This true story took place a few years ago.
The phone rang early, and it was a number I didn’t recognize. I answer, and a profoundly Southern voice asked, “Is this Barry Smith?”
“Did you go to Greenville Christian School in 1980?”
Strange question. But yes, I did. In 1980 I was an eighth-grader at Greenville Christian School in Greenville, Mississippi. It’s where I was born, and I lived there until that very year, when my mother was killed in a car wreck. I finished up the eighth grade, and that summer my brother and I moved to California to live with our father. Oddly, I was just looking through that yearbook the night before, scanning in some of the pictures to use for one of my multimedia comedy shows. I was working on a tale of the hilarious (in retrospect) trauma of moving from the deepest of the Deep South to Southern California at age 14. So I’d gone to bed the night before thinking about that period of my life — Mississippi, my carefree, rural Southern childhood, my mother, the heartache of losing her — only to wake up to a phone call that was equal parts random and timely.
“Well, you don’t know me,” the guy continued, “but I have a poem of yours that you wrote to your mother.”
I sat down.
The stranger and I talked, and the astounding details started to emerge.
His name is Jeff, and he was two grades ahead of me at Greenville Christian, a tiny K-12 with only 200 students in total.
“If you have your annual, you can look me up,” he suggested.
Oh, you mean the yearbook that I have sitting on the desk in front of me? Of course. Because every 40-year-old man has quick access to his junior high yearbook, right?
I flipped to the page while we talked. There he was. Jeff. No recollection of the guy, yet I could identify nearly everyone else on the page, even all those years later. He told me that he didn’t remember ever meeting me or seeing me in school, either.
Yet he was calling me to tell me that he had a poem that I wrote for my then-recently passed mother 26 years ago.
Somehow, Jeff continued, this original, pencil-written poem of mine found its way into a box of Jeff’s keepsakes that his mother maintains. “Are you sure you didn’t write this?” she’d ask him every few years. “Maybe for some English assignment or something?”
He’d remind her that he had never written a poem in his life and point out (once again) that it was signed by some guy called “Barry Smith.” Each time this happened, rather than just throwing it away, she’d put it back in Jeff’s keepsake box. Then she’d do it all over again a few years later.
This happened for years. For 26 years, in fact. But just a few days earlier, Jeff had driven back to Greenville to visit his mother for a few days. During the trip, his mother once again dug out the poem she’d never been able to let go of, a poem obviously written to a child’s dead mother, a child neither she nor Jeff knew.
Well, on this day Jeff decided to finally — finally — get to the bottom of this mystery. He looked up Barry Smith — my name, scrawled at the bottom of the poem — in the Greenville phone book. Nope. This Barry Smith was long gone.
Next clue: The poem was written in the form of a letter. I had even addressed it to my mother, care of “Heavean” (sic). For some reason I used her maiden name, Roden, even though she had married twice and hadn’t been a Roden since before I was born. Jeff looked for “Rodens” in the phone book and found only one. Billy Glen Roden. My mother’s cousin. Within the past year I’d re-established contact with Billy Glen, so he had my updated contact info. Jeff called him up and told his tale of the mystery poem to Billy Glenn’s wife, and she gave him my number. The next day, Jeff called me.
Listening to Jeff, I could tell that the phone book was as far as he was going to go with the investigation. Neither Jeff nor his mother was a big computer user. Googling “Barry Smith” was not going to be his next step. Throwing away the poem once and for all was going to be his next step. It was only by the strange choice of writing down my mother’s name incorrectly and signing my name (always sign your work!) that had us speaking on the phone.
So how did Jeff end up with this poem? I had several more calls with him as well as with his mother, and we were never able to figure it out. We had no friends or family in common. Our paths had, as far as we could tell, never crossed. It remains a total and complete mystery. They mailed the poem to me, and the handwriting on the yellowed paper was unmistakably mine.
In the midst of this astounding swirl of synchronous events a quarter century in the making, I still had one final question for Jeff. The day his mother dug that poem out for what would be the very last time —what day was that?
“The day I arrived in town,” he told me. “Friday.”
That would be Friday, Jan. 28.
My mother’s birthday.
Barry Smith’s column appears Mondays.
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