By Nancy Remkus
“Happiness is not a goal…it’s a by-product of a life well lived.”
Some of us are lucky to have been born here in Sag Harbor, while some have prayed to call this “home.” Mrs. Rita Smith, who at 92 shines like the sun, remembers the prayer she once sent to the heavens. “I said to God, I always want to live in Sag Harbor. If you let me live here, I’ll never want to go anywhere else… and I don’t, I’m so happy here.” Aside from some travel to family weddings and gatherings, Rita has called Sag Harbor her home since 1971; yet she had visited the area since the 1930’s. Rita’s aunt and uncle owned Balzarini’s Restaurant in Southampton, and Rita’s mom, a widow, had come for the summers to work there as a waitress. Rita remembers as a youngster visiting the sleepy little village of Sag Harbor and throwing her line in to catch bottle fish off of Long Wharf.
Walking into Rita’s home sun is shining into the kitchen; the house is warm and cozy. Photos in frames throughout the living room speak of a life well lived and well loved. Everything is neat and tidy and in its place. Rita’s smile greets me. She always looks like a million dollars; a warmth and joy seem to radiate from her very core. There is suet in the bird feeder, and a sign that says ‘welcome friends’. Coming to her house for the first time, feels a bit like coming home.
Rita has a full and wonderful life. She is predeceased by two wonderful husbands, Kenneth and Jack; she has three sons, one stepson and eight grandchildren. While raising her sons, Rita worked in a furniture store in Brooklyn and spent time renting in Pine Neck. After her first husband, Kenneth Mitchell, father of her three sons: Kenneth, Gregory and Jeffrey, had died at a young age, Rita was introduced to Jack Smith, and after some time, they were married. Jack had a son, Dennis Smith, who is Rita’s stepson. Rita moved to Sag Harbor full time and this was a ‘turning point’ in her life. “My husband Jack worried that I wouldn’t like it here in the winter, but I like it here every season. We had pheasants and ducks in our yard. I used to name them. Margaret was a mallard, and she would come and knock at my back door and bring her babies to show me. She would start quacking when she crossed the road so I would know that she was coming. There was a chipmunk with no tail that would eat from my hand. I was in paradise.”
“There was a short period of time that I worked in the five and ten for 95 cents an hour. At Christmas I got a raise and was making a dollar and hour! I met everyone there.” Rita began to meet people and become a part of the Sag Harbor community. “I love people’, Rita commented, ‘I have met so many wonderful friends. I love listening to their stories.”
Jack and Rita had a wonderful life together; “he was the nicest man, an ordinary man, who was extraordinary.” After he passed Rita spent time walking Long Beach at 6:30 every morning and often again in the evening. It was then that she met John Bechtel, and they enjoyed a long friendship. “I have had three wonderful men in my life, and I was blessed to know each one of them. “
Once Rita was able, she began to serve the community in whatever way she could. She has been very active in Saint Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church. “I counted collections, was a member of the parish council, and I cleaned the church,” Rita remarked. “I have also been a Columbiette for over 35 years and have helped to raise money to benefit local organizations.” The Columbiettes are comprised of affiliated Auxiliaries of the Knights of Columbus Councils. For ten years, Rita has been a member of the Sag Harbor Legion Auxiliary, raising money for veterans, distributing poppies for Memorial Day and helping with Soldier Ride. “We have stuffed 50 stockings each year for our soldiers during the holidays. Always putting a pair of wool socks on top. We send money and packages to the veterans and help in any way we can.”
For 37 years, Rita had also been a volunteer at Southampton Hospital. “I love working with people and being able to help them. At first each village had a chapter, which raised money for the hospital. Then for 26 years, I worked in the gift shop and in the admitting office. It was good for me. I need people.”
Few people have visited Southampton Hospital over the years without seeing Rita’s smile and feeling the warmth of her presence. Rita was ninety-one when she retired from her volunteer post there.
When asked about the secret to her longevity, Rita replied, “luck”. And then she added, “I take good care of myself; I exercise; I eat right; I’m blessed.” Now she spends her time vising Cormaria, exercising in cardiac rehab, reading, doing crossword puzzles, writing letters, and spending time with friends. When asked by her granddaughter how she remains so happy with all that she has been through, Rita responds, “I just concentrate on the good stuff. My life is simple, I don’t need a lot of things. I’m just happy.”
Our interview was interrupted for a brief moment by a call from my daughter in college – I told her I would call her back later; I ended my call with, “I love you.” Rita remarked, “Our generation never used those words, I love you. But now I tell everyone. I tell my kids, my friends,” and then with a giggle, “I’m probably going to tell you that Nancy when you leave, ‘I love you’.” And Mrs. Rita Smith, we love you, and we are so blessed that your prayers were answered and that you call Sag Harbor HOME.