a family member there will never forget her because she truly is an unforgettable character.

“Every day, she does everything she can to make a difference in somebody’s life,” said Campbell, who nominated Relinda for the award. “She does the little things that mean so much.”

Relinda writes poetry for the residents on special occasions, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. She sings and dances for them in the dining room. She remembers and celebrates their birthdays.

She washes their backs, changes their beds and holds their hands as she prays with them. She visits them in the hospital. She has delivered eulogies at their funerals.

“She makes people feel special, and we all want to feel special,” Campbell said. “Relinda is one of those rare employees who is able to see the ‘big picture.’ She understands her job is more than assisting someone with a bath.”

Relinda remembers watching an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Andy said something that had a profound impact on her.

“He said when you deal with people, you have to deal with their hearts,” she said. “You can’t always go by the books.”

Smith is the most common last name in the U.S., but I admit I have never met someone with the first name Relinda.

She explained her mother’s name was Linda Bentley and, because she was a repeat of her mother, she was a Re-linda.

She turned 60 this year, and those who knew her when she was growing up in Unionville would hardly recognize her now. She was smart, but painfully shy and introspective. She was bullied at school. She was like a turtle that never sticks its neck out.

One of the reasons she didn’t say much was because her tongue always seemed to be running several laps ahead of her mouth. Her words would get in front of her, and she would rush her speech. It made her self-conscious when she spoke.

She credits two teachers -- Melvin Neal and Lillian Calhoun -- with helping her overcome her fears.

“They would ask me why I was so shy, and I would tell them how I got tongue-tied,” Relinda said. “I talked funny, and they would tell me to slow down and not to worry about it.”

Relinda laughed. Now folks can hardly get her to shut up.

“I’ve been talking ever since,” she said.

Once, she was shopping at the Baconsfield Kroger with her husband, Leamon Smith. When she stopped to chat with just about everybody in the store, he finally told her he was going to leave if she didn’t stop talking.

And he did.

“He rode around the block,” she said, laughing. “But he did come back to get me.”

After graduating from Southwest High School in 1972, she went to work as a spool winder at Bibb Mills. She later took classes to become a certified nurse assistant.

“I have always loved hanging around older people,” she said. “I love their wisdom and listening to them.”

She worked in home health care before applying for the job at Morningside when it opened its doors. She goes the “extra mile,” from welcoming new residents by ringing a bell and singing songs she has written to calling bingo games and handing out “funny money” to the winners.

Relinda also does “social histories” with each resident, sitting down to hear their life stories. She asks them where they worked and how they met their spouse.

She may have a reputation as a talker, but she has learned to listen. She gets to know them.

“I love to watch her light up their faces,” said Campbell. “She remembers all of their birthdays. She is almost savant-like in that respect.”

When a resident dies, Relinda still calls their family members every birthday as a way to honor their memory. Some families have asked her to speak at funerals.

“I just fall to pieces when we lose someone,” she said. “I remember when my mother died six years ago, many of them came to her funeral. They didn’t even know her, but they came to support me, and that touched my heart.”

Paula Knight first met Relinda in 1999, when her 90-year-old mother, Claudia “Nana” Pullen, of Soperton, went to live at Morningside.

“It was in the face and voice of Relinda Smith, caregiver extraordinaire, that we found the brightest light of friendship, compassion and caring,” Knight said. “Her smile seemed never to fade, her characteristic laughter which we came to know as uniquely her own -- day in, day out -- warmed us as it would continue to do on good days to come, but the darker ones as well.

“We were truly captivated by her beautiful spirit. Her shining light and her joy in life would bring our Nana through those last days of her journey. Relinda was by her side from our arrival at Morningside until the day of her passing (in April 2000). We feel there is no doubt that she was God-sent to us and so many others needing that special care.”

As many hugs as Relinda gives every day, she gets twice as many in return. Although she still talks several miles per hour over the speed limit, her words are often shout-outs of encouragement.

Some residents call her “Mama.” Others call her “Big Mama.”

“One man called me Louise,” she said. “He knew my name. He just liked the name Louise. Another called me Mary Lou. I answer to anything.”

Including “The Relinda Smith,” of course.

Said Campbell: “We all need a Relinda Smith in our lives.”

Contact Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.