IN MEMORY OF MY GRANDMOTHER, MARTHA C. NEMETZ, 1934-2021
BY: H. VAN SMITH
The first thing to understand is it was blue. A blue car, with a blue vinyl dash, blue plastic, blue velvety-soft cloth upholstery, with blue vinyl piping at the seams, blue carpet below the blue floor mats—a pleasing, sky blue, the kind of blue behind white clouds on a summer day—and it was brand new, fresh off the lot, a 1986 Honda Civic, manual 5-speed.
My maternal grandmother, Martha C. Nemetz, (April 2, 1934 – July 20, 2021) affectionately known as Pau Pau, pulled into the driveway of my childhood home, in this charming, small car, powered by stiff, decisive strokes of the stick shift.
The shine must have caught my eye as a small child, so, as my parents caught up with her in the kitchen, I grabbed the key, inscribed HONDA, casually walked to the passenger side door, and drew a picture to rival the quick, darting brush strokes of Van Gogh. There was a sun, a mountain, rays flowing to the mossy floor . . . and “Van! What on earth!”
I quickly snapped out of my dream state, and for some reason, only then realized this was not a good idea. Pau Pau came out, clearly taken back, jaw dropped, then, seeing the shellacking I was taking for my first public commission, kneeled down, tenderly, and gave me a hug.
Later on, by 12, my favorite thing was “spending the night with Pau Pau,” and so, on those weekends, there we were, on a Friday morning, driving downtown from her brick cape with the slate roof on Hermitage, front sidewalk with the sweet smell of English boxwoods, turning on the exit ramp, me holding her mug of coffee, as she’s shifting into the curve to downtown Richmond in that blue Honda. Up the steps of the James Center high-rise, past the Copper Sails statue, through a large marbled lobby, shoe shine stand and newspapers, security guards milling about, men in trench coats and leather satchels moving, purposeful, elegant over gleaming floors.
The whole scene of the James Center lobby was a spectacular display, a travel agency, Covington, on the first floor with pictures of Caribbean beaches, of European castles and Buckingham guards, of African safaris, behind large glass panel walls—this whole twirling dance seemed a passport to a sunlit plain, and so as we rode the elevator up, above the trees, into the clouds, there was work to be done, hard work, important work, the pressure of it coming across by the quiet hushed stage as the elevator doors opened, and the file cabinets behind legal staff flanking every wall, with murmured conversations, over the whir of typing, calls, and footsteps, these old scions of farms and battles past with “IV,” “III,” “VI,” after their last names as if Kings and Dukes descending onto a modern ball of an office fantasy—swirling, preppy dervishes in horn-rimmed glasses, clutching manila file folders—teleported by elevator to work, then sent out to travel the world below, but first, the task to fasten and bolt down the legal framing of all this fluttering economic activity as seen from the panoramic windows overlooking the James River, this new thing being birthed—the New South.
Had it not been for Pau Pau, I would never have become a lawyer. I would never have stood a chance, and it was that chance, I think, that compelled her to bring me to the office so many times. I belabor all this in her memory because Martha worked at McGuire Woods for almost 40 years—the largest law firm in Virginia. And not only was she, with her high school education good, she was excellent, and I could tell admired by her attorney-colleagues. fn 1.
I was a stubborn learner, it had to really get in my bones before I would be confident enough to do anything on command, writing, math, reading. “Van, you have to learn to write,” my mother said to me, at age 7. Pau Pau came out with sharp number two pencils, and a McGuireWoods legal pad, looking in my eyes as she demonstrated, handing it to me, I immediately began writing. “See?,” she said. No praise, but a quick ‘good.’ As if to say, “and we’re off.” This was not the doting sentimentality of other grandmothers, she was of the world, delivering the goods, without time for any fluff. The urgency, the efficiency, the no-nonsense refrain was a cadence in every conversation—get to it—“Oh, crap,” was all that was afforded for any mistake, hers or others. Then a quick solution, there was simply too much to do to linger.
She was frugal, thrifty, and stylish. This meant we would shop, as a hobby for both of us, at thrift stores, moving through the racks to find ‘the good stuff.’ Luxuries were afforded, Chanel fragrances and French makeup, scattered on the sink top of her vanity, ‘this must be what a bathroom in Paris looks like,’ I thought. To pay full price, retail, would have been considered sacrilege, a waste, frivolity, ‘throwing your money away.’
Her kitchen was filled with dollar store food staples, and sale-priced baked goods. No Diet Coke was less than 1-year beyond the expiration date, purchased on sale. Economy everywhere. No Cool Whip container from a Christmas dinner was ever thrown out, that held meatloaf, or green beans, leftovers, for eating later. Nothing was ever thrown away. Food was purchased at Food Lion, or even better, the Dollar Tree.
If you needed something, say an appliance, that was found at yard sales on a Saturday morning, “second hand.” With a second cup of coffee, she would scour the classified section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where the ‘good ones’ were proudly listed. She’d circle, with the hawkish eye of an attorney on cross examination, the finer yard sale locations, sure to net the ‘good stuff.’
Where did this frugality, thrift, and hard work come from?
Little vignettes help fill in the portrait.
When she was a little girl, she remembered driving back from town with her parents, “The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor!,” she recalled the neighborhood boys yelling frantically as they parked the car. fn 2.
Her Father moved all over Virginia for work, her family trying to fit into the new industrial economy, coming off farms in the Great Depression, desperate for steady work, creating frustrated men not yet suited for the world that greeted them, country stallions bucking at the industrial-bridle, hard men that drank hard to numb the new constraints of factories, of grind, of the timeclock life.
Her Father died as he fell asleep, possibly after drinking, with a lit cigarette falling from his mouth, the flames engulfed and killed him before he could be saved. A life snuffed out early, she had to become independent, self-reliant. From the ashes of that fire, she found a small Psalms and New Testament Bible with a red paper cover burned on all four sides, small enough to slide into a front pocket, that he had kept on his nightstand. She displayed this memento in a case until she died. “Daddy,” she would say, looking listless into the case at the Bible, gazing, longingly.
She was playful, and the country ways of her family, still with her.
She remembered when a close family member died in 1940, the family went back to their country home of Southwest Virginia, near Gretna (with family also in Altavista). They kept the deceased in those days resting on ice blocks in the living room “parlor,” to allow family time to ride in for the ‘viewing,’ before the burial. On that first night, her grandmother, rocking on the front porch, creaking boards below and the sounds of cicadas in the branches above, kept watch over the front yard, looking out into the darkness.
A young Martha and her cousin snuck out into the bushes, rustling them, and making a ghost-like howl, “Whewwwww, Ewwwwwww,” in the gentle, high pitch of a valley ghost. Her grandmother rose, stood at attention, leaving the rocking chair bobbing, stuck her hand out into the night, and yelled, courageously, “Hark!,” gallantly defending her kin from whatever terror loomed. No longer able to hold it in, Martha tumbled out of the bush laughing.
She would travel out to Gretna, Virginia to see some of these distant relatives from time to time, and I’m sure to remember these happy times. In the country, their place in the orbit was well-settled, understood. Back in the city, it was a world just beyond comprehension, uneven, and new, comparatively. Clothes, food, expenses, must be conserved, a dollar earned the hard way, protected. Winter nights were cold. Summer nights were hot. The basement of her youth had big city rats. They were also keenly aware of the social order of the city—and their modest place in it.
In spite of this displacement, economic upheaval, and uneasy footing in post-war Richmond, Pau Pau blazed her own path. Her first marriage produced her only two children, Steve and Joyce (my mother), but also a marriage with a lot of heart ache, as the pattern of a frustrated male repeated itself, he too, like her father, fresh off a farm and thrust in the city. And though not yet common, or desired, she felt compelled to leave her first Husband, a railroad operator, who would later grow deaf from the work, and make her own way.
This began as a secretary at the C&O Railroad, then as a legal assistant at McGuire Woods, which then sent her to paralegal school in Philadelphia for further training. “Your grandmother would have made a fine attorney,” I was told numerous times by the late-attorney Dennis Belcher, himself one of the finest Trust and Estates lawyers in the country. Martha insisted he mentor me from an early age, a request he honorably fulfilled until his untimely death at 66.
And while she was in a traditional profession, her path as a paralegal was actually trailblazing as the second paralegal at McGuire Woods, which now employs thousands.
Her wit and a wry sense of humor, hinted at diverse interests. I recall a high school friend of my mother’s telling me, “I would come over to visit your mother, and your grandmother was on her head with her feet in the air—she was doing yoga before anyone in Richmond was doing yoga.” She had a blender and vigorously ground up ginger and other fruits, preferring a spicy-ginger smoothie.
She was a voracious reader, but never buying books, always preferring to check them out of the library to save money, reading 1-2 a week.
She enjoyed music with feeling, across a broad spectrum. She loved Elton John, but also the country song, “I like my women just a little on the trashy side,” for the shear absurdity of it, laughing while bobbing one hip playfully, but she also had a somber side, loving the rags-to-riches voice of Paul Potts, the operatic singer discovered on Britain’s Got Talent, pulling for him. She also burned CDs of the song “I Can Only Imagine” for the whole family, a Christian song, one particular year.
And so, on the same driveway, all those years later, we stood in front of the passenger door of the blue Honda with the scribble scrabble drawing, “She’s all yours,” as she handed me the keys. I grinded the gears, as she taught me how to drive stick shift—the Blue Honda became my first car at 16.
We were ‘roommates’ between summers during college, and again in summers during law school, and then again, after law school, when I started work at Williams Mullen in Richmond, across the street from her law firm. I also returned and lived with her as I started Smith Strong, PLC from her dining room table. She marveled as I furiously worked from my laptop and I-Phone, selling everything I owned in February 2012 to keep it going. One day, her neighbor had dropped off a bass guitar that her son had left for years in her house, figuring I may enjoy it. After she left, while Pau Pau laughed, I stuffed it in the trunk of my car and pawned it along with my final possessions to pull Smith Strong off the ground.
The veteran-Trust and Estates paralegal, Pau Pau, came in 2017 to do her final estate plan at my law office, now with two offices in Richmond, and buzzing with people, commotion, and chatter, like her old floor at McGuire Woods. She looked around, smiling, “You’re something,” as she sat at the conference room table.
On Monday, July 19th, 2021, I drove and sat with Pau Pau for the last time.
She was breathing slowly, unable to open her eyes. I spoke softly and gently, “Thank you for everything you did for our family. Your love, thrift, energy, spirit, lessons, drive—all of it. Thank you, God, for this gift of a person to our family. Surround her with Your love, God, and carry her with Your peace, surround her with Your angels, into Heaven, to rejoice in Your glory, and light. May she be joined by heavenly hosts, and family, and Your loving presence. Surround her with Your peace and love, God. Grant her eternal life with You. Thank you, Pau Pau, for everything you did for our family. Your hard work, and sacrifice. God, please grant her Your Peace that passes all understanding. Surround her now, and let her hear the refrain as she is surrounded by heavenly hosts, ‘Well done, thy good and faithful servant.’ I love you, Pau Pau. And I’ll miss you. Thank you.” She slowly moved her hand, laboring, still.
I stood up, looked back, then left, wishing it was still us grinding gears in that Blue Honda, as I drove away.
Fn 1. “I want you to have your chance,” Pau Pau said. I understood. This world, this whole display, this conversation, if you pay attention, was a chance to enter.
Later when I started my own law firm, Smith Strong, PLC, I wrote my bio for the website this way:
I FIRST decided to become a lawyer at the age of 12, while tagging along with my grandmother, Martha Nemetz, the second paralegal McGuire Woods law firm ever hired.
She worked in the Trust & Estates division of that storied law firm in Richmond, Virginia. The toughest and most highly regarded McGuire Woods tax attorney at that time was Carl Davis, and she worked for him.
“Would you like to sit in on a meeting?” he asked. “Sure!” I responded. I recall using my knee to hoist myself up onto the bench in his office. My feet didn’t touch the floor. Immediately, I was taken with the view of Richmond, the river below, and the books stacked high everywhere around me.
Two bankers came in for a meeting. And then looked at me. “Oh, it’s alright, he’s with me,” Mr. Davis chuckled. And I nodded, as if somehow in on the joke.
I remember Mr. Davis’s arms dangling at his sides, slowly swinging like old barn doors, as he leaned back in his leather chair, when one of the bankers commented, “Well that means a lot from you, Mr. Davis, as many regard you as the finest tax attorney in the country.” My eyes caught the yellow legal pads and the desk that seemed to command the room like an aircraft carrier in a small harbor.
He leaned over and said, “Well, Van, let’s walk these folks out.” I walked down the well-appointed halls, hung with old oil paintings with light floating across their scenes. I heard phones ringing and saw well-dressed men and women ducking in and out of various rooms, looking rushed, focused, thoughtful.
I would return often to McGuire Woods as I grew up, and I was even trained in simulated “mock trials” led by their Ivy League associate attorneys, while I was still in high school. Attorneys there counseled me on which college to attend, how to prepare for the LSATs, how to handle the grueling, first year of law school, and on and on.
When sharing with one of the partners my fear that I was entering a profession for which society had minted an oversupply, he responded, “There are too many lawyers, yes, but not enough good lawyers, Van.”
fn 2. No doubt this event and its aftermath brought Japanese, or in her words, “Oriental,” imagery into her world. She proudly displayed Japanese geisha dolls in her dining room, with pagodas and Japanese Kanjilettering, throughout her house. She was proud that I took part in the High School Diplomats, US-Japan, Program, first at Princeton, then going to Japan the following year. She looked through my tour photographs with many questions, lingering over my stories of the Kyoto temples and rock gardens.
--H. Van Smith, Managing Partner & Attorney, Smith Strong, PLC, resides in Richmond, Virginia with his wife, Katie, and their two children, Farah & George.