N. Marie Brackbill, 1943 – 2008

My aunt Marie passed away Monday afternoon. This one hurts. Unlike my grandfather, who had been in ill health for quite a few years before his death in January, we didn’t even know how sick she was until two months ago.

My aunt was one of the strongest people I know. Stricken with juvenile arthritis at the age of nine and spending the next two years in the hospital recovering, she was put on a path at an early age that might have limited her potential. But she recovered her mobility (albeit with the aid of multiple joint replacements over the years), learned to drive, went to college, became a teacher, and then did a career change into accounting, business, and quantitative analysis. She was always independent, stubbornly so, living alone for many years.

It’s not her stubborn independence that I’ll remember as much as her sense of humor and her willingness to treat me as an adult when I was still very much a kid. She treasured the company of her cats, and let me name one of them. At the time we were both reading Lord of the Rings, so I suggested Boromir. Yes, it was a geeky thing to do, but she had already named one cat Bilbo Baggins, so we were very much on the same wavelength. Boromir it was. And she was always a lot of fun to be with. I still remember dinners out with her at the Corn Crib, a corny pizza place with a warped sense of humor (a sign above the door said, “In the event of nuclear war, will the last person to leave please turn off the soup!”).

It was during her early years as an accountant that she came to stay with my family when I was growing up. I think it was because she spent so much time with us that she had such a strong influence on me. I don’t think I’d be half the bookworm I am without her, and I know I wouldn’t be as brave. She was never one to hold back what she thought and never one to bite her tongue when she thought something was wrong. In her last days, we used to hold out hope that she would pull through by saying, “At least she’s still got her sharp tongue.” When my sister was sufficiently alarmed by updates on her health to drive through the night to get to see her, my aunt’s first words as she walked through the door at 3 am were “You’re an idiot!” And of course she was right, she was always right.

I’m really angry about her passing. To watch her struggle for so long against her various illnesses, only to see her get blindsided by the left hook of cancer, is maddening. Not only that: the fact that her cancer was so advanced when it was diagnosed makes me think, if only it had been caught sooner! But ultimately that’s self delusional: her cancer was a type that has a very poor cure rate, and we know it was very aggressive. I suppose I’m angriest for selfish reasons: I wanted her to be a part of my family’s life for a very long time. I miss you already, Aunt Marie.

Piece of the past

While I was in Pennsylvania, I helped my uncle move some junk out of the storage unit where we put some of my grandfather’s things. A few items held memories for me (I never could get comfortable on that fold-up metal cot, and was glad to see it go), but others were remnants: the boxes for his stereo, a piece of old demolished kitchen cabinets that was being used as a laundry table.

I happened to open one of the drawers in the aforementioned kitchen cabinets, and found an odd artifact: a hand drill, but looking like none I had ever seen. I asked my uncle about it, and he said he remembered using it with my grandfather on the farm back in the 1950s and 1960s. He said I could take it, so I brought it home.

The lettering on the gear handle said “Millers Falls Company, Greenfield, Mass.” A little searching turned up a history of the Millers Falls company and an illustration, description and photograph of our drill: a number 308, the so called “Buck Rogers” drill. The drill as manufactured featured red plastic grips and a fully enclosed gear, which had the benefit of keeping the mechanism working smoothly even after many years in a drawer. My grandfather’s was missing the box, and had white paint on both handles, but otherwise was intact. The handle still had some of the drill bits inside, though I haven’t looked closely to see if they are the originals.

It was oddly evocative to have this palmsize memento of my grandfather, who was so much bigger, whose hands fixed and built, fed and sheltered his family, until he couldn’t any more.

Waiting for a phone call

I came home from Pennsylvania on Saturday, which stands as one of the harder things that I’ve had to do. My aunt’s condition has been up and down. While I was there she was lucid, eating and drinking a little, watching the Phillies beat up St. Louis, and ornery (she complained to the nurses that while they had temporarily rolled her away from the TV, the Phillies got their first three runs of the game). But she’s in a lot of pain and keeps getting more and more health complications, and our guess as to how long she’ll be with us keeps spinning around to longer and shorter numbers.

I wish I could just have stayed there. A good part of my mind is still there. Now all I can do is wait for a phone call. My connection to my aunt and her status now comes in drips and drops over a long distance wire.

At the hospice

I rolled into Lancaster, PA about 3:30 last night. I’m staying with my aunt for a while (see my sister’s post for why).

Road food for a six hour drive that commences at 9 pm? Three Cokes, a bag of peanut M&Ms, and a small bag of mixed nuts and fruit. And water to dilute the complex carbs.

My aunt is in good spirits, considering. I think the best way to describe where she is was her answers to the new nurse this morning: she hasn’t been out of bed since the end of April, and she’s been in two other care facilities in the interim before arriving at the hospice here. She has a certain amount of native orneriness that is standing her in good stead at the moment. Which is good: I feel very lucky that I got here in time to spend some time with her.

Electronic text comes to family research

When my grandfather passed away in January, I made a resolution that I would do what I could to ensure that he was not forgotten and that my descendants would know about him. So I started a little project that blossomed. The Brackbill Wiki is a set of pages I set up to collect family genealogy information, primarily original documents and pointers to photos. In the process of getting the site together, I also collected a bunch of information about various family members, friends, and institutions.

The core of the site is a set of documents from my grandfather and other family members that he gave to us or that he left behind. In particular, other family members and I are in the process of transcribing four years of his journal that span from the time he graduated from the state teachers’ college to the time my mom was born. The 1939 journal has been completely transcribed and the 1940 journal is in progress. We also used the site to provide a new home for my sister’s project, “Great Aunt Eva’s Blog,” which disappeared when her old blog host shut down. Esta is in the process of bringing it back on the new site right now.

There are a bunch of cool things that have come out of the process of transcribing these journals. I’ve gained a new appreciation for my grandparents’ lives (just how did they work six days a week and go out every night to choir practices and committee meetings? I only work five and I’m exhausted when I get home), for the people they spent time with (Twiddley!), and the infrastructure in which they grew up. I’ve also gotten to know my grandfather, and his sense of humor, a little better.

What occurred to me the other day was how this project is analogous, on a humbler scale, to big digital humanities projects like the Valley of the Shadow project, in which former UVA professor Ed Ayers and a team of students indexed and digitized reams of original materials from two Civil War era communities. In this case, our scope and our team is quite a bit smaller, but thanks to the wiki technology we used the material is coming together quite a bit faster.

Note, 2017-03-29: the Brackbill Wiki has since moved to a new location.

Found: my grandfather’s mill

My grandfather worked at an old fashioned water-powered mill, making flour and animal feed for the county, during the first years of his post-college life and of his marriage. The family has always known where the mill was—right around the corner from the Brackbill farm—but not what has become of it in its post-mill existence.

This weekend I learned that the mill now is the home of an antiquarian bookseller.

(Yes, I think God has a sense of humor. What better way to ensure I make a pilgrimage to uncover part of my Pop-pop’s history than to make sure it’s filled with books?)

The other ironic part: the mill is practically just around the corner from the family farm where I’ve attended reunions my whole life. Why ironic? Because I’ve been reading daily complaints in my grandfather’s diary about how he couldn’t get to work on time. It surely wasn’t because of traffic that he had problems getting there…


There are three texts that have been in my mind since my grandfather’s funeral service today. One, the morbidly funny Laurie Anderson line from “Gravity’s Angel”:

And at his funeral all his friends stood around looking said. But they were really thinking of all the ham and cheese sandwiches in the next room. And everybody used to hang around him. And I know why. They said: There but for the grace of the angels go I.

Because you know what: after a sleepless night, and the morning viewing, and the service, and walking out to the cemetery in the rain, and placing a flower on the casket, and walking back, I found myself frightfully hungry. So I got two ham salad sandwiches and listened to the guests reminisce about my Pop-Pop, and drank coffee. And I said: So. This is life reminding me that I’m still in it.

Quotation number 2: Also from Laurie Anderson, “World Without End”:

When my father died we put him in the ground
When my father died it was like a whole library
Had burned down. World without end remember me.

Because all day long I wanted to turn to him and ask a question about this relative, or that one, or about his life in Kinzers, or something about the house. And someone had taken all the books away.

The final quotation running through my head is a part of one of the verses that was read at the funeral. This version is from the NRSV (I Corinthians 15:35-57):

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen…

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

And really, if I didn’t learn anything at all from my grandfather, I learned to listen to the preacher, and the Bible, and chew over the theology, and argue about it, sometimes vehemently, and then to come back to it over and over again. But this much I know: we have planted my grandfather, but he continues to grow in us.

Herman Brackbill, 1917-2008

Herman Brackbill

I got a call from my mother this morning informing me that my grandfather, Herman Brackbill, passed away earlier today at the age of 90. He would have been 91 next month.

As regular readers of my blog know, my grandfather’s health hasn’t been that great over the past few years, and it took a significant downturn a few months ago when he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. But when we saw him in December he was as alert, funny, and warm as ever. It hurts that he’s gone.

My fondest memories of my grandfather are from when I was a kid. We used to see him and my grandmother fairly often, and we had a little ritual going. In the days before my dad finished our basement, they would sleep on the pull-out couch in the living room, where the TV was, and we would come running down the hall early on Saturday morning and make Pop-pop watch cartoons with us. He would generally sit still with us for Looney Tunes, and he would invariably get caught up in the action with us and start laughing until he cried.

And I remember visiting him in Pennsylvania on Christmas Day and having his big voice boom out “Joy to the World” along with the radio—he inevitably sang the echoed “and heav’n and nature sing” like a true chorister. More recently, I had the privilege a few years back to sing next to him at a family gathering. His bass voice was less powerful but no less sure.

When my uncle Harold passed away recently, my grandfather missed him and the opportunity to spend time with him. They’re back together now, along with his other brothers and sisters that have gone before. It’ll be quite a family reunion tonight. I hope my great-grandfather has loosened up a little now and will allow some singing at the dinner table.

From a psychic landscape


I uploaded a bunch of photos last night to Flickr, including some from our vacation in North Carolina: some purely family photos and one large set of a visit to the place I will always remember as Grandmother Jarrett’s house.

As you can see in the photos, it’s not really a house so much as a farm, with as many as seven or eight buildings on the property (counting various barns and one chicken shack). The property was built up over the years starting with my great-grandfather, Zeb Jarrett, who built the house. In one photo you can actually see the evolution of the house: the section with the porch on the right was the original house built by Zeb and Laura, while the middle section was added on a few years later and the part on the left was added by my grandfather. The house was well kept up over the years, and my aunt has put it in exceptionally good shape after my grandmother passed away a few years ago. But without my grandmother there, it feels like a stage set waiting for someone to walk on.

In fact, walking past the barns I felt the truth of Laurie Anderson’s lyric: When my father died we put him in the ground. When my father died, it was like an entire library burned down. In this case, everything still stands but the spirit of the place is gone.

December 18 and all is well

To those of you who know what’s going on with me and Lisa: all is well with our world. To the rest: you’ll find out soon enough.

But here’s a note from last year’s Christmas mix to tide you over:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Thanksgiving, early

Reading today’s Cary Tennis advice column (one of my guilty pleasures, btw), “Does less of a paycheck make him less of a man?,” I find myself thankful for how lucky I really am.

When I was between jobs after moving back east, it was extremely difficult. Financially it was OK, though not great; Lisa was chomping at the bit to do some much needed house renovations and we didn’t have any cashflow to permit it, and trying to find a job was challenging. But emotionally it was one of the worst periods of my life. I have since discussed this with my therapist and concluded that there were two major factors at work on top of the standard major-life-change stuff that depresses anyone: having a major part of my identity bound up in what I did for a living, and not wanting to disappoint my wife. The pressure of those two things combined with an uncertain job market and existing depressive tendencies were enough to drive me through the floor into a major depression. A glance at any of my writing between October 2004 and March 2005 won’t bear that out, because I didn’t write much about it, but it was pretty severe.

The one thing that pulled me through was Lisa’s support. Which brings me back to the advice column: I can’t imagine being in this guy’s shoes and having to deal with the lack of support his partner discusses. Talk about kicking someone when they’re down. Ladies: this is not how to help someone who is underemployed and trying to get their self esteem back.

So yes, I am extremely thankful for what I have with Lisa. I’m not sure I would be here today without it.

Happy anniversary

Since I’m still on the road, I would like to take a moment to say a quick word to my wife on our 9th wedding anniversary: it feels like it was just yesterday, and it feels like it has been since the beginning of time. Happy anniversary, dear, and I’ll call later.

Brackbill picnic photos

kids flying a tractor

New on Flickr, a set of photos from the Brackbill picnic. I was in more of a hurry than last year, since I had a long drive ahead of me, but I managed to capture a few things.

One that surprised me was how many kids there were… and how grown up they were. This shouldn’t surprise me; there are a bunch of the kids of my generation (who I still remember as being, at most, teenagers) who, like me, are over 30 and married. One part that surprised me was the children of my mother’s cousins who were now entering their teens… and holding down conversations… and clearly having a blast hanging out with each other. But the smallest kids were the most fun to watch, as the photoset indicates.