Mary Grace Smith, who died on Valentine’s Day at her home in Wellfleet, raised table-hospitality not just to an art form but to a kind of transcending act of commonwealth, civic engagement, and democratic pluralism. Or, to put it less grandly, of simple friendship. But friendship taken as an ultimate value.
That quality of hers was partly an innate gift, but also — and crucially — the result of a chosen habit of selflessness, reflected in the diligence of her kitchen work, the original open table. Like a few other consummate hosts, Gracie knew from the inside that taking care with food is the primal form of caring for life and for the common good. It is what makes us human.
Of course, she had not one religious bone in her body (though she was Jack Smith’s greatest support in his ministry for the years they were partners), but at Gracie’s table it was obvious why the great religions all see meals as openings to the divine. She made every day a feast day.
Gracie’s greatest delight was in putting the delights of others before her own. I saw that half a century ago at Boston University when she joyfully brought together hippies and activists, radicals and the rich, professors and anarchists, the lost and the elite, the young and the old — all able to affirm and accept each other because of all being affirmed and accepted by her. The pleasure Gracie took in “company” was contagious, which is why no one ever willingly turned down an invitation to Gracie’s table.
We saw that same large-hearted charisma in Wellfleet, beginning with the golden presence she created with Simone Reagor, but which she then continued valiantly as a woman alone, giving herself to “the hall,” as she loved to call it, and to Outer Cape Health. Not for nothing did the creators and sustainers of those Wellfleet treasures conduct their business at her dining room table. But there the business always took second place to friendship. Yes, she had a pure love of “company,” an old-fashioned word that has somehow lost its lovely implication of intimacy — “keeping company” as a synonym for lovemaking — as it came to refer only to business enterprises, the opposite of intimate. The word, after all, means “to break bread with.”
So, Gracie Smith was, yes, the perfect Wellfleet “society woman.” Her devotion to others was key not just to the rounding up of a powerful circle of local friends, now bereft, but to the creative institutionalization of that circle in Preservation Hall, the entirely inclusive, open, and welcoming circle of friends — everyone who enters the place — that has magically become the living symbol of, well, let’s call it the Commonwealth of Wellfleet.
In a relatively short time, Gracie put her stamp on the town and made it a little better. But across her long life, Gracie did that everywhere she went. No wonder we loved her and are diminished without her.