The Day on 07 August 2011
The good life of an American bookkeeper
What's your life story? I mean if you died tomorrow, what would people say your life was about?
I'm thinking about this because last week I paid a visit to a man who is facing death. Ray Brown is 86 years old and was just diagnosed with cancer. He's down to 112 pounds. That's about 100 pounds below his normal weight. He's in a nursing home, where I found him alone, dozing in a wheelchair and wearing a red-checked flannel bathrobe on a muggy 85-degree day in East Lyme.
When I arrived at Bride Brook Health and Rehabilitation Center I hesitated to wake Ray on account that I wasn't sure it was him. He looked lifeless. Plus, I wasn't used to seeing him all alone. Ray is always around people. He's helped thousands of them during his lifetime. He's practically an institution in New London, where he started the American Bookkeeping Company in 1956.
That sounds like a big company. It's not. It was basically Ray and his assistant. From a little second-story office on a historic street called Captain's Walk, Ray kept the books and filed the tax returns for the working-class of southeastern Connecticut. His clients were plumbers and carpenters, painters and butchers, sailors and people who owned small businesses. He was like them, a hard-working man just trying to earn a living.
He treated clients the way he wanted to be treated. He charged low fees. When people had a rough month and couldn't make a payment, he'd overlook it and catch up later. And when clients became ill or elderly, he made house calls. In that respect, he was like an old fashioned doctor.
Only Ray didn't carry a medical bag with a stethoscope. He came with a briefcase full of papers and a pencil tucked behind his ear. He'd remove his sport coat and take his place at the dining room table. Then he'd take a person's tax return and start scribbling numbers on a notepad. His hands and his mind were like lightening. When it came to figuring, he was a human calculator.
Then he'd charge something like $65. You can see why his clients were so loyal. People couldn't afford to leave him.
You can also see why Ray never made a lot of money. That wasn't his aim. He loved people, not money. That's the real reason his clients never left him.
When a man dedicates 50 years to building a business, it ends up being the main narrative of his life. But the thing I cherish most about Ray is his sense of humor. He used to wear a pin that said: I AM THE MOST HUMBLE. He'd grin when he wore it. People who knew him cracked up because a humble person would never wear a pin like that.
Yet Ray is the humblest man I know. He wore old clothes; drove an old car; lived in an old simple house; and packed a lunch that he seldom stopped to eat. But he always had time for a laugh. Only Ray didn't just laugh. He bellowed, often so loud that his face would turn cherry red and the skin on his forehead would furrow. Usually he was the butt of his best jokes, especially when things were going wrong.
Ray did my taxes for years. I started going to him when my wife and I first got married. He'd always pass along tips about saving money and being frugal. But the priceless life lesson that Ray taught me was unspoken. By example he taught me to laugh at life, even when life isn't funny.
Ray experienced his share of sadness. But he smothered it with laughter. Teach a man to do that and it's like giving him a fountain of youth. That's why I'll cry when Ray is gone. It's why I took a break from my summer vacation and had to go find him at the nursing home when a friend emailed me at the beach and told me he was there.
So there I was with my four children staring at this man who has made me laugh so many times. "Are you sure that's him, dad?" my daughter asked.
"Ray?" I called out.
His eyes opened. They focused. Then they welled up. It had been two years since we last saw each other. "Son," he said, pulling me close.
I got a chill. He's been calling me son for years. But this was different.
I squatted beside him and turned my ear toward his mouth. Age and illness have reduced his once booming voice to a faint whisper.
"I'm not afraid of dying," he whispered. "I'm not afraid of death."
But it was clear he was afraid of something. I could see worry all over his face.
"What are you afraid of, Ray?"
There were actually two things. First was his legacy. Three years ago Ray retired and sold American Bookkeeping Company. It still exists today, but he worries how its future operation will reflect on his reputation.
Then there's his dear wife Rose. She's 88 and lives alone now that Ray is in a care facility. Rose has her own health problems. Ray has always been there to provide for her. Now he can't. Meantime, the medical bills mount and he no longer earns a paycheck. Nor does he have a nest egg. All those years of charging such low fees prevented him from saving for retirement. It's amazing how complicated life gets near the end.
I needed something to make Ray smile. I handed him an inscribed copy of my new book "Poisoned." He lit up like the old Ray. He has all my books in a special place in his private library.
He pulled me close again. He wanted me to know when he first took a liking to me. It happened when I was a young teenager and we attended the same church congregation in New London. Ray would have been in his fifties. One Sunday he was asked to substitute teach the teenage Sunday school class. The task petrified him. He was a bookkeeper, not a speaker. Worse, he forgot his lesson plan. Desperate, he asked an open-ended question in hopes of generating a discussion. No one said a word. Finally, I started talking and guided a discussion that lasted the entire class period. No one ever discovered that Ray was nervous.
"God bless you for that," Ray whispered. "I never forgot that about you."
That's the thing about Ray. He doesn't forget people. I suspect that if people knew he was in a nursing home, that facility's lobby would resemble the closing scene in 'It's a Wonderful Life.' Ray Brown is a real-life George Bailey. He's rich where it counts, he's rich in friends. That's his life story.
Jeff Benedict is an author, specializing in non-fiction. A former East Lyme resident, he now lives in Virginia. His latest book is "Poisoned," which focuses on a 1993 E.Coli food poisoning episode traced to a fast-food chain.