ON THE FIFTH OF MARCH, 1925, MY GRANDFATHER Brooks died. I was nine years old.
A few days earlier he had been examined by a doctor for an increase in life insurance, and when it was discovered that he had a weak heart, he was turned down by the insurance company. He didn’t tell any of this to his family.
He was taking a walk past Jack Crawford’s filling station, at the far end of the downtown business section, when he collapsed on the sidewalk. He was dead by the time Dr. Davidson, the family doctor, could reach him. This was shortly after one o’clock in the afternoon. My grandmother was called, of course, and all the children then in Wharton were found and told the news. My uncle Billy, fifteen, and the youngest son, was still in high school, and he was sent for immediately. I however was told nothing and, when school was dismissed, took my usual route home past the Sante Fe tracks down Burleson Street, past the Crawford house and the Baptist church and down the dirt road (unnamed at the time) to our house.
The day was a typical March Texas day, fair, not too hot, with a slight breeze from the Gulf. I ran into the yard when I reached our house and went directly inside. I remember an eerie feeling as I entered, because of the quiet. My mother and my brothers were usually there to greet me in some fashion, but when I came in the front door, there was not a sound of greeting from anyone. I walked through the house calling my mother’s name, but there was no answer. Usually under such circumstances, I would head out the back yard and go directly to my grandmother’s, expecting to find my mother there, but for some reason I didn’t, and I went back out to the front yard and crossed the street to the Joplins’ house. Before I could call for my friend Edwin to come out to play with me, his mother, Miss Ida, appeared and said, “Son, I think you’d better go on over to your grandmother’s.”
I must have sensed something urgent in her voice and frightening too, because I asked no questions, but went back across the street to our yard. Instead of going directly to my grandmother’s, I went back inside our house, called my mother’s name again, and when I got no answer, went out to our back porch where I could see my grandmother’s yard and porch. I stood for a moment looking over there, and all seemed normal enough to me, so I assumed the fear Miss Ida’s laconic request had started in me was unfounded, and I walked out into the back yard and slowly began to cross our yard to the back yard of my grandparents. When I got through the gate separating the two yards, I saw Eliza, the cook, standing there with her sister Sarah. I walked over to them and they were talking and didn’t notice me. Eliza was telling Sarah that she had felt sad and heavyhearted that morning, not wanting to get out of bed, and when she had finally dressed and started for the kitchen to get breakfast for the family, she saw on the roof of the house two doves, and she said she knew then, doves being the symbol of death, that someone in that house would die today. Before she said whether her prophecy had been fulfilled or not, she saw me and she said she thought I should go on into the house and find my mother. I remember wanting to ask her why but being almost afraid to, and before I could ask the question my mother appeared at the back screen door of my grandparents’ house and called me. She was wearing a dark dress, the kind of formal dress she usually saved for Sundays or special occasions, and that puzzled me. As I headed toward her, I saw she was crying, and when I got to her on the steps, she embraced me and began to sob and she said, “Son, whatever will we do now?” I wanted to ask about what, but didn’t, and I stood there as she held me and continued crying. She said then, “I think your grandmother will want to see you,” not telling me why.
We went into the back porch of the house and into the back hall. I could hear the murmur of many voices as we entered the back hall, and then when we went into the front hall, I could see into the living room, which was filled with people, men and women, all dressed as for church, talking in quiet, subdued tones, some crying, some comforting those that were crying. I followed my mother through the front hall, to the door of my grandparents’ bedroom. The door to the bedroom was closed and Mother opened it and said, “Mama, Little Horton is here.” I looked in the room, and saw my grandmother crying, and beside her on a cot was the body of my grandfather. No one said he was dead. I had never seen a dead person before, but I knew, without being told, that he was. I went over to my grandmother and she took me into her arms and in between her sobs she told me how much my grandfather had loved me and how proud he was of me.
Whatever happened next, how I got out of the room, where I went, I don’t remember. I do remember my father staying home from the store, though, and my not going to school for several days.
The afternoon of the funeral, my father’s mother, Grandmother Cleveland, came from Houston to stay with us, and she arrived early in the morning with my great-aunt Lyda. I was not allowed to go to the funeral—why, I don’t know—and I sat on our front porch as the funeral procession passed by a half block away down Alabama Street to the Methodist church.
I remember my great-aunt and my grandmother Cleveland talking in hushed tones about what a fine and good man my grandfather was. My great-aunt Lyda said that when her husband died in 1918 in the flu epidemic, he had been buying a farm on time from my grandfather and that after his sudden and unexpected death she went to my grandfather to say that she would have to turn the farm back to him, as she couldn’t afford the monthly payments any longer. My grandfather had discouraged her from doing so and arranged payments that she could easily manage. They spoke of his many charities and how many people he helped financially and how he would never, ever be forgotten.
There was much talk like that in the days following his death. The local papers carried a laudatory editorial:
An Appreciation of Tom Brooks
This city mourns the passing of her first citizen. I say first, because Tom Brooks was easily first in the hearts of his countrymen. Admired, respected and loved by an entire community—truly that is a fitting epitaph for any man.
A man of keenest intellectual endowments, of ripened judgement, an affability of disposition, and a saving sense of humor, he combined in greater degree than any other I have known, those qualities which go to make up a perfect citizen.
He engaged in politics in its broader phases from a sense of duty as a citizen, and I always found him, in his political activities, high-minded, sincere, fair and tolerant.
Few men possessed his public spirit. Combining high ideals with a sound practical judgement, his counsel was an important asset to the community and his leadership an indicium of success.
He dispensed charity unostentatiously, and no worthy cause made its appeal to him in vain.
Devoted to his family and to his state, he exemplified the truest qualities of good citizenship.
Springing from the chivalric environs of the Old South, he was true to her best tradition.
His place will not be filled in our community life in this generation.
All the stores in the town had closed out of respect for him the day of his funeral, which was the largest funeral the town had ever seen. For days after there were cards, letters, and phone calls praising him and saying he would never be forgotten. There was talk of a monument on the courthouse lawn and a street being named for him. None of that happened.
My grandfather had loaned money to a great many people and sold land that the purchasers often paid out in installments. He kept very haphazard books, with most of his transactions being done on a handshake and a verbal promise.
My 23-year-old uncle, Thomas Harry, whom I called Uncle Brother, was put in charge, after his father’s death, of collecting money that was owed, but a number of the people who my family knew owed money claimed to have paid off their debts. Since there was no written proof, there was nothing anyone could do. Like the loans, talk of street-naming and the monument were soon forgotten, and a few years later, the mayor sent a crew to cut down the ancient pecan tree that stood in the center of the dirt road running in front of our house and that my grandfather had given to the city with the understanding (again verbal) that it would never be cut down.
My grandmother was so absorbed in her grief that she paid little attention to all of this, and my mother, though hurt, never dwelt on it. It made a great and lasting impression on me, though. Here was a man genuinely loved and admired in his lifetime, praised extravagantly at his death, and yet six months after he was gone, it seemed he was forgotten just like anyone else. When his name would come up through the years, usually someone would add that he was a fine man, much admired, or how could such a fine man have sons who turned out so badly. Now, 74 years after his death, he is as unknown and unremembered as his wastrel sons. The building that housed his office in town was torn down for a bank parking lot, the house where he raised his children has been sold, and the quiet street that was in front of the house began, soon after his death, its slow but steady descent into a metaphor for all the ugly, trashy highways that scar a great deal of small-town America.