Sunday, September 28, 2003

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

As a senior at North Carolina, I interviewed my landlord’s father, John Brooks, a 97-year-old who lived in the same housing complex as me. I wrote this story in the fall of 2003. When I returned from spring break in March 2004, I received a call from my landlord. John had died in his sleep at age 98. At the church ceremony the priest was filling in and did not know John so he read my story and handed it out to John’s family and friends. Before John died, he had given my landlord an envelope and said, open it when I die. Inside the envelope was $200 with a message to have drinks on him. After the church ceremony, John’s family and friends went out for drinks.

The first time I met John Brooks, he was hunched over his living room bureau drawer. “I’m just looking at some old photos,” he said. He had to adjust his hearing aids before I introduced myself. After all, for a man who lives alone in the Town House Apartments in Chapel Hill, there’s no reason for him to have his hearing aids adjusted. Sometimes he doesn’t even wear them. Those family photos are more important. That’s what he’s got left. And boy does he love them. He looks at those photos every day. But he doesn’t just look. He remembers. Whether it’s inside his two-bedroom apartment or sitting outside on his back porch, happy memories come back. And at age 97, he’s got plenty of time to reminisce. As he says, “I don’t do nothing.”

Brooks appears to value visitors as much as his photos. But he doesn’t get many these days. He admits he’s lazy when it comes to writing letters to friends.

“I don’t think he’s ever lied a single time in his life,” said Brooks’s son John, who runs the Town House Apartments with his wife Julia. “And he’s always had a positive attitude. He wakes up whistling and singing. And that’s one of the reasons he’s lived so long.” He’s lived so long his wife, his ten brothers and sisters and many of his close friends have died.

I’ve lived in Town House Apartments for more than a year, often waving to him as I whizzed by on my bike. He always waved back and smiled as if we were close friends. Why didn’t I ever stop and say hi?

The next time I visited, I didn’t even knock. Even with his hearing aides on, he might not have heard me. I walked in since he never locks his doors during the day. As soon as I sat next to him on the back porch he grinned, and told me he was glad I came right in.

In less than a minute, he’s back to the beginning of his story. And if you have a set of ears, he’ll tell you.

“He can’t remember yesterday, but he can remember what happened 50 years ago – and names, and dates and days and he’s right on it,” Julia said.

He’ll tell you how his favorite number is 11 because he was born on November 11, 1905. He’ll tell you about how he never started fights, but wasn’t afraid to throw punches growing up in Bolton, England. He’ll tell you how he never took a licking either. He’ll tell you about how he started working at a spinning mill at age 12, and how he quit school so he could work 10 hour days by age 13. He’ll tell you how much he loved soccer and still follows the games on television. He’ll tell you how much he loved his mom’s meat and potato pie. He’ll tell you how his dad headed to the bars every night after work. He’ll tell you how he almost died when he was about 10 from scarlet fever. He’ll tell you how it took six days to travel to Boston by boat when he was 17. He’ll tell you about Mount Hope Finishing Company. He’ll show you his watch that was given to him when he retired in 1973. He’ll tell you how much he loved working at Mount Hope for half a century and why he decided to retire. “I wanted to give some young fellow the chance to move up,” he said. “Then somebody else would get a better job.”

And of course, he’ll tell you about his family. That’s why he has those photos specially arranged. They stand on his living room bureau. They’re above it on the wall. They’re on the other wall in the living room. They’re in his bedroom and guest bedroom.

“This is my family,” he says. “Here’s my mother and my father during the first World War. And this is my brother. He’s dead. That’s Billy. He’s dead too. My two brothers married two sisters. And that’s my wife. That’s my wife’s father and mother. There’s my grandmother and my great grandmother and my aunt. There’s my wife on both sides.” You have two of the same pictures of your wife. You like that one, huh? “I tell you, I like them all.”

Keep talking and he’ll tell you, for the second or third time, about his job working for Mount Hope in North Dighton, Mass., and that he stuck with the company even though he had to move to Butner, N.C. in 1952. Keep listening and it’s back to the photos on his wall...

When his son, John Jr., was 6 years old, John refused to go on strike despite the fact many workers at Mount Hope were upset. John didn’t believe in striking. He had a family to feed. One night, about 40 strikers appeared in John’s front yard. They told him to join them. With his family next to him, he refused to join. They walked away upset. One worker threatened, “Well, your son has to go to school tomorrow.” John answered, “Yes, he’ll get to school tomorrow. And if he doesn’t get to school tomorrow, you’ll be the first one I see.” Young John got to school with no hassle the next day.

“My dad was never a big man,” John Jr. said. “He didn’t weigh over 130 pounds most of his life. But he didn’t take anything from anybody. Nobody pushed him around.”

Maybe that’s why he’s so happy. He never was worried or afraid. He has no regrets. He never smoked and claims he never got a headache. He doesn’t feel a day over 18, but he knows...

Looking at an inscription, next to the photos, about his Uncle Robert, who died in World War I, he says: “He was good. He was nice. In Turkey, that’s where he died. He was the seventh son of a seventh son. It makes you think when you look at something like that. I’ve been very fortunate because he was just a young fellow.”