Since 2009, Matt Ross Smith has had more than 2,400 postcards delivered to the house of his mother, Chris Smith. It’s not separation anxiety — it’s art. His community-based “Spaces Between Your Fingers Project,” which is the subject of a talk he’s giving Saturday afternoon at the Free Library, was inspired by his beloved grandfather, Chris’ father, a prolific storyteller who was affected by Alzheimer’s near the end of his life. For the project, Matt drives all over the country in a car he describes as “held together by duct tape” doing Alzheimer’s outreach work, talking to strangers and leaving a trail of self-addressed, stamped postcards, which the people he meets can use to mail back outlines of their hands along with the advice and memories they’ve accumulated through their lives. The thousands of respondents range in age from 3 (advice: “Don’t lick sand”) to 113 (advice: “Do something for other people without being told to do it. That’s what you’re here for”).
Until a few weeks ago, when the project finally acquired a P.O. box, the flood of mail was going to Chris Smith’s house in Havertown. We asked her about it.
City Paper: Did you expect this many postcards when you agreed to be the project’s home base?
Chris Smith: I don’t think I expected the volume that came in. I’m sure the mailman didn’t expect the volume that came in. But it was exciting, because I could see where he had been, since people mailed them from places he’d recently visited. It’s interesting to see the age groups and the artistic talents of the people — it’s always amazed me. I’m always disappointed when I get one with just a handprint.
CP: Are you relieved that the project now has a P.O. box?
CS: No! It would have been fine if he wanted to keep sending them here. Actually, I sort of looked forward to it when I was getting home from work — I always loved reading what people wrote, especially women of my age, who are in my profession [Smith is a former nurse]. It’s always interesting to see people’s perspectives, especially as you go across the country.
CP: Are there any that stand out?
CS: I think the ones from the children — their drawings may not be as sophisticated, but they always come up with good advice. Some of them are very bizarre — like, tied to religious messages or about something that’s totally unrelated. Some people have their own agenda. For the most part, though, people’s advice is very much related to their own lives.
CP: Do you think you’d ever mail in a postcard yourself?
CS: I think I will — I’ll probably tell a story related to my father. Matt was one of the older grandchildren who had a relationship with my father before he developed full-blown Alzheimer’s. My younger sons saw him after the disease took hold. Matt probably remembers more of when he was himself.
CP: When “Spaces” started, were you nervous about the road-trip element?
CS: For the first trip, he had a very old Volvo van. I don’t think the air conditioning worked. I had some concerns about him driving that across the country — I went out and bought AAA and said, “Here, in case you break down …” But, you know, that never daunted him. Even now, I say, “You sure that car will make it across the country?” But he proved me wrong, by starting this project and meeting people, and how they’ve responded.
CP: Thousands of postcards is a pretty positive response.
CS: It’s very positive. But I think his first experience [talking to a stranger] was a negative one. The person just looked at him and walked away. He was in Pittsburgh or someplace. But Matt just dealt with it and kept moving. … Matt always wanted to tell a story, and this is his way to tell a story — through other people. He’s letting other people tell their stories. Matt’s shown us that through music and art therapy we can reach people; we don’t have to put them in a nursing home. It’s his passion, and we’ll do what we can do to help him achieve his goal.
CP: Like telling him to get a new car?
CS: [Laughs.] He did actually take it to a mechanic, so hopefully I won’t get a call from Montana saying, “The car broke down.”