My Dad's Eulogy
I thought I would open by sharing some of my dad’s classic sayings and expressions. They won’t be nearly as funny in my voice, but perhaps you can imagine him saying them. There was his own brand of nonsensical Spanglish – “calondo lahondo” and was always going on about “Portuguese rice”. “Easy!” he would exclaim, along with “cool it and rule it” and “get back”. About twenty percent of the time I called him he would answer “Joe’s Bar”. He frequently used “Bite me”, “GOOD NIGHT!” and “I give up”. He often employed a particular gesture I cannot replicate in church to express his dismay at something he felt was silly or trite. Some other favorites were “you’re a real piece of work” and “you make a better door than a window”. He was constantly saying “I’ll see you a week from Tuesday” which still continued to fool me sometimes even though I’d heard it all my life – occasionally I’d momentarily pause and ask “Wait, what are we doing next Tuesday?” One of his favorite pranks was also pretending he was being choked behind the wall -
One of Dad’s signature displays of affection was “The Limpy”. He and his brother were blessed with the ability to relax their forefingers while holding the rest of their fingers with their thumb and solidly thump you on the head with said waggling ring finger. Dad’s limpies went beyond a mere “love tap”, however, thanks to his massive jewelry. He wasn’t one to keep it subtle – his rings were massive chunks of metal with hard edges and straight lines, like brass knuckles envisioned by some brutalist architect. So limpies were always a little painful, but our skulls really developed well.
He was also very intentional about teaching us what he called the “classic defense” – if someone came at you to poke your eyes, you simply needed to raise your hand like this to thwart the attack. And if your assailant changed tactics and came at you sideways, you could invoke the “double classic defense” and foil them yet again. So if anyone wants to come at me and test my reflexes after the service, I assure you I will make my dad proud. He trained me well.
He delighted in teaching his grandchildren about the important things in life… actually, just the one important thing, namely, John Wayne. Dante and Angelo were exposed early on to the rapturous viewing excitement of John Wayne’s film oeuvre, a rite of passage with my dad that Lia and I had to endure as well. On the altar you can see one of my dad’s most prized possessions – the photo of when he and his brothers, George and Don, met The Duke himself in California. He also enjoyed teaching Israel and Arrow about the American flag – from a young age Arrow would emphatically point one out to me whenever she saw one and exclaim “that’s the American flag – Papa taught me about that!”
Toward the end of his life when he was less mobile, he loved playing card games such as Kings on the Corner with Dante and Angelo. I remember Dante being eerily and suspiciously lucky when it came to winning. The boys also loved riding in his canary yellow Humvee, though their mother and I were slightly less enchanted with our father’s ostentatious taste in vehicles when we were teenagers, but I came to appreciate and even embrace his distaste for the conventional in every area of his life (though I still got pretty nervous that he’d nick off a rearview mirror or two when he came to visit me when I lived in an apartment in midtown).
He logged many miles in both his Humvees exploring the American west with my brother Sean. Sean was unable to be here today, but most importantly, he spent Dad’s last few days with him, and was even here for the very end of Dad’s life because he missed his flight the night before – praise God! I asked for his permission to share the following post he wrote on Instagram, accompanied by a picture of him and Dad standing in front of a vast canyon somewhere in the West: “I don’t post a lot of personal photos on this account but this week I lost my dad Glynn. Better known as GB. This shot is representative of our most precious times together. For many years we would meet up in the southwest and take a trip together exploring the western US. Many times with other family members such as my uncle Don. We would explore every back road we could find. We didn’t always agree on politics or religion but who cares. When we were exploring the open road we were one and the same. We miss you GB, until we meet again. Life is so short, do what you love and don’t waste your time. GB did it his way for sure.”
If you knew my dad at all, you knew of his deep love for animals. He was pretty much just one creature shy of an exotic animal farm, and would welcome to the Brown menagerie any animal he could get his hands on. We had horses, ponies, goats, sheep, chickens, rabbits, doves, peacocks, sundry pheasants, tusked pot-bellied pigs, a llama, and a cow at one point. I inherited his affinity and look for the freakiest chickens I can find in the hatchery catalog every year, though my husband drew the line at the “ Turken Naked-Neck” this year. But dad loved seeing photos of my chickens and holding them when he was still able to visit. Whenever I called to consult him about a chicken-related issue and my mom answered the phone, she would quickly call “Glynn, Ashley has a chicken problem!” and hand the phone to him.
His dog, Lucy (which, by the way, remains the best gift I’ve ever given – I got her on Craigslist while searching for a kennel for our dog and I came across an ad reading “Extra large kennel - $1 – must take the airedale that comes with it), passed away a year and a half ago, and he was physically unable to care for another. So, he coaxed squirrels onto the back porch with birdseed and crackers. He simply had to have a pet. While he was lying in the hospital, he asked Izzy and I to “feed his squirrels”. My mom said “oh, they have enough, don’t put any more out there!” But while she was busy I found his feed tin and went ahead and did it anyway and when I reported back to him that I fed his squirrels despite mom telling me not to, he said “good job Ash!”
His affection didn’t stop at domesticated animals – he gradually coaxed the raccoons on the back porch into grabbing bread slices from his hands. He made them feel so comfortable, in fact, that they decided to move into the walls. Many a relaxing night watching television in the family room was abruptly interrupted by the violent keening and snarling of raccoon brawls coming from the wall somewhere above where the television was mounted. But my dad, being my dad, refused to exterminate them. Instead, he set traps nightly and drove the raccoons out somewhere to release them into the “wild” – that is, someone else’s “wild” – the next day. For a while, my sister or I would accompany him on these catch and release ventures until Lia, in her brutally honest way, broke it to him that this was an exercise in futility considering the raccoon population near our house likely numbered in the hundreds if not thousands.
But that was how my dad was - hopelessly tender-hearted. I remember once when he had received a shipment of baby chicks and one was injured beyond hope of recovery – I don’t remember the details, but there was someone there that day helping us out, maybe a farmer buying one of his animals, but someone more inoculated to animal deaths – and he told dad to simply go out and hurl the chick against the wall to end its life. Dad told me to go inside and not watch, but I remember peeking out and seeing in his expression the pain it caused him to extinguish a life, even if it was “just” a chick and ultimately a merciful gesture. One of my favorite images of him is him surrounded by a motley flock of animals while standing in the middle of the corral, meting out pieces of bread. He was in his zone.
Being a designer and just, well, himself, Dad had a very pronounced aesthetic. Looking back, I can now appreciate how stunningly beautiful and unique the house I grew up in was – but at the time, it was just our house. He always approached and arranged and refined things with his totally singular artistic eye. But God help us if we wanted something which, for him, fell under the umbrella of "tacky”. I had a wonderful and privileged childhood, but there were things deemed “tacky” by my dad that seemed to us unbearable deprivations at the time. Lia and I couldn’t have a slip-n-slide – tacky, plus it would ruin the grass. A giant trampoline? Unthinkable. A fake pink frosted Christmas tree? Sacrilege. I know with absolute confidence if I were to put plastic flowers on his grave he would come back to haunt me. I remember visiting a Frank Lloyd Wright house on one or another of our trips. As he approached the front door, he practically clutched his chest in horror when he spied the astroturf the current owners had put down on the front porch. There are some things that are beyond tacky… and this was simply desecration.
My mom has told me all my life “you and your father are exactly alike”. My grandma, Cece, has always been very emphatic to this day that “you look just like him” – not always what I wanted to hear as a teenager and young woman. True, I didn’t always love the Humvee, or the political opinions, or the marginal legibility of his handwriting when he signed my book reports, but now, when I think of how much my dad is a part of who I am and how much he shaped me, I just feel proud. So very proud.
My dad was very proud of all of us – me, Lia and Sean as well as his beloved grandchildren – and would tell us so. But his very particular Glynn Brown aesthetic inhibited him from fully appreciating my artwork in particular. “The portrait is excellent, Ash, but can’t you just put a nice landscape or something behind it?” he would often ask me. My mom told me that recently while bemoaning my ‘strange’ art he said, “Nancy, I hope when you get to heaven you tell me Ashley quit making all that weird art.” Remains to be seen whether he’ll get his wish. Sorry, dad. My dad claimed to dislike nicknames and insisted my mom choose a name for me that couldn’t be shortened, which I find terribly ironic seeing as he had a nickname for nearly everyone. I was Ash the Smash, Sean was Seanzo, Lia was Lia Lia, my grandma, Cece, was Cecyle the Seasick Serpent, my daughter Arrow was Arrow the Sparrow, my husband was Stevarino, and his grandson, Dante, was Danto. I remember him having nicknames for his employees and even his pets.
Accompanying him downtown to his office was always a special treat for us. Although they turned the Folgers building across the street into condos a few years ago, my memories of dad’s office are forever redolent with the aroma of coffee beans. Especially as I got older, his employees seemed super cool to me, being 20- and 30-somethings who were “hip” and “urban”. Dad was always joking around with them and giving the more “liberal” ones of the bunch trouble.
Speaking of… if you knew my dad at all, or even ever saw his vehicle, which was plastered with bumper stickers, you know he was somewhat opinionated about his political beliefs, to put it euphemistically. It didn’t take much for him to brand you “liberal” – even saying something seemingly reasonable such as “Well, Ronald Reagan wasn’t entirely without flaws” could relegate you to Jane Fonda territory in his mind. But as black and white as he could be about his politics, I see so many shades of grey and tones of mercy in his relationships. He was always giving people second and even third chances, forgiving seventy times seven, and seeking out reconciliation. That was his heart.
Even up to the end of his life, he was always cracking jokes and making people laugh. When the nurses came in to ask him how he was feeling, he responded, “about that way”. Once when he appeared to wake up from sleep disoriented, Sean asked him where he was. “Here,” he answered without missing a beat, and promptly fell back asleep.
Many of you know that my sister, Lia, passed away unexpectedly in October. Death has a way of pruning things, of decluttering, of purifying and distilling what is important. It has a way of bringing to stunning, crystalline clarity that sentiment Paul expresses in Romans: “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressed through love.” As painful as Lia’s death was for our family, as shocking and traumatic and terrible as it was, I believe the gem buried deep within the sorrow was that it showed us all what counts: love. Toward the end of his life, I can see how God was drawing my dad deeper into an understanding of grace, into a sense of wonderment at the love whose height, depth and width we can only begin to glimpse through the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. After he passed, I found a piece of notepaper tucked into his daily calendar– on Ronald Reagan stationery, naturally - on which he’d copied down Galatians 2:16: “know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” I believe toward the end, Dad was truly walking into knowledge of his identity as God’s beloved child, and believing that nothing we can do or fail to do changes His love for us. It has only to be received, surrendered to and believed. A couple of nights before he passed, he told my mom "I think Jesus is accepting me". I believe by the very end, he knew, and his cry was not one of fear or ambivalence, but the childlike confidence of “Abba, Father!”
Toward the end I was playing the Johnny Cash version of “Just As I Am” for him on my phone. When it finished, he said “Ash, you know what song I really like lately? That one about “The Bible tells me so,”. Oh, I don't know that one, I said. I began searching for a song with that title on Spotify. I found one, a jaunty country tune, but after about ten seconds he said “no, no, that’s not it. It’s the one that says ‘Jesus loves me’”. And I just lost it. The song he was “really into” lately was the most basic, childlike, foundational Sunday School song everyone knows. So we gathered around – me, mom, Jana, Sean, Steven, Israel and Arrow – and together we sang “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.”
Watching my dad die was sad and hard and painful. But it was holy. Eternity was breaking in, and God was there. Really there. As I reflect on those precious final days and hours, I am reminded of two things that Jesus said: the first is that anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. And the second is that you don’t keep new wine in old wineskins. Dad was changing. God was changing him and preparing him. The old was passing away. Jesus was making new wine out of Dad, and the time had come for him to go.
I already feel his absence profoundly in my daily life. Especially since Lia died, I talked to him every day. I am troubled by the dwindling population of Brown family members with sufficient joint laxity to perform “the limpy”. Who’s going to tell me the secrets of growing thriving plants, such as talking to them in gentle tones and telling them you love them? Who’s going to troubleshoot my chicken problems? But I take heart in knowing that Dad was ready, and he knew into whose arms he was passing. He knew he would awake utterly safe and found in the embrace of the one who knit him together. And I know this is far from our story’s end. This is just him lovingly saying, for now… bite me. I give up. See you a week from Tuesday.