William B. McNamee told his grandson a secret about memory, even as he was losing his own memory to Alzheimer's.
One day, we'll be strangers . . . but you can remember the way we held hands when the wind moves through your fingers.
McNamee, an orthopedic surgeon from Drexel Hill, died in 2003. Six years later, as Matthew Ross Smith drove along the Schuylkill - with a hand out the window in the early-spring breeze - his grandfather's words came back to him.
Thus was born the Spaces Between Your Fingers Project, which offers people across America a chance to connect by tracing their handprints on postcards. Participants will be able to match their prints with others and receive a message from a stranger, says Smith, 30.
The teacher, writer, musician, and project director has twice crossed the country, personally handing more than 5,000 stamped, oversize blank postcards to strangers. He asks only that they trace a handprint and write a memory or a bit of wisdom in the spaces between the outlines of their fingers.
More than 2,100 of the 6-by-11-inch cards have been returned and now rest in what Smith calls a "treasure chest" at his home. He's scanning the colorful missives into a digital, searchable William B. McNamee Wisdom Library, which will go live in 2013.
A tablet-enabled app is in the works, and an exhibit of about 100 postcards opens June 9 at the Melanie's Place gallery in Old City. Smith wants to offer postcard writers and the public a chance to match their handprints with those he has collected.
Meanwhile, a new website (sbyfproject.com) is being launched as Smith and a half-dozen collaborators, working for the joy of it, transform his grandfather's sweet little notion into a platform of communication, education, and Alzheimer's awareness.
By 2020, about 5.7 million people nationwide, including 170,000 in New Jersey and 280,000 in Pennsylvania, will have the disease, according to the Philadelphia-based chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. The progressive and incurable neurological disorder slowly saps people of themselves; it's devastating not only for them but their families, too. (Take my word for it.)
"Alzheimer's robbed Poppy of the ability to make connections, and it broke his heart," says Smith, who grew up in Ardmore and lives in Philadelphia's Fairmount section. "He was in a world of strangers. Even the people close to him were becoming strangers. By the end, he didn't recognize me."
But strangers don't have to be isolated; they can make an observation or a joke, or give advice. Consider some of the postcards - sent by everyone from centenarians to preschoolers.
I know it's 5 in the morning . . . I know the dead loneliness . . .
Do something for other people without being told to . . .
If you see someone being teased, stand up for them.
"I expected the responses would vary," Smith says. "But I didn't expect the decorations on the cards would be so diverse. People paint them. I've gotten clay [impressions of] handprints and glass-blown handprints.
"It's so cool. This little memory I had is now inspiring people to reflect and create."
Smith's pal Phillip Le, 29, the project's graphic designer, says the collaborators are jazzed about the work. "It encourages people to look more closely, to tilt their heads and see the world a little differently."
Rosemary Rys, who teaches communications at Drexel and lives in Collingswood, agrees. Participants "stop, take a breath, and think" about what matters to them, she says.
Even fourth graders at Horace Mann School in Cherry Hill love the project. "It gets them thinking and writing," says teacher Emily Murray, 30, of Collingswood.
People with the disease can participate as well, notes Claire Day of the Alzheimer's Association. "It inspires them to voice a piece of wisdom," she says, adding, "Five years from now they might not be able to."
That pretty much happened to McNamee. "At family dinners he spent a lot of time with his head down, staring at his food and his hands," Smith recalls. "That does make me wonder if he used 'the spaces' as a way of remembering, of feeling connected. He never said that. But I think about it."
Smith, who recently recorded a CD of acoustic songs called Postcards, finds the project "invigorating" as well as inspiring.
"I'm someone who for a long time conceived of himself as an artist and a writer, but struggled to find a story to tell," he says. "I never realized I would become the moderator of other people's stories.
"After struggling for a long time, I've found my place."
Another gift from Poppy.
Matthew Ross Smith explains how Spaces Between Your Fingers connects strangers.
Contact Kevin Riordan