Father and Son


Three generations of Brooks men (with a Brooks female). We continue this legacy now with my dad, me, and my son, Jon.

This has been a hectic week: it’s the annual Vacation Bible School for my church, which means I have been parading around for about 200 kids, leading them in silly songs and dances and offering my public humiliation as an incentive for them to give towards a worthy cause. The VBS curriculum calls my position, “Worship Rally Leader.” I prefer to think of myself as “Big Stupid Man.”

(Sidebar: chances are I’ll have some great pictures to post tomorrow of said public humiliation, which in this case would be the kids getting to dump chocolate syrup on me and then throw flour in my face.)

However, my role also means that I’ve gotten to work with my father every day so far this week. My dad is the sound engineer for the entire week, so that means he’s responsible for pushing play on the DVD or moving the PowerPoint slides along while I’m speaking. It also means that he has my very life in his hands, because I’m completely reliant on the sound/projection system for making Worship Rally fun and engaging. Fortunately, my dad is really good at that stuff.

So for me, it’s been a treat. Granted, we’ve been separated by the walls of a soundbooth, so it’s not like we’ve been arm in arm singing Kumbaya around the campfire. But it’s been nice to know that my dad has been my partner.

It’s also been amazing, as a son, to give direction to my father and watch him humbly take it. Now, if you know my dad, you have no reason to expect otherwise; he is one of the most gracious and humble men you could ever hope to meet, the kind of guy that would rather serve than star (which is why he gravitated towards the sound booth).

But I also know that it can’t be easy when the kid you raised starts telling you what to do and when to do it. I mean, the man literally wiped my bottom until I learned to do it myself – so it has to be a little weird for me to suddenly become the expert on something. Yet he simply listens intently, smiles, and says, “Not a problem. I’ll handle it.”

If you’ve ever worked with another human being, you know how precious those words can be.

Which makes it all the more gratifying to hear them from my father because he, of all people, would be justified in copping an attitude with me. He could reference any number of embarrassing anecdotes from my childhood, or pull some other time-tested parental card on me, but he doesn’t. He just works with me, making me look good, making the few minutes a day we’re partners work seamlessly.

And like any good production guy, nobody thanks him. Nobody comes up to him and says, “Great job of balancing that split track!” or “Mr. Rickey, I love the way you play DVDs.”

I get all the glory, but all the credit belongs to him.

Which makes me all the more thankful, as we approach this Father’s Day weekend, that I have him in my life. That I can work with him, talk to him, give him orders, ask him for advice, or just wordlessly stand in the sound booth with him. Even when we don’t say anything, a lot is still spoken between us.

Which is how I know that this weekend will be tough for him. Not only are he and my mom volunteering to keep my kids so Rachel and I can celebrate our 11th wedding anniversary, but this will also be his first Father’s Day without his dad. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know that my dad’s dad, my grandfather, Harold Brooks, passed away last year on August 29th. So the past nine months have been difficult because it’s brought all of the firsts after his death – Thanksgiving and Christmas were rough; so was Pop’s birthday in April.

So this weekend will be challenging.

I’ll most likely never see him shed a tear. At most, he’ll probably mention something about Pop in passing, or when he thinks nobody’s really listening. My dad is not one for working his grief out in public. I respect that.

But since I am, I just want him to know that I love him. That I am grateful to have him in my life, and in the lives of my children. I am grateful that when my kids hear the word “Poppy” they light up as if you’d just told them Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were break dancing in the kitchen.

Most of all, I am grateful that a long-standing family tradition of a son loving his father and grandkids loving their grandfather, will continue unabated this Sunday.

It is our legacy.

It is our gift.

What the Picture Contains: Family Photos and the Essence of the Soul

Last Thursday night, long after the family had gathered and shared a meal, long after the lights in all of the neighboring houses had gone out, my grandmother and her children sat down to discuss the future. My grandfather’s funeral. His burial. His estate. Well into the early hours of Friday they discussed the things we’ve all been avoiding, and came to the hard but necessary decisions.

Each family member will have his or her own role, but when I spoke with my father about mine, he told me it was simple: deliver Pop’s eulogy and make the video memorial for Pop’s funeral service. I’d already taken my grandmother’s photo albums, in the hopes of scanning in some pictures for a book I’m working on, so adding in photos from other family members isn’t such a big deal. And, if you’ve ever seen the cheesy way some funeral homes do those memorial videos, I’d much rather save the money and do it myself.

But that being said, it’s not easy to consolidate a lifetime. How do you take over 85 years of a person’s life and turn it into a meaningful 15-20 minutes?

Harder still, how do you consolidate that same 85-plus years as seen and experienced through different sets of eyes? It’s not like one photographer followed my grandfather around all of his days; everyone close to Pop has some sort of picture of him, and each of those pictures represents a moment in time that that person saw something unique to him or her. In that regard, every time I come across a new photo from a different source, I’m staggered by the reality that Pop’s life – and my own – is lived through one lens but viewed through multiple, so that our lives don’t belong merely to us, but to everyone we love.

In essence, our essence is born up in the hearts of those around us. We are fragmented people.

Think about it: a photograph isn’t just a generic memory – it’s encoded with the photographer’s mind, so that when the photographer looks at the picture, he or she can say, “This is what was going on at the time…”

Our lives are much the same way – when our relatives or friends look at us, they see something different from what we see. Thus, who we are is not merely what we think in our own heads, but also how other people see us.

It’s fascinating to think about, as I look through hundreds of old photographs and see my grandfather, or my aunt, or my late uncle. They exist one way in the picture, a separate way in their own consciousness, and yet another way in my mind. I’m not deep enough or skilled enough to really dig into the philosophy here, but there’s such beauty in realizing that we are trusted with part of what makes another person themselves. When you think about it, no one can claim to be an island, because the very circumstances of birth dictate that there is at least one other person on this planet who holds a piece of you. And if no one is an island, what could that do to our social values, or political process?

These are the things you think about when you spend hours scanning in and labeling specific seconds of a person’s life. The thoughts come unbidden, and ramble around like old-school tramps looking for a comfortable freight car headed west. I’ve seen so many different versions of my grandfather, each one distinct, many unfamiliar, and I don’t know whether to rejoice over discovering these things or cry because I’ve missed out on so much.

But of all the pictures I’ve scanned in today, only one really resonates with me. I knew I’d come across it sooner or later, and have been preparing myself for it’s appearance. Once I flipped it over, I felt my stomach sink. I apologize, but the image is startling and might be disturbing to some. If so I ask for your forgiveness.

My dad's older brother, Terry. He was killed three months after I was born.

I first saw the photo when I was seven or eight years old, and it made my heart seize. I thought it was my father, and for a split-second it felt like an alternate universe. I ran screaming to MawMaw’s side with it and asked her to explain.

“It’s your daddy’s brother, uncle Terry. It’s from when he died.”

I can’t remember if I’d known about Terry or not, and I guess it’s not really relevant. There, in black and white (the photo I saw was from a newspaper obituary) was a face so eerily familiar that it filled me with anxiety until I saw my dad that night. Once I was able to hug him, to put my hands on his face and know that he was all right, I was able to let the image fade from my mind.

But like all children, I had a curiosity that couldn’t be satisfied. MawMaw kept Terry’s picture tucked into the frame of her guest bedroom mirror, and when the family was over, or when I was spending time at her house, I would sneak into the guest bedroom and just stare at that picture. It took me a long time to work up the nerve to read the actual obituary (it was fairly standard), and even longer still to pick the picture up again and really study it. But the more often I stole away to look at it, the more it made me think about mortality and death and specifically just what I would do without my father.

In all those years, however, it never made me ask what it was like for my cousin to grow up without her dad. Today, I look at that photo and, while my initial reaction is still to freak out over the visual similarities between Terry and my dad (and now apparently, myself; Jonathan looked at this, turned to me and said, “Daddy?”), my main thoughts turn to my cousin, Chasity.

I look at this photo and think, I wish I could’ve known my uncle.

Chasity might look at it and think, I wish I could’ve known my dad.

I’m blessed that my father is still with me, that I see him every Sunday, that I can call and talk to him whenever I want, or solicit his advice when I need guidance. Chasity was blessed with a step-father who has been good to her, but it just tears me up to sit here today and actually realize just how empty and confusing it must be to never know your dad. To have to construct him out of other people’s memories.

Which brings me back to what I was saying at the beginning: Chasity knows what she knows about her dad because he lived on in the hearts and memories of other people. She knows something about him because she can sit and stare at a photograph taken when he was younger and discern things about him from what that captured moment reveals. She can see the kindness in his eyes, or the legendary sense of humor in his smile, or (in one of my other favorite photos) the way he kicked back against his father’s car, tilted up a bottle of Coke, and drank every last drop to his own satisfaction. She can, in some ways, interact with him, and get to know him a little more.

And all because someone pointed a camera at him in that moment and said, “That’s so Terry.”

All because someone loved him and carried him forward in their heart and photo album.

One day, my children will look back through all the photos I’ve scanned (and will soon scan) and they’ll be able to construct the people of their lineage out of what pictures I’ve assembled. Jonathan won’t be able to remember Pop Harold; what Ella will remember is no certain thing. So I am grateful that I will be able to introduce them to their grandfathers (both of my Pops), as well as the other people they may not have known, through pictures.

It’s funny, but once upon a time, some people were afraid to have their picture taken, believing that the photographed image would capture the subject’s soul. The first time I ever heard that, I thought it was the stupidest thing in the world.

Now, I think it might be one of the most beautiful.

Ghosts I Never Knew

The house is quiet. Jonathan’s asleep, Rachel’s out running an errand, Ella’s not yet home from school. I’m all alone in my room.

It’s the perfect time to let the ghosts have free reign.

Here’s one from 1948. My grandmother, standing outside the rock building at Grayson Elementary school. She’s holding a basketball, in full Grayson High School uniform. Her smile is pleasant, if a bit forced. This is not the woman I know as MawMaw, though the picture is of her (the eyes give her away). No, the young woman in the picture is someone else, someone who lived long before I was born and whose life, to me, remains somewhat of a mystery.

MawMaw, looking ready to dunk on a fool.

Here’s another, from 1949 I believe. My grandparents, standing in front of some sort of mural at Lakewood Park in Atlanta, Georgia. Pop, his collar open, his right hand thrust casually into his pocket, looks every bit the charmer. His eyes and smile are confident and mischievous, and looking at him as a young man, I’m wonder if my grandmother liked him because he was somewhat bad. When you see him next to her – she’s clad in an ankle-length wool skirt that reaches high on her waist, her blouse a plain, inelegant white with a blunt neckline – he seems positively dangerous; his hand snakes behind her back and cups her hip, pulling their bodies together. It’s the kind of thing that, as a father of a daughter, sets off warning bells in a parent’s head.

My grandparents, getting cozy.

The next ghost comes all the way from Europe, circa 1944-45. My grandfather, perched atop an Army Jeep, looking very much insubordinate. Every other soldier visible in the picture has on a helmet; Pop’s jet-black hair is cut close to his head and looks relatively styled for a GI on the front. He looks heroic, if reckless, and reminds me of Ed Burns’ character from Saving Private Ryan. Easy company, indeed.

I'm pretty sure what Pop is doing here is NOT regulation...

My grandparents sharing a kiss in a muddy field. Who ever looks at their forebears and thinks of them as passionate young people, in love, wanting to spend time in each others arms? It’s so much easier to just file them away as we come to know them – older, more restrained, the settled products of a long life. Thinking of them as like us – young, ambitious, full of dreams and imagination and hormones – takes us into places where only our therapists dare tread. But to not think of them in this way deprives us of knowing them fully; it’s what leaves us looking at pictures in stunned silence, realizing that there were stories that never got told because we were too timid to want to hear them.

True loves kiss.

Another good one: Pop, in what looks like a photobooth snapshot. You can’t miss those ears, or that bulbous nose that most of his siblings shared. The hairline is starting to rise a bit, but the inky silhouette of his hair jumps out against the pallor of his face and shirt. Here’s where you can really see the mischief; you can look at those eyes and that half-crooked smile and just tell that this young man is capable of getting into trouble of all degrees. There’s an arrogance to him – not nasty or mean, but the type that daredevils and other thrill-seekers share, the type that says I will not be afraid of life. Of all the photos I’ve come across, this one is my favorite because I can see both the man I know and a complete stranger, one whose life might make an excellent novel about life in the Depression-Era South.

The very image of a rascal.

And here’s where the exercise comes to an end, not just because Ella and Rachel have returned; my heart hurts. The ghosts I’ve spent the past hour with retreat back into their photographic homes, their eyes pleading with me to release them again sometime soon. Their faces are different to me now; I see them not as curiosities or heirlooms, but as ghosts I’ll never really know. I look at this black and white legacy and lament that when my grandfather passes, so will the young man in that photobooth snapshot. I’ll never be able to talk to that man, or any of his iterations, again.

It is a bittersweet truth.

At least I’ll have the pictures, and between my own innate curiosity and my family’s love of stories, I’m sure that I’ll be able to cobble together some sort of loose history that will in some way satisfy me. But the taunting thought that I let so much go by me will not sit well; and I will not make the same mistake going forward.

Leaving a Legacy

I’m just going to start this little blog post and then send it out into cyberspace, knowing that I’ll have to come back and rewrite or add or possibly even turn it into a book. Who knows?

But I just got done reading the blog of one of my former students, Abbie Reynolds (yes, I know I just pushed her blog the other week; can I help it if she’s good?), and specifically this post, and I have to say: it just tickled the crap out of me.

I didn’t raise Abbie. Was only intimately involved in her and her family’s life for a period of five or so years (though we have kept in touch, proof of which is the 5,000,000 reference letters I’ve written and still write for this chick). But in reading that blog post I felt an overwhelming sense that I had somehow contributed something worthwhile to her life. I can say that because she refers to me in the post (“Grammar Nazi” – which, honestly, should be more like “Punctuation Nazi”). And, because she reads my blog and maybe learned a little somethin’-somethin’ from moi. But that’s beside the point.

The point is, I have spent hours pouring into the lives of other people, most of whom were students between the terrible ages of 12 and 18, many of whom, I am proud to say, I still keep in touch with. When my life ends, and the accomplishments I’ve racked up are counted, the few things that will mean the most to me will be the legacy I leave my wife, my kids, and my students. I pray that I can be the kind of man that leaves people better for having met me, the kind of man that sees that part of humanity that God called “very good” when He was done creating it. I pray that I can invest into the lives of other people and enjoy watching that investment pay off, not in any direct way (I don’t particularly care to be mentioned by name in award acceptance speeches, especially after seeing “In & Out” with Kevin Kline), but in the fact that the folks I’ve invested in go on to lead meaningful lives.

I know that people make choices, and that there are going to be times when someone elects to do other than what I (or their parents or friends or family) would hope; but I still believe, at the end of the day, that a generation of mature, insightful, thoughtful individuals might be the best legacy that I could ever leave.

What do you think? What makes a lasting legacy?