By Ed Crumley
It’s a long story. A hundred year’s worth. He celebrated his 100th birthday on June 24, 2008, so he actually had six more months to go, passing away on January 28, 2009.
Fred Elbert Brown was a Southern boy. His birthplace was Allatoona, Georgia, a place not known by many save some Civil War buffs. The ghosts of those Confederate soldiers in butternut and grey swirled around him most of his life. He wrote a twenty-page essay about the Battle of Allatoona that was published in a “Civil War History” booklet which made the Library of Congress.
Fred’s personal floor-to-ceiling library at his home in Houston housed almost every known book on the, as he called it, “War Between the States”, or when in a feistier mood: “the War of Northern Aggression”. A photo of a stocky, bearded, uniformed ancestor, Sgt. Henry Terrell, standing stiffly at attention, holding his sword, hung on the library wall.
Fred probably should have been a college professor, but after being reared in the bare bones home of a low-paid, small-town Southern Baptist preacher and living through the Great Depression, a mindset focused on security for himself and his family led him into a career which, he thought, would provide best for them.
After grinding out workdays perusing figures on balance sheets, payrolls, and annual reports as CFO for the Chevron Oil Company, he would take sanctuary in the Rice University library researching his favorite subject, the Civil War.
His personality was one of contrasts. Young nephews and sons-in-law could find him intimidating, as one who “took no prisoners” and “suffered no fools lightly”. He regarded small talk a chore. However, females both in and outside the family were privy to a great charm spiced with a razor-sharp dry wit. He was a lady’s man to the core, a romantic whose admitted cantankerousness shielded and cloaked a caring heart and a giving spirit. To Fred, the glass was usually half empty, but he always wanted to fill yours if need be. And he did it with no strings attached.
Fred stayed in his home as long as he could after Emeline died following her long seventeen-year fading away with Alzheimer’s. He could have remained there until the end if the house had been one-story. But a fall resulting in a broken hip prevented it as he could no longer navigate the stairs.
Mary Burton came to work for “Mr. B”, as she called him, a few hours a day several months before the falling incident as a companion and helper. A sturdy twenty-something African-American girl who could have only been sent by angels, she anticipated his every need: fixing his meals, driving him to the grocery store and medical appointments, and helping him with personal grooming. He came to depend on her and appreciate her more than anyone.
It has been a mission of the “cultural elite” to stereotype and denigrate citizens of the South by portraying them as bigoted and hidebound especially about racial issues. Some have said that in the North, they “’love’ the race but hate the person”, and in the South they “love the person but hate the race”. But those statements in themselves are stereotypical and typecasting, sticking everyone of a group in the same slot.
After the hip operation and rehab, it was obvious Fred’s fifty years in his home were over. Everything changed for him. He moved from his spacious two-story four-bedroom house with a large den, to a small dim single room in a senior center.
Everything changed . . . except Mary. She went with him. He needed round the clock help, so Mary took charge. She found others to fill in the day and night hours when she wasn’t there. And they answered to her instructions concerning Mr. B’s routine, or they were gone. Only with her was he completely at ease, so her absence on the weekends were the hardest. Those times he felt vulnerable and frequently disoriented.
Fred wasn’t one to throw around “I love you” with easy frequency, but every time Mary left him they each spoke those words and sealed them with kisses on the cheeks. She said he was the only white man she ever loved.
Hospice finally came with the hospital bed and sometimes Fred coughed loudly in the night hours. A complaint from a neighbor’s helper brought down the wrath of Mary who strongly instructed the helper to tell any complaint she had to the director, that Mr. Brown was dying and not to bother him again.
Mary made the over two hundred mile trip with Fred’s daughter and son-in-law to Ennis for the funeral. The next day she left a phone message for Fred’s other daughter that she loved her and her family.
Fred was a true son of the South down to his soft Georgia accent and measured speech, and in their own ignorance someone might smugly stereotype and categorize a man of his origins. No “bubba” or “cracker” was he but a man of high intellect, knowledge, class, humor, and love. Mary loved him because of who she is as well as who he was. This old Southerner and a young black girl formed a bond which was much stronger than the vast differences between them.
The Truth of God’s Word can be seen as it weaves itself through the cloth of everyday life if we just look for it. “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” I Cor. 13:13.