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You can’t choose your family

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee famously wrote:

“You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.”

In this time of global pandemic, many of us find long distances and time zones separate us from our families. We don’t have the opportunity to see our kin face-to-face. Instead we rely on technology to connect and share the stories, meals, game nights, music, and long conversations that support those familial ties and weave together the family tapestry over years.

Tom Brown and Family
Tom Brown (yes, the one with the suspenders) gathers with his five children and all his family members to celebrate his 90th birthday on July 5, 2015

I’ve been thinking about my family in recent weeks. Ninety-five years ago today Tom Brown entered this world. Born July 5, 1925, Daddy lived a full and rich life, staying on this earth long enough to have his five children — a small part of his expansive and loving family — join together to celebrate his 90th birthday in 2015. He passed away the following spring, just weeks short of reaching his 91st birthday.

Tom Brown is easy for me to acknowledge, as I learned so much from my father’s example about how to live in this world. When it comes to family, I have more than acknowledged them, having written a great deal about my parents, my wife, and my children over the years. But I’ve only skimmed the surface when talking about my four brothers and sisters.

It strikes me that Tom Brown’s birthday is a good time to rectify that situation. This is an acknowledgement of my family, a note of thanksgiving for my brothers and sisters.

Our parents encouraged each one of us to find and become the person we were meant to be. At the same time they taught us to respect and love the other members of the family for the perspective and individuality they brought to life. As a result, the five children of Tom and Helen Brown are very different. Each of us more than followed our own path. Between us we have an arts administrator who has worked for opera companies and symphonies around the country, a preservationist, a civil servant who kept the water department running smoothly for years, a blacksmith artist and part-time preacher, and a missionary/librarian. All five of us embraced mother’s love of music. Four play piano, we have three guitarists, two play bass, and one plays banjo while another one picks at the mandolin. (I may have missed an instrument or two.) There is one published author, but most of us read extensively, following the example of both parents. Between the five of us we have thirteen children and a number of sons-and-daughters-in-laws and grandchildren.

We don’t see eye to eye on politics, religion, food, sports, and probably a dozen other areas. And that’s okay. We more than acknowledge each other, we love each other either in spite of, or perhaps because of, our differences.

A friend and former colleague shared an article with me some time ago about how different generations view the world. It helped me to focus (again) on the fact that my worldview isn’t the only one. The lens is not the landscape. Perhaps I’m mellowing as I age, but I have come to appreciate — if not totally agree with — the viewpoints of my brothers and sisters who were influenced by different events in their lives. I listen to their perspectives now and for the most part let the differences slide off my back when we disagree.

There is much to love and admire in each of my siblings, so I’ll just touch the tip of the iceberg.

Steve is three years older than I am, and we probably spent the most time together growing up. He has a wide variety of interests and is a talented musician who has that classic “math/music” brain. (I missed out completely on the “math” part of that equation.) I don’t know how much self-motivation I possessed at an early age, but it really didn’t matter. As I came along in school and the teachers learned I was “Steve Brown’s brother,” the bar was already set pretty high and they pushed me to reach it. Plus, I always wanted to be smart enough to be able to carry on a conversation with him. We’ve shared many of the same perspectives on culture, politics, and life through the years, and I can say Steve has expanded my worldview and enriched my knowledge in a number of areas. His career in arts and stage management is a good fit for his many interests and talents, and I’ve appreciated his support of my professional career. Through the years he’s become a thoughtful “big brother.”

Debbie was born 16 months after me, so we are the closest in age among the five children. We spent a lot of time together growing up, since we were only one year apart in school. Ever since I can remember, Debbie has been generous with praise. It is probably one of the reasons she was such a good fit during her years in the city’s water department, as she works well with a wide variety of people, no matter their concerns or personalities. I so appreciate her example of looking on the positive side of life. Grandmother and Daddy always said, “If you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything.” Debbie absorbed their lessons and lives them through her faith and actions every day. Finally, Debbie is the “glue” in our family. When mom died too early, she was ready to step into her shoes as the matriarch, seeing everyone’s gifts and keeping us all together, while still nurturing her own beautiful (and growing) family. Joe and Carol also played key roles in this regard, but Debbie is most like our mom…and that’s high praise!

Some five years my junior, Joe has never met a stranger. I marvel at how easily he moves among people — he is truly Tom Brown’s son in that respect. For some of us it isn’t that easy to be so open with others. Joe’s is a great gift, and I’m thankful that I’ve seen and learned from his example. Joe — like my sister Carol — has always been willing to try new things. After a stint in the Navy and work as a mechanic and manager at the Nissan automobile plant, he stepped out on his own to become a talented and sought-after blacksmith artist. Joe also designed and built his own home! (How did my two brothers get those DIY genes, when I can barely screw in a lightbulb!) I love seeing where his creative energy will take him next. Every single morning I am privileged to look at some of Joe’s utilitarian artwork, when I remove our skillet from the beautiful Dutch Crown he designed and custom built for our kitchen. So much of what Joe does shows a spirit of wonder that is a reminder of what we can do if we just accept the newness in life.

My sister Carol is nine years younger than me. As the “baby” in the family, she had a fearlessness that comes, I suspect, from trying to keep up with her brothers and sisters. From an early age she was willing to try just about anything. Carol went into Baptist mission work after college. She took off to the Ivory Coast by herself and later lived with her husband and boys in several countries in one of the world’s great hot spots, the Middle East. After moving home Carol followed Mom’s footsteps and became the branch manager at Linebaugh Public Library. Nothing fazes her. When she was younger, Carol took my ribbing and gave it back as good as she got it. As life threw challenges her way, she made sure that her family was loved and cared for. And Carol and I seem to be the two in the family who most often scratch the itch passed along by both parents to put pen to paper. As I work to finish a book, I am inspired by her life as a writer and author. Carol’s eagerness to put forward her views for consideration in the public square is admirable.

As you can tell, I’m proud of each of my brothers and sisters. My mother and father could not have imagined the family they would bring into the world when they married some 70 years ago. But here we are — still together as we find ourselves smack in the middle of our global pandemic, economic recession, fights against racial injustice, and threats against democracy! Even with all our differences, I’m not sure I could have chosen a better family, even if that were possible.

Love to you all on this special day in Brown family history.

More to come…


Picture of DJB (left) with my sisters and brothers: Debbie, Steve, Carol, and Joe (l-r) in December 2015

This entry was posted in: Family


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.


  1. Thank you, dear brother, for those thoughtful reflections on each of us. Cried all the way through it! Love you

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