Helen Roberts Brown

Helen Roberts Brown – Mom

For the past two decades, New Year’s Day has had memories of loss mixed in with the anticipation of the coming year.  Mother passed away on January 1, 1998, and while a day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of her, the memories are especially poignant on New Year’s Day.

Thankfully, mother’s life left many legacies in her family, her church, and her community.  Mom’s love of family never changed and was unconditional. She loved each one of us as individuals who had unique gifts and ways to serve. The lives lived by her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren (who she never met) and in-laws are part of her legacy. Her commitment to her faith and her church was just as strong.  She was a life-long reader (as was my father) and she shared that love through her decades of service at church libraries in Tennessee.  She also believed in the power of women in the church, and became the first female deacon at First Baptist in Murfreesboro.  Mom served her communities in so many ways, from PTA president to her years as the children’s librarian for the city.  Mom’s commitment to reading and education was one reason the Helen Brown Scholarship Fund was established by her family at First Baptist Church.  For two decades now it has helped young people attend college.  Most of them never knew Mom, but they are blessed by her life and legacy.

As we look ahead to 2018, I’m reminded of a few of Mom’s many strengths which will help me face this new year with confidence in the future.

Treat everyone with respect.  This seems old-fashioned after the year of taunts, lies, and slander we’ve endured.  However, it still has meaning today, and Mom lived this value through good times and bad.  She was the PTA president the year our school in Cookeville was desegregated.  Very difficult times.  Mom went through that year with her values leading the way, but with an understanding of the challenges she faced.  I later heard her say that there were never any problems with the children in desegregating the schools, only with the parents.  I am often reminded of that when I speak about others who are different from me.

Be the person you were meant to be.  From their understanding of faith, Mother and Daddy gave us a blessing of unconditional love, unconditional acceptance, release to be the person God intends for us to be, and affirmation and support as we work out our understanding of who we are meant to be.  They both said it out loud, and through their lives.  Their unconditional acceptance also seems old-fashioned in a world where too many are frightened by those who are different, but to me it seems so necessary for our life as family and community.

Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad, with their “Helping Hands” aprons made by their grandchildren

Money can’t buy happiness.  Mother and Daddy were never rich in money, but as Mom phrased it, they were rich in love.  Mom would relate to a note from my Dad about money:


a bed, but not sleep

books, but not brains

food, but not appetite

finery, but not beauty

medicine, but not health

luxuries, but not culture

amusement, but not happiness

flattery, but not respect

a house, but not a home

companions, but not friends.

No woman of quality has ever preferred football to baseball.  My mom never said this.  The line actually comes from Thomas Boswell’s Why Is Baseball So Much Better Than Football?  But Mom lived this.  She would watch football and basketball, but she loved baseball.  She told stories of going to old Sulphur Dell park with her father to watch the Nashville Vols.  I’ve acquired her love of baseball and have passed it along to my daughter Claire (another woman of quality).  Looking ahead to 2018, she would join me in my optimism for the Nats!

Memories live on.  I once asked the singer-songwriter Claire Lynch if she ever played her tune These Flowers — about remembering a parent who has passed on — in concert.  It was during a mid-set break, and I was hoping to hear this tune, which meant so much to me, live.  She replied that she didn’t play it live because it was too emotional for her.  I told her I understood, and added that I would probably start crying out in the audience.  So when These Flowers came up on my playlist yesterday as I was driving home from dropping Claire (Brown) off at the airport, I — true to form — started crying.

We all gathered round, and stared in the ground,

While the heavens were weeping with rain.

We smiled. We cried. We said good-bye.

And the children made handsome bouquets,

From flowers that lay on your grave.


And on the long ride home, in their warm little hands.

The blossoms were withering fast.

So we wrapped them in paper and tucked them in books,

And prayed that the memory would last.

With these flowers.


Though time marches on and memories fade,

And flowers surrender their youth.

It’s funny how old pedals pressed on a page,

Brings everything back into view.


I still picture you there, in your favorite chair,

With grand-babies held on your knee.

And its hard to believe you’re really gone.

It’s as if we have all been asleep.

What we find when we wake from the dream…

Are these flowers. These flowers.


Twenty years later, the memories do fade.  But then something…like New Year’s Day…comes around and everything comes back into view.  Miss you mom. Love.  David

More to come…


For Mom, On What Would Have Been Her 78th Birthday

Helen Roberts BrownMother was born on December 9, 1930.  Today would have been her 78th birthday, had cancer not claimed her on New Year’s Day 1998.  For the past ten years there’s seldom a day that passes without something happening that reminds me of her.  She was a remarkable woman with a large circle of friends and an even larger capacity for love and service.

After I graduated from college and left home, Mother and I maintained a weekly correspondence for many years.  She was a “newsy” letter writer, with information about the family mixed in with items from town, updates on old friends, tidbits about both our careers, and extensive sports news.  (Mother was my loyal co-spectator for games on television.)

Several years after she died, I published a collection of her letters from 1980 – 1997 entitled Rich in Love.  Over the course of those 17 years she wrote about love, death, babies, pets, advice, and family.  Her letters included a four-page typewritten description of our wedding she prepared for family members who couldn’t attend.  She wrote one of the most wonderful tributes I’ve ever read to the men in her life for one Father’s Day.  She suffered (in the 1980s) and exulted (in the 1990s) with her Atlanta Braves.  Rich in Love was my way of ensuring that  my children, who were five when she died,  would have some way of really knowing and understanding their Grandmother.

Mother had a sense of humor.  She could write that my brother called from California and “As soon as he said ‘hello’ there was an earthquake.”  Like me she struggled with spelling in these pre-computer days and would complain that, “Even with clean keys the typewriter can’t spell.”  When bragging on her first grandchild, she noted that, “Tom and I received our first grandparents card from a grandchild.  Ashli really prints her name well to be only two months old.”  After returning from a baby shower, she wrote me that, “I’ll give you a bachelor shower and you can give me a menopause one!!!  My things are wearing out and you’ve never had enough.”  A surprise gift of China - Christmas 1994When writing of her own mother she said, “Mother and I have been working on the Weatherly and Roberts families (genealogy).  I should have started it several years ago.  She has the same person married to three different men in a ten minute interval.”

As the primary care-giver for her mother-in-law for a number of years, Mother worked long hours mixing work with personal responsibilities.  She looked up one midnight to see the dog, her granddaughter, and her mother-in-law and wrote, “Tinker is asleep under the piano, Ashli is asleep in the baby bed and Grandmother is asleep in her bed.  What I’m doing awake I don’t know.”

Mother was a librarian who worked during the week for the city/county system (for many years as the Children’s Librarian in our town) and then on weekends she served as the volunteer director for our rather extensive church library.  She devoured books and passed along her fascination with reading to me and my brothers and sisters.  Mother also had a beautiful soprano voice and shared her love of music with all her children.  In her letters she writes about every genre imaginable – from attending a Lena Horne concert with my father (one of his all-time favorite singers), to singing opera and classical oratorios, to how much her father and father-in-law would have enjoyed the bluegrass I was playing with my brothers.  She loved it all.

Early in 1996, only two months after she retired, Mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  After chemo  and surgery the cancer went into remission but shortly thereafter a new problem developed when she began to have symptoms of inflammatory arthritis.  Even after 17 doctors at Vanderbilt examined her they could not confirm a diagnosis.  They finally said it was “like scleroderma” which was very painful.  And then in October of 1997 the cancer returned.  After talking with us, Mom decided not to undergo additional chemotherapy.  She went into Hospice care in November, lived to see her 67th birthday, and then died peacefully on New Year’s Day 1998.

About a month before she died, the library staff from church brought her a video of Amahl and the Night Visitors as a gift.  Mom and I sang the leads in a production of this opera in 1966, and it has great meaning in our family.  They also left her with a note which captures how so many people saw my mother.

Dear Helen:

Your years of service to our library and our church will long be remembered.  The many hours that you spent in creating, administering, and directing a first-class library program have set a standard of excellence for all church libraries.  Your expertise in your field have been in demand not only in our church, but also in our association, state, and convention.  We are so proud of you and all your accomplishments.  Just think of the countless lives you have touched through your ministry.

To us you are Mother Teresa, Joan of Arc, and Wonder Woman.  You’re like Coca-Cola (The Real Thing), GE (You Bring Good Things of Life), and Dr. Pepper (The Friendly Pepper Upper).  You are the very heart of our staff.

On a personal level your life has been exemplified by the very ideals of the Christian faith….The comfort and assurance you have given us as we have faced grief and tragedy in our own lives have given us courage to bear our burdens.  In difficult times you were always there with food, a smile, a hug, and kind words.  You have always given of yourself so freely.

I remember stopping by the Anthony’s after Ed died.  There you were mopping the floor.  This reminded me of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  No job has ever been beneath you.  You do what needs to be done.

I have been a member of this church for fifty-eight years.  I was enrolled in the Cradle Roll when I was born, but I never felt I was a complete member until you were elected our first female deacon.  Thanks for bravely stepping forward and blazing that trail.

We remember many happy times.  What woman except Helen Brown who had spent months in chemotherapy would invite forty people to her home for Christmas dinner?  What a great time we had….

We wish we could honor you with a dinner or banquet, but we cannot.  So please accept our love and admiration for all that you are.  Love, Patsy and Your Library Media Staff.

So many who knew her loved my Mother.   We all still miss her.  But a good friend sent me a note that I often recall when thinking of Mom.

They are not dead who live in lives they leave behind.  In those whom they have blessed they live again.

I wish I could say Happy Birthday to you Mom, but this will have to do.

More to come…


A Family Photo with Mom 1993