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Fathers and Sons: A Difficult Journey

by Jay Brakefield

A few years ago, late at night, I stared into the mirror and saw my father staring back. Since then, I've thought a lot about him. Like many fathers and sons, we had a tumultuous relationship. It improved toward the end of his life, but much remained unresolved, and since his death more than 20 years ago, I've often wished I could talk to him again. At times I've felt his presence in a way that's difficult to explain, even for someone who majored in English and made his living with words.

Shirley Brakefield, named for his paternal grandmother, Nancy Jane Shirley, was born February 6, 1911 (same day as Ronald Reagan) in Gamble Mines, Alabama, northwest of Birmingham. His father was the foreman of the coal mine, having prepared himself for the examination after the local schoolteacher laughed him off when he asked for tutoring in math. He and his wife, Lilly Bell Broom Brakefield, had 13 children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. For a time, they also raised a girl born to Lilly of a youthful liaison with an older man back in Union County, North Carolina. When the child, Lessie, was about 6, James Albert Brakefield put her on the train back to her hometown, where she had a difficult time. The experience scarred her for life. My father never met this half-sister. Not long before he died, he repeated this story, though he didn't know the details I've learned since, and said, “I don't know how Dad could have done that.”

My grandfather was a patriarch who could be charming or brutal, by turns. He forbade one daughter to marry a man who, it was rumored, had African ancestry. She married someone else and had a sad life marked by an addiction to painkillers. When another daughter, Nell, announced that she was leaving, her father knocked her across a room. She married a rich older man and moved to Houston. When I read Faulkner in college, I wondered if he had met my family.

My dad graduated from high school at 16---as he explained, there were just 11 grades in the little school, and they needed the space for younger kids. He went to a small college in Birmingham where one of his brothers taught, lived in a frat house, worked seven days a week in a drugstore and graduated at 19, just in time for the Great Depression. In 1935, with the help of Nell and her rich husband, he moved to Houston, which was relatively unscathed by the economic collapse. But he spent some nights in his car and lost a watch his father had given him because he couldn't afford to get it out of pawn. He worked as a radio announcer and salesman and got involved in community theater, which is where he met my mother, a Rice honors graduate who had been forced to abandon her dream of becoming a college professor to help her parents keep their house. Perhaps their relationship, as the song says, was too hot not to cool down; in any event, it was stormy.

My dad established a successful insurance agency and served one term on the Houston City Council. Some encouraged him to run for mayor. But he tangled with Roy Hofheinz, then mayor of Houston, and his brief political career ended in a scandal. He was cleared of accusations of taking money from developers, but the damage was done. He returned to his business to find that a man he trusted had robbed him. Other horrors ensued. He lost a lawsuit over an accident with a police car---probably because, as my mother often reminded him, he didn't hire the right lawyer. He struggled with a rebellious son---me. His racial and political views reflected his background, and we had fiery arguments over civil rights.

And yet, through all these travails, he didn't give up. The strength, fierce drive and pure stubbornness that ran in the family helped him survive, but of course it had a price. He could go from charming and affectionate to angry and abusive in a heartbeat.  He was intelligent but narrow in his views; sometimes his blind spots were astounding. Of course, as I finally realized, there was a sensitive, tenderhearted person in there. It takes most of us a while to realize how human our parents are. And how much like ourselves. That, of course, was my unspoken fear: if my dad could be a red-faced, shouting bully, impervious to the feelings of others, so could I. And sometimes (OK, often) I was. But his charm and connection with others eluded me.

In his last years, we could talk more easily, and his opinions shifted a bit. He came to believe that Reagan's economic policies were destructive and that the war on drugs was counterproductive. But we never became as close as both of us wanted to be. For a long time after his death, at odd moments, I'd find myself wishing I could call up my dad and talk to him again, have the conversation we somehow never had. And then, in the last few years, after a lot of therapy, reading and reflection and help from a lot of people, something of a personal miracle has happened to me, an integration of personality elements, a loss of fear, an ability to engage with others and to draw energy from relationships. And, though I'm not at all religious and don't really believe in an afterlife, I know that somewhere, my dad is smiling.

Photo is a 1957 Houston Press front-page story accusing Jay’s father of corruption. He was later exonerated but lost a bid for re-election.