By Pete Brooks
My Mom, Joan Marie Brooks, was born in the Midwest in 1926.
Google reports: In September of that year—on the 11th as it happens—a hurricane formed outside Miami which hit land one week later, eventually killing 372 people, injuring more than 5,000 and leaving some 43,000 Floridians homeless. In Japan, a promising young first-born son named Hirohito was crowned Emperor. Back stateside, Miles Davis was busy being born and the Hula Hoop was still some 25 years away from sweeping the nation. Mom would have been 3 years old on ‘Black Thursday,’ when the world financial markets crashed in 1929, ushering in the Great Depression—and her childhood.
Later, in the 1940s, she and my Dad (and occasionally other boys, from what she tells me) necked in the rumble seats of touring sedans under the streetlights of a sepia-tinted Chicago, back when everything was in Mono and black & white.
Religion. Politics. Race… [pause for awkward silence—cough]
But Mom survived the Great Depression. And WWII, and polio, Elvis on Ed Sullivan (so many times, too!), the Cold War—even Pat Robertson’s wicked mendacity. Until the last year or so, she lived independently, proudly, on her own; grateful for the daily love, assistance and drama her daughter Peggy and granddaughter Janice and their families brought into her life.
As a kid, I asked her once why she and my Dad adopted kids instead of having some of their own. Mr. Sensitive, right? And she told me that although Daddy and her had prayed really, really hard for a long time, in the end, God had said ‘no.’ Which led to the tale of the Chosen Child, which was beautiful. “Your aunts and uncles had to take the babies they were given—we chose you.” Bam, case closed, we win! My whole childhood, I had this mental image of my aunts being wheeled into maternity wards and having random newborns thrust into their arms then wheeled out.
The years passed like a metaphor. Or perhaps they were a simile; I never could tell them apart.
While chatting with Mom shortly after she first fell seriously ill, I mentioned my recent 15th anniversary. She goes, “How long have you been married?” in a skeptical voice, dragging out the ‘how long’. 15 years, I repeat. “Wow,” she says. I go, what do you mean, ‘wow’? Her tone oozing sympathy for Leslie, she lamented, “Oh honey, you’re impossible to live with.”
Never even grasped the concept of ‘filter.’
Mom remained interested in life and held onto her deeply-unyielding opinions, and personal dignity, to the end. Well, almost right up to the end. Thanks to the miracle of modern medicine, Mom suffered way longer than any of us would have wished. And the absolute last thing to go was her noodle. After that, the end came quickly.
Over the course of a lifetime, if my Mom and I had had a Facebook status, it would definitely have been “Complicated.”
Like all of our generation of Brookses, my siblings [note to self: add names here if time permits] were adoptees too. At different times from different families. The last one, Peggy, after my Dad was about my age. How bonkers is that?! They kept on going even after my older brother Terry [is alleged to have] brought polio home from the orphanage, and then I’m told I brought something pernicious and infectious too. If I adopted a kid and they accidentally brought the plague into my house, I would still love and raise that kid as my own (should I survive)… but I would definitely not be rolling the dice a second time! Certainly not three or four more times.
Connie didn't bring anything home with her but sass and class.
Out of their need for family, our parents gave my brothers and sisters and me everything. A last name. Family; siblings, relatives. Social integration. A loving home, a softer place to land. And in some cases, a more interesting backstory than others.
The thing growing up was, my Mom was the proverbial immovable object, and so was I. We went at it hammer and tong, without relent. She had me on size and rank, but I had her on tactics and guile. We were too evenly matched, and we both reacted to each other’s violent provocations in kind. I regret now that I used my sister Peggy as a proxy for my Mom, but as she was usually allowed to watch the punishment that followed be meted out, it became what Lucas would call an ‘infinity loop’ of cross-generational domestic drama that only began to improve after I bought my first car for $350 and had a viable exfil strategy from heavy situations.
The second I moved out—two weeks after my 18th birthday so as not to insult my folks by leaving home before the age of majority—things immediately started getting better. I went to work with and for my Dad in the local lifting and toting racket, and Mom would come by my studio shotgun-shack and take me out grocery shopping, apparently determined to stuff my tiny, ancient fridge as full as her more capacious unit at home. I’d drop by the house, they’d be happy to see me instead of laying in wait; when things started to get tense, I had somewhere else I could be! Really took the stress off of all three of us.
Anyhow, Dad got old before Mom did. Dad was born in 1913, which is not a typo. And he got all kinds of sick eventually, like Olde Folks do. And Mom transitioned into Caretaker mode. It was somewhere around then that Mom and I made peace with my childhood. We talked it all out, we each mea-ed our culpas and we both begged the others’ forgiveness. It took years to convince her I was sincere and that I had really truly written the whole childhood thing off to ‘youthful indiscretions.’ (Lord, how she loved her George W Bush.)
Since then, we’ve become great friends. For the next 20-some years, one day a week was faithfully set aside to call Mom and catch each other up on what was going on in our lives. How was work at Skaggs-then-Osco? What was new with Peg and the kids? (It was always something!) How do you like the job W is doing now—really? Still??! and: How do I tweak the actual events of my life to make them Mom-friendly enough to discuss at least somewhat candidly?
It was mostly on Mondays we talked. Just last week—and I’m sure this was because my Mom was on my mind—I was bouncing down the stairs and asked myself, “Hey man, what day of the week is it again?” Monday. —Oh, Monday, gotta call M** screech
Old habits die almost as hard as Mom did.
So there you have it: a thumbnail sketch of a complicated life from a son’s perspective. A life whose final act included legitimate spiritual redemption as well as increasingly impressive examples of putting her born-again Christian values to work. She would concede she was not the best Christian in the world when she was a Catholic, but when she let Jesus march into her heart, she walked the walk right alongside Him.
Which brings me to my little brother, Shane. He was a late-in-life addition to the family.
Picture this. I’m living in California in my late 20s, maybe early 30s, and Mom calls up. She’s taking in a roomer, she tells me. Some teenage boy who cuts her grass on weekends. Who had just been brought to her door by the police. “DO go on,” I say, trying to stifle the rising terror in my voice. I’m thinking: She fell for Pat Robertson’s line of bunk for decades, got sucked into all kinds of secular pyramid schemes along the way, trusted the wrong people with the family’s fortunes—if past was prologue, this kid would only be more of the same. “Candy on a stick,” my Dad used to call people like us. Still, Mom had already moved the young man in before she called me; Clara Barker didn’t raise any dummies. Mom had made two conditions with the cop and the kid. I forget the first one (Keep a clean house? Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain? Something like that.), but number two was she extracted a promise from the boy to go to church with her every week.
God had dropped this prime evangelical opportunity in her lap in her golden years and she was not about to waste it! And wouldn’t you know, with this son she finally succeeded. Shane grew up to be an upstanding, church-going man with a lovely family, all of whom consider Mom Grandma and Jesus Lord. A few weeks ago, Shane and his daughter Lainey made it to Tucson in time to meet Mom on a good [lucid] day. I understand it was a great day.
Sometimes, it turns out, God says “yes,” too.
My Mom was truly the strongest woman I’ve ever met, and she set the template for all the strong women I would admire (and eventually marry one of) the rest of my life.
And now she’s gone, and it’s like that taut ropeline that’s always—even from afar—tethered my life has been snipped and centrifugal force has sent me cartwheeling out of orbit, fidget-spinning my way into the unknown.
I feel adrift; an orphan again, among a family of orphans.
But we’re not orphans anymore, of course, which is the whole point. We’re a family. A family of Brookses, and Madsen-Brookses and Slenzaks and Tomalkas and Littlefields and Smiths and sisters and brothers and cousins and grandkids, aunts and uncles…
All because God said no, and my Mom said, “We’ll see about that.”
Pete Brooks is an author and a comedian, living far from the home he loves.