Stephen Raburn
7 min readMar 23, 2022
Photo by Robert Duvall
Photo by Robert Duvall Smith

Madelyn Smoak had the best front porch. She hosted “porch parties” for my girls and me for every occasion… birthdays, Father’s Day, Christmas, and any other good enough excuse to gather.

Much laughter and many delicious sweet treats were shared on that porch through the years. She hadn’t mentioned a porch party for my youngest daughter, Anika, who was turning 16 this past weekend and that should have been a red flag that something was wrong. But it was my oldest daughter, Xia, who called me Thursday night from her dorm room in Chicago saying she was concerned.

Madelyn hadn’t returned her text messages in a few days, which was very unusual. I tried calling and texting with no reply, either; so I decided to go check in on her Friday morning.

Call it synchronicity or some other kind of collective energy at work, but as I pulled into Madelyn’s driveway on Rosehill, two other cars pulled up at exactly the same time. A total of four of Madelyn’s close friends, all independently coming together at the same moment out of concern. We recounted the last times each of us had heard from Madelyn and noted her car parked in the carport, as usual, and banged on all the doors and windows, all of which were locked. We called the police who understood the situation was concerning but informed us that they didn’t have cause to enter the home without court action as it had only been a couple of days since anyone had heard from her. But, if you choose to break in, they said, we’ll drive around the block a few times so as not to witness a crime in action. So, with the help of her neighbor Brian from across the street, and the use of his crowbar and brute strength, that’s exactly what we did.

I entered the living room first and found her lying next to the sofa. Sweet Madelyn had passed away.

She was wearing her nightgown and we expect she had laid down there to try to get some relief from the back pain which had been bothering her more than usual lately. I’m choosing to believe she fell asleep and died peacefully in the night.

Madelyn and I share a ton of Facebook friends, so if you’re just now learning about her death, I’m sorry to be breaking the news. But I wanted her friends to know and to be aware that a memorial to celebrate her life is being planned at Duke Gardens (as it should be) in the near future. I’ll post details when I know them.

I just also want whoever reads this to know how much she meant to my family. Madelyn claimed my daughters as her “adopted grandchildren” a few years ago and loved them like they were her own. The feeling was mutual. It filled a void in my daughters’ lives: my mother died ten years ago and their maternal grandma lives a thousand miles away. Madelyn never married and didn’t have children. I think my daughters filled a void in her life too. To say Madelyn was a dear friend is an understatement. She felt like family. She was family.

For those of you who didn’t know Madelyn, she was a beloved artist and art teacher. She was born in South Carolina but spent most of her adulthood in Chapel Hill and Durham. She had a studio at Golden Belt for many years and often collaborated with other brilliant local artists. Madelyn had an eye for the unusual and definitely a unique style that was all her own. Two of the pics I posted here are samples from her latest works which were accepted into the 67th juried Durham Art Guild show last fall, entitled “Protective Adornment for Iconic Women,” which was a work in progress for which she had grand plans; the other an example of the kind of jewelry she was known to make.

Anyone who ever met Madelyn, especially those of us who knew her well, will surely agree with my description of her as a force of nature! She was fiery and feisty. Her laugh was unmistakable. She loved life, loved traveling the world, loved flowers and gardening, loved dancing. She loved collecting art and she loved my daughters.

It was through art that Madelyn and Xia formed a bond. I’m not sure Xia’s path would have landed her in art school without Madelyn’s guidance and support, to be honest. But their relationship transcended art. They were true friends, unusual, perhaps, considering the age difference: Xia is a teenager still and Madelyn in her 70s. But Xia is an old soul and Madelyn was perpetually hip…they met somewhere in the middle without a smidgen of a generation gap.

I expect Xia’s fondest memories of Madelyn will be their trip together to Spain a couple of summers ago. Xia could help her get around better and carry her luggage and Madelyn could shoo the boys away from Xia… that’s how Madelyn liked to describe it. But I think Madelyn instinctively knew Xia needed to visit Spain. Her instincts were right on. Xia loves Spain and spent some time there again last summer on her own and thinks she may eventually end up moving there.

When Xia was allowed one ticket for non-family to attend her high school graduation from the UNC School of the Arts last May she, of course, invited Madelyn. It was hard for Madelyn to make the trip to Winston-Salem and sit outside in the hot sun in the bleachers at the stadium for a couple of hours. But she wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Anika doesn’t share her sister’s love of art and so she and Madelyn didn’t have that in common. But what they did share was a love of cooking and baking. The two of them could spend hours in the kitchen, which was always my go-to plan if I needed a couple of uninterrupted hours to meet some work deadline or something. They shared recipes and many weekend afternoons experimenting which would almost always result in something delicious. It also provided an opportunity for some straightforward Madelyn-style sage advice for whatever teen girl drama Anika might be going through at the time. And those porch parties I mentioned were usually preceded by an hour or so of kitchen time with Anika and Madelyn, the results of which they were both proud to present.

They were starting to talk some about taking a big trip together somewhere (wouldn’t be fair for Xia to take a trip with Madelyn and not Anika), but the global pandemic interfered with those plans, sadly. Madelyn wasn’t much into sports, but when Anika’s attention shifted to soccer and track, she became her biggest fan and cheerleader. Like a grandma.

The last time I saw Madelyn was a couple of weeks ago when she asked me to come over and help with some yard work. That pollinator yard of hers could be just as wild and unruly as Madelyn herself. She always made it worth my while, though. An hour or so pulling weeds or mulching was worth whatever she would offer in exchange, homemade Kim-Chee or fresh salsa or sweet potato soup. Although her micromanaging could be a little annoying. I know the difference between a flower and a weed, Madelyn. Most times.

Whether it was helping her take down Christmas decorations from the porch (which were elaborate) or reaching some box from top of the closet (she was quite short), Madelyn always sent me off with something… some can of hoppy beer from back of the fridge (she knew me well) or something with too many carbs she thought better of and wanted out of her cupboard, or some excess turnip greens from her weekly CSA she didn’t want to go to waste.

She and I were both raised in small conservative towns in the Deep South and both emerged from the ashes of it RBG/Elizabeth Warren/Barack and Michelle Obama flaming liberals. We agreed on most everything when it came to politics and social issues which would often become the topic of conversation even though she would preface those conversations with “we don’t need to bore these girls with politics…” and shift back to something more pleasant when we noticed Xia’s and Anika’s eyes glazing over. The only disagreement I ever remember having with Madelyn was over Leonard Cohen. I thought he was brilliant; she thought he was over-rated.

Madelyn could be brutally honest, though. I learned early on if I wasn’t prepared for an honest answer to questions like, “so, what do you think of the new girlfriend?” then it was probably wise not to ask her.

A few months ago, another local iconic artist, Louis St. Lewis, passed away, which really seemed to hit Madelyn hard. They were close. So, here’s to hoping that there’s a special section in heaven reserved for the likes of Madelyn and Louis… the bawdy and outrageous, the makers and creators and free spirits who brightened our pathways for a while and showed us a different way to look at the world through their art and gentle spirits, yucking it up with no back pain at all, nor troubles to slow them down. Maybe Leonard Cohen will stop by and win her over, too.

Rest in peace, sweet lady.

And thank you for being the perfect adopted grandma for my children.

originally posted on Facebook, March 15

Stephen Raburn

Stephen Raburn is a writer, daydreamer, activist, and father of two amazing daughters. He lives in Durham, NC.