“I have trod the upward and the downward slope;
I have endured and done in days before;
I have longed for all, and bid farewell to hope;
And I have lived and loved, and closed the door.”
Mary Jo Brownlee was born on July 26, 1935 to W.D. and Gertie Festervand, as they began their family together, living down a dirt road off of Boyter Lane outside of Vivian, Louisiana. Mary Jo grew up in what she described as a hardscrabble life in an idyllic setting. She had the pastures, creeks, piney woods, and red dirt roads as her playground with her favorite cousin, J.C. Floyd. There were many days they ran barefoot through the woods to get underfoot in the home of their beloved MawMaw, Mary Susan Floyd, who spoiled them with ‘snuff’ made of cocoa and sugar.
Mary Jo graduated from Vivian High School and continued her education at the Elliott Business College in Shreveport, learning shorthand and secretarial skills. It was during that time she was introduced to a handsome, dark-haired young man from Jefferson, Texas. In November of 1953, she married that young man and soon afterwards, Mary Jo and Gene Brownlee started a family together there in Vivian. As their family grew and the economy changed, the Brownlees packed up their six children and followed the growing oil industry to Texas. They relocated to Alvin, Texas, near Mary Jo’s adored aunt and uncle, Khaki and Jack Festervand. Those early years as a family were filled with numerous fun excursions, camping trips and church picnics to Galveston Island, the Houston Zoo and Camp Mohawk. During Christmas breaks and long summers, many, many trips were made back home to Vivian, where their brood of six enjoyed creating their own special memories in those same piney woods on those same red dirt roads and getting underfoot of their own beloved grandmother, Gertie Festervand….their MawMaw.
As their children began their school years, the opportunity of a better job in a smaller town led the Brownlees to Liberty, where they stayed to continue to raising their six children in a Christian home, to be strong, intelligent and hard-working….character traits acquired from their parents. With Gene working many long hours to provide for his family, Mary Jo worked tirelessly as their caretaker, teacher, faith and guidance counselor, and referee. She taught her six children to think before you act, treat others as you would have them treat you, take responsibility for your actions, always do the right thing, and do your chores….always do your chores!
A lot of those life lessons were honed during their many family camping trips together, which was a feat unto itself with a family of eight. Back in the day, customers of the local Minimax grocery store may recall seeing Mrs. Brownlee with her three daughters in tow, each pushing a shopping cart as she loaded up supplies for a week-long camping trip to such “far away” places as Lake Ouachita, Lake Texarkana and the Red Arrow Campground. The preparation was always hard work for her, but she greatly enjoyed the rewards of watching her family swimming, fishing, playing and enjoying the peace of the outdoors and nature that she so loved. Mary Jo was also an avid reader, a lover of all genre of music, and a movie aficionado. From hiding the latest Readers Digest from each other, to jitterbugging in the living room and two-stepping down the hallway, and curling up close together on the couch to watch a scary movie, she taught them so much. These qualities were instilled in all six of her children. She was so very proud of the adults they became, and the children they too raised.
The word “proud” doesn’t even begin to describe how she felt about her grandchildren. The traditions continued with them. MawMaw and PaPa created lifelong memories for the grands. Summer camping trips on the pontoon boat, bonfires and marshmallows under the elm tree at the homestead. A bunkhouse with ten bunk beds she designed and PaPa built, to house all those kids! Whenever possible, MawMaw Brownlee attended every baptism, dance and twirling recital, softball game, baseball game, football game, theater performance, choir and band concert, Christmas pageant, beauty pageant, high school graduation, college graduation, wedding, and baby shower. She called each and every grandchild on their birthday, and usually with an original rendition of the birthday song. MawMaw will always be their best cheerleader.
Of course, having six children meant having their friends around also, and she treated them all as family. Mrs. Brownlee played “Mom” to Malcolm and Kay and Robert and Todd and Wesley and Becky and the Benge girls, and so many more. They all learned to tow the line and were held to the same standards as if they were her own. Even her own friends were considered family. Mary Jo shared great times and interesting trips with her best friend Shirley, many laughs with her friend Mary Ann, and Norma was treated as another child brought into the fold. Mary Jo was certainly a force to be reckoned with, and she loved us all fiercely. Those of us who loved her were all the better for having known her.
On Sunday, January 24, 2021, with the first ray of sunshine after five days of fog and rain, Mary Jo Brownlee left this world for her heavenly home. There she joined those who went before her, her parents and her sweet brother Samuel Festervand. She is survived by her siblings Carol Rogers, Roger (and Lynda) Festervand, and Frances Collins. To forever cherish their memories of her, Mary Jo is survived by her husband of 67 years, Gene Brownlee and their six children: Dennis Brownlee of San Leon; Donna (and Ernie) Haynes of Buna; Dwight (and Deanna) Brownlee of Hardin; David (and Rita) Brownlee of Rincon, Georgia; Danita (and Martin) Massey of Liberty; and Delores (and Brent) Huggins of Liberty. She was blessed immensely with these six children, and17 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.
Honoring her final wishes, there will be no service but rather a Celebration of Life for Mary Jo Festervand Brownlee in February, for all her family and friends. And at a later date, her ashes will be scattered “where it all began” …..on Boyter Lane.
Memorials contributions can be made to Grace Initiative Meals on Wheels of South Liberty County, P.O. Box 10397, Liberty, Texas 77575.