Saturday, June 15, 2019

Little Big Man

Back in the 70’s Dustin Hoffman starred in a western called “Little Big Man.” I don’t really know what the movie was about, but as soon as I started to write this essay, the title came to mind, because my father, Thomas Franklin Brown stood only five feet two inches tall, yet he commanded more respect than any man I’ve ever known personally.  He was an entrepreneur and a church leader, but it’s not the public man I want to tell you about. I want to tell you about Tommy Brown, my daddy.

One of my earliest memories is sitting with my cousins by the side of a dusty dirt road in Millville, New Jersey in front of my grandparent’s house watching him play softball with my aunts and uncles. Family was his top priority.  We worshipped together as a family, we vacationed as a family and often worked together in the business he started when I was five years old. 

Contrary to the well-meaning advice of friends and relatives, he started his own part-time printing business in our basement while he worked days as a pressman at a large printing company. Two years later he left the job and never looked back. When his business outgrew the house, he moved it to the first of a series of progressively larger rented buildings. Though he never had more than three full-time employees at any given time, he supported a wife, four children and, from time to time, assorted relatives on the income this business produced.  I need to give my mother credit right here, because part of the reason he was able to do this was because she made a lot of our clothes and knew how to shop to save money. He never worked another outside job again, which was an amazing accomplishment for a black man in the 1950’s.

By today’s standards he would probably be considered strict in the sense that he expected us to be obedient. And we obeyed, not because we were afraid of him, but because the last thing we ever wanted to do was disappoint him. I’ll never forget the time when I was in seventh grade and got into a fight with the neighborhood bully.  Embarrassed and humiliated by having his daughter involved in a street brawl, he made arrangements with the Chief of Police in our small town and the other girl’s mother for us to be given a lecture and personal guided tour of the township jail by a uniformed officer in an effort to scare us straight.  I don’t know about her, but the experience sure did the trick for me. As a result of his ‘style', not one of his four children has ever been in jail.

We weren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination, but Tommy Brown was a giver from his heart.  He never failed to go overboard at Christmas and on birthdays, but when we wanted something in between those special occasions, his mantra was, "you save half and I’ll give you the other half."  Of course, we usually earned the money by working in his print shop folding, stapling, and collating and sweeping.  He definitely got his money’s worth out of us.

A jazz fanatic who had an impressive collection of 78’s and 33’s, he always worked with his music playing.  I believe his children all grew up to be avid music lovers because, prior to moving the business out of the house, he built speakers into the walls of the basement in order to hear the music over the hum of the presses.  When he cranked it up, we could feel the floors upstairs vibrate beneath our feet. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Earl Grant, Jimmy Smith and Ray Charles provided the soundtrack for our childhood.  

Even though he worked ridiculously long hours, he knew how to have fun. In his younger days, he loved to host big backyard barbecues for which, of course, my mother did all of the work.  And those summertime gatherings usually ended with the kids toasting marshmallows over the fire on the grill while the grown-ups played rowdy games of badminton and horseshoes. I’m hard pressed to recall a time when our back yard wasn’t much more than two huge bare spots on either side of the net at the end of the summer.

Never one to put vacations on the back burner in favor of the business. he and my mother always came up with fun outings for us.  When money was low, we did local excursions to the early amusement parks -- Olympic Park and Palisades Park -- which have long since disappeared. With air fares being out of their financial reach back then, we traveled everywhere we went by car -- Atlantic City, Freedomland, Bear Mountain, Sebego Lake in New York and Hershey Park, Pennsylvania.  Once we grew up, he and my mother were finally able to fly to Bermuda, Puerto Rico and Canada, and took my daughter, Crystal along with them when she was little.

Sadly, in telling this story to people over the years, I’ve often received looks of disbelief.  That’s when I realized just how uncommon my story is and how blessed we were.  Tommy Brown’s name will never be written in any hall of fame, but he was a man of incredible pride, faith and integrity. He didn’t go to bars or hang out with his buddies. His idea of relaxation was to stretch out in his recliner and watch the Mets at Shea Stadium on television. He went to work, to church, to Chamber of Commerce meetings and spent his free time with his family, which included his nine brothers and sisters and their children.

During times that I only vaguely recall as stressful, his mother moved in to live with us when she became too sick to care for herself.  Years later, after her passing, another hospital bed was delivered for one of his brothers who came to live with us when he succumbed to the deterioration of advanced diabetes.

At my father’s seventieth birthday party, my sister, who lived in Atlanta, was unable to attend.  She sent a taped message thanking him for being the man he was.  As she spoke through tears, she told him how grateful she was that we never had those stories to tell like so many children unfortunately do - the ones about eating mayonnaise sandwiches because there wasn’t any food in the house, or having to do their homework by candlelight because the electricity was turned off, or watching their mother go down to the local bar to drag their father out.

My father went home to be with the Lord in 1995.  His funeral was a testament to the greatness of an “everyday” man.  My brothers, sister and I were overwhelmed by the turnout of not only friends and neighbors, but also of township officials, former business associates and even the ninety-year-old doctor who had delivered all of us into the world. 

Today’s fathers could learn a lot from the lives of men like Tommy Brown.  He stood only five feet two inches tall, but to me he was a giant.

Thank you, Daddy!

Thursday, June 13, 2019

New Release Showcase

Today I am so excited to share the new release by my friend and sisterscribe, Vonna Ivory Joseph entitled The Saint Christmas Social Club.

About the Author

Vonna Ivory Joseph is the author of seven women’s contemporary novels.  Her work is decidedly southern.  A fresh voice in storytelling which focuses on what she calls, The New South.  Joseph is dedicated to sharing her perspective with razor sharp observations, wit and honesty.

“This fort sucks the life out of everyone who’s had the misfortune of calling it home.”

The Evermoors of Saint Christmas Bay, FL were a storied bunch with a rich legacy dating back to the 1800’s.  January Cates was one of them, but not by name.  He was born to the legacy and all of its benefits, but not to the right woman.  Born an outsider, he never fit into their world and created his own.  Traversing the line between the only male heir to the Evermoor fortune by day and maintaining his self-appointed image as a fierce fight promoter by night, Cates’ wherewithal begins to thin.
Meghan Thomas was to a strict, outspoken mother and a widely admired father.  A typical firstborn, Meghan was dutiful and eager to please, even if doing so she was completely lost to herself.  After a courageous move to escape an abusive relationship whilst sparing her family’s sterling reputation, she meets the dark and mysterious January Cates.

A rich cast of characters and a historical fort help both January and Egypt figure out who they really are and how to find the freedom they both so strongly desire.

“Teeny, I’m telling you, the girl has a secret.”
“So, do you. So, do I. Who doesn’t?”
Rooster heaved a signature sigh of exasperation.
“I thought you cared so much about you precious baby brother.”
“Our precious baby brother. What does he have to do with her secrets?”
Rooster scoffed. “Are you blind, Woman? That young man is smitten. Come on out of that outhouse, Christina Evermoor! I feel like a backwoods hillbilly with all this yelling. Come on out of there.”
Teeny appeared wearing a fluffy towel tucked around her large bosom and curvy hips.
“Jesus, Teeny!” Rooster said raising her hands to cover her eyes.
“You said come on out. Which way do you want it?  I get naked in the tub and my clothes are in there,” Teeny said breezing past her red-faced sister into her home.
“Of course, Jan’s smitten. Jan hasn’t met a woman who hasn’t enchanted him. He’s built that way. It’s not breaking news, Murphy Brown.”
Rooster sighed again and put her feet up on the empty chair in front of her.
“She’s on the run or something.”
“How do you know?” Rooster didn’t answer right away. She couldn’t tell Teeny about the cameras she’d had installed throughout the manor. “Look at her. She wrecks a Mercedes Benz and doesn’t blink an eye. She hasn’t made a single inquiry about a seventy-thousand-dollar vehicle. Her manners are impeccable, her diction spot on and have you seen the quality of those diamonds in her ears?”
“I like her. She’s down to earth.”
“More evidence!” Rooster interjected, pointing into the air to drive home her point. “Her total lack of pretension speaks to good breeding.”
“Breeding!” Teeny huffed with a loud laugh. “Like your dogs?  You’re crazy.”
“I may be, but I know that young woman is running from something. Remember, Christina, I was an investigative reporter.”
“And you’ve always been a busy body,” Teeny added.
“Yeah well, it’s served me well.”
“Has it?”
“Yes, it has! Aren’t you the least bit concerned about a strange woman showing up at our doorstep and beguiling your blessed boy?”
Teeny appeared at the threshold of the bus towel drying her shoulder length coils. The mid-morning sunlight shone through the colorful pom-pom lined kaftan she wore exposing her bare breasts and clean shaven mound. Rooster turned up her lips and nose at her younger sister.
“She didn’t show up on our doorstep. He brought her, and you took the call, Nut. He’s a grown man, as you know and no, I’m not worried about Jan. He’s sharp and by no means gullible.”
“Surely, you’re a little curious about her.” Rooster said leaning on her elbows towards Teeny.
“Not really. I’m more interested in how much you pay that groomer to dogsit, than I am in this useless gossip.”
Rooster sat up and smacked her palms against the aluminum table.
“Useless gossip! You gossip!”
“I most certainly do not. I’m often the topic of gossip. I do not participate.”
Rooster pulled the empty chair out scraping it against the tiny deck.
“Come on, Teeny. We’re sisters. We used to share everything.”
Something turned cold in Teeny’s eyes.
“No, we didn’t.”  The airy quality in her voice evaporated leaving only steel.
Rooster shrunk in her chair.
“You know what I mean.” she said, shrinking under Teeny’s intense gaze.
“I do. And you know what I mean.”
The corners of Rooster’s mouth dipped, and she swallowed hard. Teeny wouldn’t let her off the hook.
“Teeny, I’m sorry I left the way I did.”
“You never even called. You just showed up at Mama’s deathbed looking for remorse…”
“That’s not fair,” Rooster nearly whispered.
“Fair,” Teeny guffawed. “That’s hardly a mature word for a woman of your station and education Augustine. Fair.”
“I was a child.”
“Bull. You were old enough to marry. Old enough to pack up and turn on your entire family. And old enough to never look back.”
“Never?  I’m right here.”
“But, why, Rooster? Because, Duke’s gone?  Do you think I’m so simple I don’t know that you’re only here because your husband is dead and you have no one else in your life, but Jan and me?” 
Rooster stood and lowered her head.
“Answer me, Rooster. Please. Be straight with me. After mama was in the ground you left again. Then one day you show up with a moving truck, those damn dogs and no explanation. You just moved in and started giving orders. Changing things and sending daddy away.”
“Daddy needed more help than we could give!” Rooster shouted shaking her hands at Teeny before tossing them in the air. “I can’t do this. Not now. Not like this.”
“Oh,” Teeny crowed. “You were all set to tear into that girls’ secrets, but not your own. We’re sisters, remember?”
“Teeny stop it!”
“Fine. I’ll stop but know this Sissy. Who we used to be is no more. And until you can be straight with me, we won’t ever be again. January Christmas Cates and Saint Christmas Evermoor is all the family I have, and you made it that way.”

Where you can find Vonna: