We celebrated my father over the past four days before his burial next to my mother in Evergreen Cemetery. Tom Brown was well-loved, and over those days we heard many stories full of love, support, and humor.
In the four-hour receiving line on Tuesday evening, the family was strategically stationed so that Joe and Carol – who live in Murfreesboro – could introduce people to my older brother Steve who lives in Sarasota. Then Debbie and Mark, also from Murfreesboro, were at the end of the line so they could give Candice and me a heads up on who was on the way. The grandkids (especially the older ones) then set up another receiving line near the casket.
Every person from First Baptist Church (it seems) came, along with a good number of people who worship at my brother Joe’s church and my sister Carol’s church. (These are Baptist – they are never content with just one church!) The entire Murfreesboro Water Department, where my sister Debbie has worked for decades, came (leading me to ask after a while, “Just who is watching the water supply in this town right now?”) Librarians came by the score, as my mother was a long-time librarian at Linebaugh in Murfreesboro and the Smyrna Public Library, and my sister Carol has followed in Mom’s footsteps at Linebaugh. Employees past and present from the Tennessee Valley Authority, where my father worked for 35 years, came to pay their respects. Former teachers (of me and my brothers and sisters, along with all our nieces and nephews) and current teachers (who work alongside our nieces Ashli and Rachel and teach their children and more) were there. People flew in from Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, and Florida, and drove in from throughout Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina. So many people came from the YMCA, that I began asking, “Are you from the swimming group or the coffee and doughnuts group?” since my Dad did both every morning six days a week for about 29 years. I received a call during the visitation from 91-year-old Paul Brown, Daddy’s first cousin and the last surviving Brown of that generation. It was a great recognition of life and family.
Nearly everyone who spoke to me during this time began with the line, “I just loved your Daddy (or Tom, or Uncle Tom by his nieces and nephews, or Mr. Tom. Never Mr. Brown.) Many would add, “And your mother, she was such a saint.” Then many would launch into a story or three. I can’t recall them all, but here are a few of my favorites.
- From his dentist – who happened to be my best friend growing up in Murfreesboro: “Your daddy came in one day a few years ago and said, ‘I’ve learned a new exercise.’ I asked him what it was and he replied, ‘I just watch the ladies take Zumba class and that gets my heart rate up and I don’t have to do anything else!'” We laughed and I told Ben, “I always knew when Daddy was feeling better after a hospital or rehab stay, because he started flirting with the twenty-something nurses. He’d be discharged soon afterwards!”
- So many people told me “I just had dinner at church last Wednesday with your Dad. He sat at the same table he always does, and we were there with him.” After about the 25th person told me that, I said to Debbie, “That must have been some table!” She replied, “You know Daddy and how he shouted to compensate for his loss of hearing. When Daddy was in the room, everyone knew it!”
- When Debbie was going to pick up his mail at Adam’s Place, the retirement community where he had moved about six months ago, one of the residents came up and said, “I’m so sorry to hear about Mr. Tom’s death…because we lost another Democratic Party voter!”
- Candice, Andrew, and I went down to City Cafe on Monday morning for breakfast. My father ate there just about every day for the 18 years since my Mom died. We told the waitress that my Dad had been a regular there, but that he passed away on Saturday morning and she cried out, “Oh, Mr. Tom!” (We hadn’t mentioned his name.) “We loved Mr. Tom. When is his funeral?” When we said it was 11 a.m. on Wednesday across the street at First Baptist Church, she said, “Good, I get off at 10 a.m., and although I’ll be in my work clothes I’ll be there.”
- My father hosted a small group of teenage boys on Sunday evenings at his house for Bible study and pizza for several years. One of them identified himself to me in the receiving line. I said, “I bet you guys loved it. You had a house that wasn’t your parents, where you could eat pizza and talk, and he couldn’t hear a word you said!” He laughed and said that was true. But later someone came through from the YMCA and she told the story of how a group of people were gossiping about someone and thought Daddy couldn’t hear them, because of his loss of hearing. After they left, Daddy turned to the receptionist at the Y and said, “Those folks were talking about so-and-so, and yet they are the ones who are crazy.” She continued, “I never said anything again around Mr. Tom that I didn’t want him to hear. I think his being hard-of-hearing was very selective!”
- Many years after Mom’s death, Daddy had a lady friend who would go to the theatre or to dinner with him when he was more active. She continued to take him out to eat and run errands when he moved to Adam’s Place. She told me that Daddy told her, “We’re both known all over this town, so I think we can just go out and do what we please.”
- Steve reminded me that Daddy always said, “There won’t be any inheritance. I want my last check to bounce!” Well, he almost got his wish. Daddy didn’t keep a lot of money in his checking account, so when my sister went to pay the cemetery and the funeral home, she found she had to cash out a few stocks to get enough money in the account to pay off those bills. We all laughed. But true to his engineering ways, Daddy had actually arranged things incredibly well for those of us who had to take care of his affairs. Debbie and I were originally the co-executors (which I relinquished to her about a year ago so that she wouldn’t have to hunt me down to get signatures on time.) Daddy had all his computer passwords and links written down. He long ago had put everything he had in a trust, so we wouldn’t have to deal with probate. And his house sale closes on Friday – which was the last big item in his estate. When I hear about friends with difficult estate issues with their parents, I am thankful for Daddy’s incredible foresight.
- Daddy’s suspenders and pocket protectors were often a topic of conversation. He was so comfortable in his skin that he’d wear suspenders with outrageous colors or designs. A favorite for everyone were the pair that looked like measuring rulers, which Andrew and Claire gave him many years ago. And the pocket protectors were legendary – always full of pens and pencils. (He was an engineer in the pre-CAD days). My sister Carol reminded me that when we cleaned out his house, we found five brand new pocket protectors, still in their wrapping. I think they were becoming harder to find in stores and he began hoarding them.
- Daddy was a member of the Circle of Friends Sunday School class. Several of its members told me that on Sunday, they decided to ditch their regular lesson. They put his coffee cup on his chair and spent the hour telling Tom Brown stories.
- My father was a terrible – but enthusiastic – singer of hymns in church. If you had any musical sense at all you did not want to sit next to him. It only got worse when he got his hearing aid. Daddy also sat in the second pew, right in front of the pulpit. Several people told the story of how Daddy would sing about half a line behind the congregation, because his hearing aid was off and he couldn’t hear anything. Debbie said that once he got a new hearing aid and began singing on the beat (if not on key) and she turned and stared at him. But that soon went by the wayside and he went back to his own personal version of singing in rounds.
- I was telling another long-time friend who lived across the street from Mom and Dad on Main Street and was active in Democratic politics about the 20 or so magazines I spent Monday morning cancelling on-line. What was my Dad reading as he entered his 10th decade of life? Oh, just Mother Jones. The Intelligence Report from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Sojourners and The Christian Century. The Hightower Lowdown. The Washington Spectator. The Nation. The New York Times and The Washington Post (the latter, I suppose, was to get his dose of conservative commentary). Fortune and Bloomberg Businessweek. I mentioned to these friends that I had called Daddy after Tennessee was considering naming The Bible as the State book, and telling him his work on earth was not done, as he needed to write a letter to the editor. The friend’s wife said, “Oh, he did write, and it was a good one. Your father was always trying to set people straight in Tennessee about the importance of the separation of church and state!” Some people do like lost causes.
- A friend who recently lost his own father mentioned that five different men who had been real mentors for him – including my Dad – had passed away in the past year. He noted that it was a bit scary to know that we were now that generation that others looked up to, and he said, “You know, David, they didn’t cut us a lot of slack. They just said, ‘Get out there and do it’ and they would add a kick in the pants or a pat on the back, whatever you needed.”
- Finally, a cousin who had gone through a difficult first marriage, told us the story that, “Uncle Tom and Aunt Helen always seemed to know when I was down and needed a visit. Uncle Tom would call and ask if they could come by, and they would stop in to talk, bring food, and always a book.” She said they helped her get through many a rough patch. Once she showed Daddy a book she was reading and he said, “Oh, that’s okay, but I’ll send you a better one!” Sure enough, about five days later a different – and better book on the subject – showed up in her mailbox. Giving…it was what Mom and Dad were all about.
When people told me that were sorry for my loss, I would thank them and then deliver this standard line – which has the added advantage of being true. Daddy lived a long and full life, he gave love and was surrounded by a circle of family and friends from around the world who loved him back, he had his mental capabilities until the end, and he died the way he wanted. You can’t ask for much more from life, I suppose.
Daddy, thanks for all the love.
More to come…