It's a small world, but sometimes you don't know until it's too late

J. H. Osborne • Dec 29, 2019 at 3:00 PM

As I think about New Year’s Eve and the days of dining at Skoby’s, I am reminded of “the beautiful people.” Glamorous. Fashionable. And among those I used to see at Skoby’s were the Brookses.

I was never introduced to either Tom Brooks or his wife, Rose. At least I don’t think so. I knew his name because he owned and operated two Exxon gas stations that bore it. I certainly must have passed him numerous times in public settings. But I could not have picked him out of a crowd. It was the opposite with Rose Brooks. I, and others, instantly picked her out of any crowd. Long before I had a name to go with the person, I noticed Rose. How could you not?

As my friend Mary Ann Gong (daughter of Joe and a longtime fixture at the Sullivan County Courthouse) told me when I asked if she’d known Rose, “When she walked into a room, any room, everyone noticed. She was always impeccably dressed.”

Rose, who died last year, was known for many stellar qualities and characteristics: a friendly, outgoing manner; bright eyes and a big smile; entertaining in a grand style and with the culinary skills to back it up. She also had a successful career, most notably as a manager with the Downtowner, Holiday Inns across the region and later the Kingsport Camara Inn.  But two of her trademarks were her “go big or go home” approach to attire and decor. She favored old-school glamour in the former — impeccably dressed in head-to-toe-coordinated ensembles that typically included jewelry unique for just the right extra “bling” to finish that day’s particular look.

For years I wondered who lived in the Oriental-inspired home on a corner lot in Fairacres. Its uniqueness attracted me. I wondered what it was like inside. I eventually found out it belonged to Tom and Rose.

I’ve always liked shiny things. I wasn’t surprised to find Rose Brooks had a lot of shiny things. That’s what I saw during an estate sale conducted at the home by P&J Antiques. Tom and Rose’s children, Mary and Tiger, already had chosen anything they wanted to keep. I brought home quite a few things, none of which I needed. Some of it was practical (vintage, bright yellow Tupperware, a UT Vols cooler), some of it of local historical interest (a First Baptist Church cookbook, dozens of matchbooks from local eateries and businesses, mostly long gone), and some of it reflected our apparent shared appreciation of travel and adventure (Tiki tumblers, souvenirs from New Orleans).

My biggest “find” of the whole sale was a Skoby’s water glass — in a style I’ve never seen before. It has the restaurant’s logo in blue and the “Kingsport, Tennessee” below to perfectly mark a 1 ounce pour. But here’s the difference: it has a slight “bulge,” it’s not a straight-sided glass like most I’ve seen over the years.

Anyway, back to Rose. After I’d learned her name, but still never met her, I was surprised to learn my mother knew her — or at least of her. One evening Dad pulled the car under the porte cochere at Skoby’s and Mom and I got in. Dad then waited to allow an elegantly dressed woman to cross in front of us to enter the restaurant.

“Well, there’s Rose,” Mom said, getting my attention.

“You know Rose Brooks?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t say that exactly,” Mom said. “But I knew her parents down home.”

Sadly, I asked no more questions. If I had, I probably would have at some point introduced myself to Rose, and we’d likely have had a nice conversation. It turns out her maternal grandfather and my maternal grandfather were neighbors in the Flower Gap area of Lee County, Virginia, and best friends for many years. I was not alone in the dark on this. My sister Pamela and Rose’s and Tom’s daughter Mary were in the same extended group of friends in high school (Dobyns-Bennett, Class of ‘74) but never had an inkling of the long ago connection between our ancestors.

Elbert and Sarah (Marcum) Flanary were the parents of Bertha, Rose’s mother. Mom’s parents were Null and Pearl Wallen. Elbert, Sarah, Null and Pearl had a deep friendship over the years. And when Sarah became ill and bedridden, Popie Null and Grandma Pearl would go sit up to watch over Sarah at night to allow Elbert a chance to rest. Mom said they took turns sitting with Sarah at night with my Uncle Jack Wallen and his wife, Aunt Leona. Jack was Mom’s oldest sibling, she the youngest of 10. So she was just a girl when Sarah became sick and passed away. Later, Grandma Pearl had a stroke and Elbert came to sit up at night and give Popie Null rest time. Mom also remembers Elbert bringing fresh milk to her family when their own cow “went dry” prior to the birth of a calf. And she can remember that Elbert and Sarah’s daughter and her husband — Rose’s parents — always came to visit my grandparents whenever they came home to the country for a visit.

For years I thought Mom was saying Bertha married “Kaye Miller” and they came to Kingsport for work. I’ve learned through online research that it was just “K.” His obituary and tombstone simply say “K.J. Miller.”

One early fall day Mom came home from school and “that big shiny car” was in front of the house (that working in Kingsport was paying off). Rather than going on inside “the front room,” shyness led Mom around the house and up an apple tree. She thought no one would notice her, up there chomping on apples. And then K. stepped out onto the back porch, where Popie always had a fresh pail of cool spring water and a dipper sitting on a table. K. was sipping from the dipper when his eyes gazed up into the apple trees — and zeroed right in on Mom. By this point, Bertha was at his side. “Why, look up there at that possum in that apple tree!” K. said to his wife with a laugh.

As Mom tells me this story, she imitates what she describes as K.’s deep voice. And points to a small table in our living room. “That’s the table he was at right there. That’s the table Popie kept the water and dipper on.”

Yes, I wish I’d talked to Rose.

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at josborne@timesnews.net.