published by Jewish Independent, July/06
Lyvia Smith may be neither young nor healthy, but when it comes to forging positive human connections, she has few equals
When I was first introduced to Lyvia Smith, I had no idea that this small, slightly bent lady with long hair and lots of rings on hands crippled by severe rheumatoid arthritis would change the way I live my life. I wrote a story about her and her talented husband Allan and daughter Sheryl’s photography for the JI and thought that was that.
But then she invited me over to her home and gave me a signed copy of her book, The Joy of Positive Thinking, how to be up when you’re down. She wrote it because the nurses taking care of her wanted to know how she managed to be so optimistic in spite of her crippling illnesses.
During the course of several long conversations with Lyvia, I began to realize that in spite of many obvious differences, we had much in common—we’re the same age, have successful grown children and had husbands who were professionals yet also pursued serious artistic careers. And we both write and share a strong interest in people. Yet, I was allowing my somewhat jaded journalist persona to dominate. So here she was showing me a different way. You might say she charmed and inspired me to rethink how I relate to my friends and family. Apparently, she’s been doing it ever since she was a child.
“You know, I’ve always been a voracious reader and used to sneak into my parents’ bedroom in Los Angeles where I grew up to borrow Dale Carnegie’s books, so my interest in being positive and connected to people goes way back; I think I was born this way,” she explains.
Sitting in her living room in Vancouver surrounded by dozens of photographs and the mementos of a full but often difficult life, she radiates genuine warmth. Her smile is gorgeous and conversation flows easily from topic to topic. She knows all kinds of people everywhere; it’s clear that she’s what The Tipping Point calls a ‘connector’. These are people whose genuine enthusiasm acts as a catalyst and transmitter for new ideas and trends.
Her book is just one of her many interests. She has always written poetry and songs as well as this book of how to live in a positive manner, of always seeing the glass as half full.
“You know how they say write what you know, so I thought, okay, I will do that,” she says. And what she knew was how to survive the tough times with grace. But it took several years, years that were to severely test the positive messages she was trying to put into writing. It was almost as if she had to personally live each and every piece of good advice first.
When she became very ill, she put the book on hold, but kept active by helping her husband work on a book about the most interesting people in BC. She set up his appointments for portraits and because of this project, she came in contact with or personally met just about everybody who was anybody in BC. Most of them never knew that she was severely disabled; all they heard was her cheerful voice on the phone. She was bedridden and didn’t want to meet people this way. However, there were three people shat she felt would understand, and she did meet them. One was Rick Hansen and his wife; the other was Blues singer and performer Jim Byrnes. Unfortunately, the book never saw the light of day because her husband became ill and the publisher went bankrupt.
Her illness dragged on and she says that her husband, who had a busy dental practice and was a traditional male who could barely boil water, learned to cook and do for her. Over the years, many other caretakers came to help. One of Lyvia’s friends, singer and TV star Juliette, recommended that she get a companion for the times husband Allan had to leave the house. Juliette sent her someone who had worked for her, and Lyvia says that Mary “saved her life”. Another person who started as a paid companion and became a life long friends was Jocelyn ‘Joe’ Harrison, who spent every Saturday afternoon keeping a then totally bedridden Lyvia company for over a decade. She says that Lyvia became an inspiration to her. “I’ve come to admire that woman so much because she does not think of herself as an invalid. And she was my strength and inspiration when I was feeling hard done by.”
Like a lot of journalists, I tend to be cynical—it’s a professional hazard. But like Joe, Lyvia’s indomitable spirit and the simple, common sense precepts of her book made me realize that I could do more in life, be more helpful—after all, I have few physical challenges. Why wasn’t I doing that? The world is looking increasingly dark these days, what was I doing to light a candle? Or to put into a Jewish context, what was I doing to contribute to Tikkun Ola?
Though she insists that her daughters are the pride and joy of her life and she has led the life of a traditional Jewish wife and mother whose first concern was always the welfare of her family, it turns out that one of the many roles she has played in her life was managing theatrical talent. It was none other than Hugh Pickett himself who became her mentor on how to run her agency called Superstar Productions.
“Hugh was such a character, and when I first got ill, he said to me, ‘you know why you’re sick? You’re too nice—you should try to be nasty like me sometimes’. But I never saw his nasty side; all I know is that he was very clever.”
Studies on high achieving women prove that one of the most important markers is a strong, highly supportive father figure. Lyvia’s father was devoted to her, and she says he was the most powerful influence in her life.
“I adored my dad, he was the kind of father who gave me unconditional love—I could do no wrong in his eyes, and I think that has given me my self-confidence. He taught me that you can learn something new every day, and I believe in that.” He died when Lyvia was in her ‘thirties and she says that to this day, she misses him.
Like most people of her age, she has suffered other losses; her mother is gone and her husband, Dr. Allan Smith, died unexpectedly two years ago. “ I always thought that he would outlive me; it was a real shock that he went before me,” she said.
Her native sunny disposition was severely tested when he died of pancreatic cancer and she had to look after him as well dealing with her own health problems.
“I believe that something good comes out of everything, but after he died, I had to really work hard to come up with an answer,” she says, her expressive dark eyes clouding over. She poured her feelings into a long poem to him. And her talent for friendship did not desert her in this dark hour.
“One wonderful thing that came out of it is that the people who helped me take care of him are my friends to this day. And they all went way above and beyond the call of duty; they are wonderful people.”
Today, Lyvia is out of her wheelchair and she’s back at managing talent—this time, her daughter Sheryl’s photography career. And she is actively promoting her book, which is in its second edition and doing well at Chapter’s.
“The best thing is doing book signings, it gives me a chance to meet people and talk to them,” she says. In fact, she spends her days and part of her nights talking to people on the phone. “I tell people they can call me quite late; I’m usually up until 2 or 3 am. I think everybody needs someone to talk to and maybe that’s my niche in life,” she says. But then she laughs, “I’m just a rebellious sixty-five year old with long hair.”
To me, she’s one of those rare people who teach simply by being herself. She has taught me, a non-Jew, the true meaning of Tikkun Ola. Lyvia’s talent for making friends and influencing people is making a positive impact on my life and the life of the people I cherish already. Reaching across religious and personal differences to the human heart, Lyvia truly is a living inspiration.