A Book Launch, Thanksgiving, Aggie Football, and My Dad…

It was my intention to share this post before Thanksgiving, and now I’m wondering about my decision to post it now. It’s the epitome of “anti-climatic” and reminds me of my high school days when the Homecoming Parade was the Saturday morning after the Friday night game, which sometimes ended in defeat.

But, as you know, I tend to march to the beat of my own drum and have decided to share this anyway. And for my Aggie friends, it might be a reminder of a better outcome to a Thanksgiving week game…

Although the holiday season is mostly cheerful for me, it does bring with it a small dose of the “holiday blues.” I always feel like someone is missing. Twenty-nine years after losing my dad, I still feel his absence at the table. It’s easier, and not nearly as sad as it once was, but I still miss him most during “the most wonderful time of the year.”

Many of you know that I wrote a book about losing my dad, Mockingbird Moments. This post contains an excerpt from the book, and recalls our first holiday—–Thanksgiving—–without him.

For any of you who are missing someone, I hope maybe this helps you in some way. That is the purpose of my book. To share my journey through grief, and maybe help those who have experienced great loss.

I had hoped to announce that my book has been re-released (it is out of print now because my publisher went out of business, a story for another day). I am in the process of getting it re-published, and if all goes well, I will be announcing the book re-launch soon! (Fingers crossed).

If you’re new to reading this blog, I hope you’ll bookmark it, or contact me so I can add your address to my email list:

[email protected]

I will hopefully give an update soon on the status of Mockingbird Moments. I appreciate your encouragement, kind words, and support, and would love it if you would share my blog with all your friends!

And I also would like to thank my dad, Charles Brown, for teaching me about faith, love, humility, and how to live a purposeful life. It is my greatest honor to share this story about my dad….

(from Chapter 16 of Mockingbird Moments):

“Some people believe that football is a matter of life and death.
I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”
~Bill Shankly

Fortunately, Thanksgiving showed up, even though I hoped it would be canceled in honor of my father’s passing. I wasn’t feeling very grateful, but the holiday did serve as a distraction.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It has always felt like a homecoming, whether I was returning home from college or from my adult world. No matter where I traveled from, I always knew I would enter a warm house, filled with love. This would be our first official holiday sans Dad.

As I walked into the kitchen, the familiar holiday smells surrounded me. The turkey and pies were supplied by Butcher Boys, and Mom made her special cornbread dressing using Mrs. Hathcock’s recipe, a true Southern treat. I set the plates and silverware in front of each chair and helped Mom carry the food to the table, while Brian and Greg dealt with disassembling the turkey.

When everything was ready, a wave of nausea came over me, and I knew it was contagious. All this delectable food was waiting to be eaten, yet no one was hungry. Our appetites had been suppressed by our broken hearts.

What occurred next was possibly the most heart-wrenching scene I had experienced since Dad died. When we gathered around the table, we realized we didn’t even know where we’d sit without Dad. It was like a backward version of musical chairs. After several awkward, hesitant seconds, what needed to happen did, and my brother pulled out my dad’s chair at the head of the table and sat down. He began leading us in the blessing. “Dear Heavenly Father. Thank you for all … our … blessings.” They were the only words he could muster. With our heads bowed and hands joined, we cried and eventually simply mumbled in unison “Amen.”

The meal continued, mostly in silence, until someone finally asked, “Will you please pass the sweet potatoes?” or stated, “The dressing sure is good, Mom,” to which everyone echoed and reaffirmed the sentiments by adding, “It is really good. Really good.” I think we should have at least added some, “Yes, Lords,” to the mix and a couple of “Amens,” to try to make our comments even more over-the-top and believable, as we were way too enthusiastic about the turkey’s counterpart. Our forced conversation was exhausting, but we were nothing if not mannerly. The silverware continued to clank against the plates, and ice rattled around in the glasses, filling in the blank space where words were forbidden.

It was a pleasant relief when lunch finally ended and we began the process of cleaning up the kitchen. Somehow, asking for Tupperware containers and the idle chatter about divvying up the leftovers was preferable to addressing the elephant in the room.

For most families who have been in our situation, stumbling through the meal would be the hardest hurdle to jump, but for our clan, it was the football game we would watch that afternoon—the traditional rivalry game between the Aggies and the Longhorns. This family tradition without Dad would be the most difficult to endure.

To say my dad was a huge A&M fan would be equivalent to saying water is wet. He passed down this love for his university to both Greg and me. As far as I knew, I was born an Aggie, and at eight years old, my friend Paula Peacock and I declared we were going to go to college at Texas A&M. We even had a secret Aggie handshake!

I remember sitting with my dad on Saturday afternoons, searching for the A&M game through all the static on his transistor radio. As we listened to the commentators, Dad relived stories about his college days in the mid- to late 1950s, during the era of “the Junction Boys,” led by Bear Bryant and players like John David Crow and Gene Stallings. While he spoke about days of old, I sat in my white A&M sweatshirt with the maroon Sarge and Block T on it, hanging on his every word.

I learned very early that Thanksgiving was not only about the Pilgrims and Indians but also about the Aggies and Longhorns. This day meant celebrating (or grieving) the holiday with the A&M-tu game. As a young child, this rivalry game was usually watched at my grandparents’ home in Gonzales. My grandmother despised the fact that the TV blared during our meal, and she chided my grandfather with her standard line: “You’re going to burn, Brown.”

In the end, her objections were overruled, and we watched the game while we ate because God understands about football. I must confess we weren’t above praying and asking the good Lord for an Aggie victory before we said, “Amen.”

The Thanksgiving game when the Longhorns scored three touchdowns in the first two minutes is forever burned in my mind. After the third touchdown, my grandfather jumped up from the table, muttered a few colorful words, and announced he was going to retrieve his hatchet so he could chop up the large wooden console TV. I waited with bated breath, imagining we were going to have our own personal version of an Aggie bonfire in the middle of Nana and Papa’s living room.

It is imperative that I give my father full credit for my love of both Texas A&M and football—two sacred things that for our family go together like peas and carrots or, better yet, chips and salsa.

I first fell in love with the game of football as a somewhat tomboyish four-year-old. On any given Sunday, when the Dallas Cowboys played, I could be found in the family room with Greg, under our makeshift fort, a card table with a sheet hanging over it, slit open ever so slightly so we could view the game from our secure location. My dad sat in his recliner, and my mom usually used this time to catch up on things around the house, or in rare instances, to relax.

At first, I was there for the adventure and playtime with my brother, but before I knew it, I was a football savant, full of knowledge and a love for the game. My dad and brother taught me the gridiron basics, and I quickly caught on to the signals the officials gave when assessing penalties.

The early 1960s was an exciting time to be a Cowboy fan. Their roster was full of legends in the making. From Roger Staubach to Bob Lilly to Bob Hayes, I loved them all. Tom Landry was my hero, and every week I gave my heart to the Dallas Cowboys.

In no time at all, I learned all the names and numbers of the starters on both sides of the ball, a feat that made my parents proud. Because of this unique talent, each time I accompanied my mom to the beauty shop, I was asked to recite this information to Bob Davis, her beauty operator. Among the thick film of hair spray and clouds of cigarette smoke, I stood at attention and named the players one by one, adding any exciting anecdotes that might enhance the performance. I think a time or two I ended with a quick curtsy to add to the theatrics.

Looking back, I was like a one-trick pony and may have been a tad bit obnoxious, but I did leave a lasting impression. I was, after all, a rare breed—a young girl who would rather watch football than play with Barbies.

My love for the Cowboys continued through the years, and as a young adult, I was still a die-hard fan—that is, until Jerry Jones, an oil tycoon from Arkansas, bought the Cowboys and fired Tom Landry. I have never forgiven him for the way he handled the situation, and because of that, my support of the Cowboys has waned over the years.

“The only oilman I’ve ever heard of coming out of Arkansas is Jed Clampett,” was my father’s response to the Cowboy takeover. I have often thought of his retort and wholeheartedly believe that Uncle Jed, along with his dimwitted nephew Jethro Bodine, at times may have been better caretakers of the Cowboy franchise.

The one thing I do know without a doubt as I look back on my formative years is the love of sports my father instilled in me was in preparation for the life I would lead as a coach’s wife and mother of two boys. I clearly see the Lord’s plan in this and am so lucky that God gave me two men who not only shared with me their love of the game but also the life lessons that abound in the world of sports.

With thoughts of Thanksgivings past and memories of Dad cheering for his teams, we clicked on the television to watch the ball game. The showdown was played in Austin that year, so the environment seemed extra hostile. Sounds of the band playing “The Aggie War Hymn” filled the living room as we watched the teams run onto the field. As if he were sitting in the room beside me, I heard my father boldly proclaiming, “If the Longhorns played the Soviets in Red Square, I would cheer for the Soviets every time.”

It goes without saying that in the South, football is a religious experience, and I knew with the added emotional baggage attached to this day and this game, we would be “having church” like never before. Going into the game, the Aggies were undefeated and embarking on one of the best seasons in A&M football history.

There was so much riding on this contest, and of course, we bundled all our hopes and dreams and burdens into a victory, as well. Somehow, we fully believed if we beat Texas, it would be a tribute to my dad. In a month full of losses, a win for our family was monumentally important.

Football that day became more than just a game. It represented life itself. We whooped and cheered and high-fived and quietly mumbled ugly words throughout the four quarters. We yelled louder and stronger and prayed harder than ever before during a football game. We simply had to win. We couldn’t take another letdown or loss.

When the final whistle blew, the Aggies had resoundingly defeated the Longhorns 34–13. We firmly believed Dad was waving his 12th Man Towel and whooping it up in heaven. It was the first time in over a month that we felt alive. Deep down in my soul, I know God doesn’t choose sides, but that day, he was an Aggie. As much joy as this victory brought us all, it was still laced in sorrow, and nothing could take away the sting we felt by Dad’s absence.

After the game, the time had come for us to go. We loaded the car to return home, and along with the leftovers, I packed a great big helping of guilt, something I always felt whenever we left Mom alone in that big, empty house.

Since the cemetery was on our way out of town, Brian and I decided to stop by. We knew Dad’s grave site would still be a mound of dirt with only a temporary marker identifying him. His headstone had been ordered but wouldn’t be in for a month or so. Even though we dreaded it, we knew stopping by to pay our respects was the proper, grown-up thing to do.

The sun was setting on an autumn sky, and shadows were starting to dance across the monuments and stones. I wasn’t exactly sure if I could find Dad’s resting place as we weaved in and around the winding pathways that coursed through Sunset Memorial Park. I was grateful that his plot was newly made and would help us narrow down the options.

From a distance, I could see the dirt covering my father. It seemed to have settled since I was last there, and in a temporary flash of madness, I wondered if he was cold. Snapping out of the crazy thought, I admired several floral arrangements that had withstood the weather over the past month or so.

As I continued to survey the area, something white caught my eye. It was almost like a white flag of surrender, which I thought was a little harsh, even for a cemetery. The closer we moved to the object, the more familiar it became. It was a 12th Man Towel attached to a stake.

During Jackie Sherrill’s tenure as the head football coach at A&M, he introduced the tradition of waving white towels imprinted with 12th Man. This was a rally cry for the team and reminded us that all Aggies stand ready to go in the game and help our boys if ever needed. To a die-hard Aggie fan, the 12th Man Towel is a mandatory wardrobe accessory for game-day attire.

As the November wind blew gently that afternoon, the flag proudly waved like the one planted at Iwo Jima. It, too, represented pride, tradition, and camaraderie.

We stepped out of the car and clumsily searched for a note or something that might reveal the thoughtful giver of this random act of kindness. After investigating the area for a few moments, there was not a trace of anything but the towel.

 

 

 

I never knew who put the flag there, but know whoever it was understood my father’s deep love of his alma mater. I can think of no greater honor or tribute to one of the most loyal Aggies I’ve ever known. “There’s a spirit can ne’er be told, it’s the Spirit of Aggieland.”

As we drove away from the cemetery that autumn night, the last few stanzas of a poem entitled “The Last Corp Trip” echoed in my head. I will always regret that I didn’t think to have this poem read at my father’s funeral.

This is how I envisioned Dad’s entrance into heaven:

“And the band poured forth the anthem in
notes both bright and clear.
And ten thousand Aggie voices sang the song they hold so dear.
And when the band had finished, St. Peter wiped his eyes.

And said, ‘It’s not so hard to see they’re meant for Paradise.’
And the colonel of the Cadet Corps said as he stiffly took his stand,
‘It’s just another Corps Trip, boys, we’ll march in behind the band.”

—P. H. DuVal Jr., ’51

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