When I was a little girl, my mother told us once or twice about a curious tidbit of family history. I remember one conversation as we sat on our driveway in Morgantown, West Virginia, and played with a litter of 6-week-old kittens.
“I have a sister out there somewhere,” my mother said. “Aunt Gladys always said Pap had a baby with someone before he married Grandma.”
My brother and I had kid-like questions.
“What’s her name?”
“Violet. There’s a picture. She has dark hair.”
“Where does she live?”
“We think Pennsylvania.”
“How old is she?”
“Not sure. Probably nine or ten years older than me.”
And that was the end of the information at the time.
The Two Lives of my grandfather, George Brooks
Everyone always said it was as if George Brooks lived two lives. Not a double life or a secret life, but two consecutive lives, separated by one tragic event in 1958.
Prior to then, he was no less than a scoundrel. We’d heard so many stories about his scandalous and colorful past, we just filed the whole Violet question away with all the rest. There was evidence he lived in New York and Chicago, ran with gangsters, and allegedly killed someone. He’d also been in jail, went on the run from the law, and at one time changed his name to avoid detection and arrest. A 1930 New York census showed him as having a mysterious ‘Mrs.’ from Michigan – something no one knows much about even now. So, really, it wasn’t much of a stretch to believe he had a daughter named Violet somewhere. The unbelievable part was that there weren’t more children out there sharing our genes.
My mother and her siblings lived a poor and vicious childhood in his home. Hard-working and handsome, he was a gangster-turned-coal-miner-slash-farmer who used his entrepreneurial flair to start several businesses. With food on the table and money in his pocket, he was a loving, smart, and funny family man. Most other times, sharp-dressed and drenched in alcohol, he was brutally abusive with a mean streak and a wicked temper. His family, particularly his wife and oldest son, took the brunt of his physical abuse.
In 1958, everything changed, and the damaged family cracked some more, never to be quite the same.
The story as I was told it years after the fact went like this: My mother, now an adult, left for work while George and her fourteen-year-old little brother—nicknamed Tarzan—worked on a car. Hours later, she was pulled from her job to meet her dad at the hospital. The jack had slipped. Tarzan had been crushed and now lay dying. My mother’s tearful recollection of the day is shattering at best, and at its worst, a horrible picture of my grandfather, crumpled with grief as he cried out to the doctor, “I want to see my boy… I will see my boy. ”
“But it was his hair,” my mother told me when I first heard this story.
“What you mean his hair? Who’s hair? Tarzan’s hair?”
“No. Dad’s hair. It was still mostly dark when I left that day. When I got to the hospital, he was there crying, and his whole countenance had changed. His hair… it was all white. It changed that day.”
Shock. Grief. Call it what you will, but Pap’s hair finished turning white when Tarzan died. Not silver, not gray, but the crisp clean white of a new-fallen mountain snow.
And legend has it that was just the beginning of the transformation. He told the story many times of his Saul/Paul-like conversion. Complete with bright light and miraculous power, George’s life was changed when God Himself reached into the top of his head, plunged to the bottom of his feet, and pulled out every dark and nasty sin, habit, and vice. On the way back up, He replaced it all with salvation, the Holy Spirit, and peace. The gangster and domestic abuser was gone, and Rev. George Brooks, evangelist and pastor of Pleasant Hill Mission, was born.
That was the Pap I met when I came along in the sixties. The white-haired preacher who called me Sally because he thought that’s what my name should be, and the man who cuddled me in his lap and took me on long walks around the property. That Pap was my hero and the post-1958 man. The redeemed sinner, living his second-chance life.
If there was a Violet, where was she?
Pap died in 1974. Black Lung Disease and a near-fatal stroke took their toll and he and other aging relatives passed on with their secrets. We long suspected his sisters, Gladys and Louise, knew more than they told, but if anything would ever be known about Violet, the next generation or two would have to figure it out. If she existed and had been born in the twenties before Pap married my grandmother and started their family, she would have then been well into her forties when her father died.
Fast-forward to 2014 and an over-excited phone call from my mother, now in her seventies.
“Guess who I just talked to?”
“Um… no idea.”
“My sister. I talked to Violet.”
“Pap’s daughter, Violet. My sister. She’ll be eighty-seven in November. Wait, I gotta sit down, this is too much.”
“Where is she?”
“Fairchance, Pennsylvania. Been there the whole time. Harvey’s with her. They called me.”
A flurry of names and information flew through the phone so fast I couldn’t keep up.
“Wait a minute,” I said when she paused to take a breath, “who’s Keith?”
“Keith is Violet’s son. He’s been looking for his mother’s family off and on for ten years.”
“We were just down the road…”
“So let me get this straight. Your brother Harvey has been looking for Violet after all these years, and her son Keith has been looking for info too and one day they found each other?”
“Yes. And I just talked to my sister for the first time.”
What really happened in 1928?
After Pap’s death, we all got older and the tales about his past grew in both legend and imagination. His wife—my grandmother—still came up with a juicy tidbit or two if you got her started on ancient history, and pulled no punches about her often painful journey with George Brooks. Until she died in 2002, she had no problem knocking the man she had five children with and stayed married to until his death. She made her peace with God and many others, but when I held her hand as she died, I knew my lifelong confidante left this world still holding a king-sized grudge against Pap. I suppose when you have a year like 1958 after all the other years of emotional and physical abuse, you never quite recover no matter how much transformation takes place.
And if she had any details about Violet, she never shared them with me.
So, with no facts, I believed the least flattering scenario for the time: Handsome cad seduces young, innocent girl and moves on when he finds out she’s pregnant.
Turns out, the truth was very different and came to me from my newly-found Aunt Violet’s own pen. The aftermath of that first contact brought an onslaught of pictures, e-mails, and letters as everyone tried to connect. Who looks like whom? Who’s doing what now? And my favorite: What was George Brooks like?
Oh boy. We wondered if they really needed to know, but family truth is family truth, so the stories flowed. On our side, the story we really wanted came in the mail.
From Violet’s letter to my mother, November 2014:
“My mother Harriet was a beautiful person. She was born June 21, 1900 and married at the age of 25 to Charlie, a coal miner and inspector, on May 24, 1925. Charlie was killed in a coal mine on June 21, 1926. Only married a little over a year. She loved him very much…
…so later therefore meeting our dad (George) at a dance in Outcrop, was my mother and Aunt Vi and your Aunt Gladys and Aunt Louise. Mom never talked much about what happened in that time, but she said our dad asked her to marry him, but she did not love him and was getting a $30.00 monthly pension as long as she lived. Never did marry anyone.”
Mystery solved. Harriet wasn’t so much a young and innocent as she was a grown woman in grief—and a strong one, too. In what was a scandalous situation for the time, she turned down a marriage proposal and raised a child on her own for all the right reasons. She didn’t love George Brooks, and apparently didn’t need him. And baby Violet was the better for it.
Pilgrimage to Pennsylvania
What do you do when you have lost-and-found family? You grab any descendant from three states who can make the trip and converge on Fairchance, PA.
My daughter and two grandchildren and I came from Texas. Joyce, Pap’s youngest daughter came from Florida with two granddaughters and a great-grandson. Harvey came from Virginia. Sadly, my mother’s health kept her from making the trip, but a Plan B is in the works for these sisters to meet.
We found Violet in the home where she and her husband raised two kids and lived a happy, fulfilling life. An only child, the discovery of two sisters and a brother and all their extended family has increased Violet’s family tree exponentially. It was an honor to meet her in person.
My Aunt Violet is beautiful and gracious and, if there are any regrets, it is only that we didn’t know her sooner.
Family is everything. Better late than never.
My Favorite Blessing
Anyone who follows my writing career probably also knows I’m a life-long musician. I played piano in Pap’s church from the time I could crawl on the bench, and I’ve spent years learning different instruments to play in one band or another since I was a teenager. I also boast that I’ve been kicked out of the best music schools in the country because of my desire to avoid the notes on the page and opt instead to play any arrangement I want in any key I want rather than adhere to the strict requirements of a serious student of music. It’s much more fun to play by ear. But I digress…
What I didn’t know was that my cousin Keith was doing the same thing in Pennsylvania. When we first met, his obvious question was whether or not our musical talent came from the one relative we had most in common—our grandfather, George Brooks. Oddly, it did not. While my mother recollected he could sing, her sister Joyce swears he couldn’t carry a tune. In addition, he always made sure there was a piano in the house for my grandmother, but he didn’t know how to play it.
The fact that Keith and I have such parallel musical backgrounds and talents I guess is a remarkable coincidence. Especially since we seem to have such a similar keyboard and rhythmic style. My favorite blessing from our Pennsylvania Pilgrimage was meeting my cousin Keith and having even a short time to make some music with him.
I’d like to think had we known each other as kids that we would have torn up Old Fairchance Road going back and forth developing the next great sound and writing some classics. Since I am an optimist, I’d like to believe that could still happen.
Soon. We’re not gettin’ any younger.