69% of History

Edith Brown may have lived in more houses in Denison, Texas than anyone else.

On a drive through the town, she was the ultimate tour guide. She could tell you every corner that used to have a store, who lived upstairs and where they moved when the store closed.

She could ride across Main Street and tell a story about almost every storefront.

I only learned recently that her father used to have a barber shop on Main, and, for a while, they lived right upstairs. Is it a wonder that she never had to grasp the concept of “commute time?”

She moved many times over her lifetime. Most of those moves kept her within a few blocks of where she was born. All of them kept her inside the Denison city limits.

Like most other residents, she worked and raised a family. She cooked and cleaned, tended her garden and went to church. She survived the depression and World War II.

For 91 years, she watched the town change around her. Main Street changed from a straight road to a “serpentine” design and back. Highway 75 moved from Armstrong Avenue to Austin Avenue, then bypassed most of town altogether. Downtown thrived, then declined when the mall was built, declined even more when Wal-Mart came, then gradually started a comeback.

Her kids grew up and had kids of their own. One day someone said it would be nice to get together to take a picture with five generations of the family: Edith, her daughter, her granddaughter, her great-grandson and her great-great grandson.

That picture made the paper one year. So did the picture of Edith riding a motorcycle on her 88th birthday.

Edith was never the mayor or a member of the city council. No one would call her a “prominent” citizen of Denison. She played her own role. The town has been around for 132 years, and she was there for 91 of them. Who else can say they’ve witnessed 69% of a town’s history?

Of course, it seemed perfectly natural to her. Why would she leave Denison when her family and her work were there? What else did she need?

Some of Edith’s children and grandchildren eventually moved away. I was one of them. At one point, I lived nearly 1,000 miles away. But four years ago, I came back to Texas, and I made it a point to spend as much time with her as I could.

If I hadn’t, I never would have heard about the barber shop or the ice house, and I never would have seen the spot where Uncle Charlie used to go fishing every morning, or the house where her grandfather swore he buried a jar full of coins but couldn’t find it when they moved. I never would have heard how she and my granddad had to pay a toll to cross the Carpenter’s Bluff bridge to get married. I heard some of the stories two or three times, but that was okay. I learned to see Denison through her eyes.

She could tell those stories until November 22, 2004. That’s the night she had her second major stroke. Unlike the first major stroke and another relatively minor one, this one left her unable to walk or even move most of her body. It left her unable to eat or laugh and unable to tell us the stories of her family and her town. And it left her like that for over a week, merely existing until the night before Thanksgiving.

No one will write a novel or a movie based on the life of Edith Brown. Her stories were simply the typical, real-life tales of a woman who lived 91 years in a small town in Texas. Every family has similar stories.

It’s what I call the American Dream.