The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith: Turning the corner ...


My sister Clemie Jo passed away last week. She fought cancer for eight months.

Clemie Jo was 11 years older than I. Growing up, she was my protector from my brother, Steve. Her motivation, I believe, was guilt. Mama used to say as mean as Steve was to me, it was nothing compared to how mean Clemie Jo was to Steve.

There was the time she ran over Steve with the goat and the cart. My father had bought a small cart and a one-horned billy-goat. Clemie Jo and Steve were riding around in the little cart when Steve fell out. If Clemie Jo was telling the story, she turned back around to get Steve and accidentally ran over him. If Steve was telling the story, she ran over him, pulled the reins hard to the left and made a circle so she could run over him again.

Clemie Jo and I were the wanderers. Mama said if she wanted to know where Steve was, all she had to do was look down, and there he was, between her knees. But Clemie Jo would take off with one of the dogs and ramble. When she was about three, she struck out for the highway, a mile up the dirt road. She crossed the road and was spotted by a distant cousin (everyone in our community was a distant cousin either by marriage or blood). When he hollered for her, she ran and climbed up an orange tree. Nothing was going to interrupt her adventure.

People don't have childhoods like we had. We had no pavement on which to ride a bike, but we thought nothing about saddling up our horses after school and riding through the pastures of our relatives. We swam in the creeks, not in pools. When Clemie Jo was still a toddler, our parents lived in the old house, which was still a dog-trot in those days (if you don't know what a dog-trot is, you don't know your Southern history. Look it up). Daddy might catch a baby alligator and bring it home so Clemie Jo could play with it. Once, he brought home a monkey. Mama was not a fan of animals in the house, and a long discussion ensued about where the monkey would live. I don't remember now where the monkey wound up sleeping, but it turned out he was a biter. He was either turned out or sent to monkey heaven.

We had a little dog named Tinker Toy. When Tinker Toy was still a puppy, Mama heard Clemie Jo cry out, and then the dog yelped. Mama rushed around the corner to find out what was going on. She asked Clemie Jo what had happened. Clemie Jo replied "Tinker Toy bit me, and it hurt." Mama: "Why did Tinker Toy yelp?" Clemie Jo: "I bit him back."

I was not the easiest little brother to have. About four years after our father died, Clemie Jo was of the age to date. Mama was ready to date a little, too. I was only five or six, so they would fight over who had to take me on their dates. I ruined a good thing for Clemie Jo the summer she was dating two boys at the same time: one in the afternoon and one in the evening. I came in the living room one night and promptly announced the young man in the living room was not the same young man who was there earlier in the afternoon. An awkward conversation followed.

Clemie Jo would have a lot of ups and downs in her life. She had cancer 30 years ago and beat it. She knew the pain of the divorce and the joy of two children she loved fiercely. She once told me she knew why God never made her rich: She would give most of it away. If you were her friend, she was loyal, generous and protective. Woe betide the one who attacked those she loved. She would rise up like a mama bear protecting her cubs.

She could do amazing things in the kitchen. Her fried cornbread was the stuff of legend. Proofs of the existence of God include the evidence of creation, the sense of a moral conscience and Clemie Jo's banana pudding. Every year, she would put a generous portion of her banana pudding into a Yeti cooler to be auctioned off at the Silver Spurs Rodeo. Every year, her banana pudding in the cooler would take the top prize at the auction. Once it brought $7,400. The man who bought it said he had no use for the cooler, but he was going to enjoy every mouthful of the pudding.

It's hard to lose a sibling. Cancer doesn't make sense to me. The only explanation I can give for cancer being in the world is the world is not the way it is supposed to be. I prayed for Clemie Jo's healing. I don't know why God heals some folks and not others. When you confront the things in life that don't make much sense, you can either decide life really has no point, or you can trust that somehow God is at work, but you just can't see the whole picture. It feels like something is just out of view, something is just around the corner.

I talked to Clemie Jo two days before she died. She'd just finished another chemo treatment and said she felt better than she had in weeks. She told me, "I feel like I really turned a corner." I remember praying that night for her healing. Two days later, she turned a corner, alright.

Clemie Jo believed. She had deep faith and a profound trust. I'm going to miss her. But I know she is home. She turned the corner, right into Jesus' arms.

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Bapist Church in Sumter. Email him at