The gnarled branches of a massive oak tree nearly scrape the roof outside Sue Sheeler's bedroom where the limbs hang low, visible from nearly every window.
During construction of the home in 1984, builders suggested she remove the tree - they weren't sure how much longer it would live, they said, and uprooting it would make construction easier.
No, she told them. No trees will be cut down. Build the house around them.
Over the next decade the tree shaded her family as both expanded. Her children grew into adults under its thick branches. Its deep-grooved bark soon absorbed the laughs of her grandchildren.
Recently, the tree showed signs of distress. Some of its limbs lost leaves. Gray Spanish moss choked many of the branches. She worried about how many years it had left, but she always knew she made the right decision to build the house around it.
After suffering a stroke on May 30, Brenda Sue Sheeler died June 6 in her bedroom in Brenham, under the oak tree, surrounded by her family. She was 72.
The daughter of Ruth and J.D. Cammack, she was born in Humble, Texas. She pronounced the name of the town like the locals: without H, as "UHM-bul." The way she lived her life, however, the H was never silent. Her humility defined her as she preferred to talk about the accomplishments of others, always downplaying her own. Even those who knew her will likely find out something in this obituary they didn't know about the lady from Humble.
In 1965 she married James E. R. Sheeler, Jr. in Houston, and the couple had three children, Jimmy, Cassie and Amy. Over the next few decades she anchored the family as Jim traveled frequently while building two international oil services companies. She served as Cub Scout den mother and Brownie troop leader. She was an avid and accomplished tennis player and sharp-eyed bridge partner.
Possessing a stunning beauty she never flaunted, she hosted both formal dinners and casual get-togethers. Once the festivities started, however, she often faded into the background. While she never wanted to be the life of the party, everyone knew she was the heartbeat.
She organized family reunions where she memorized forests of family trees, remembering the names of children and grandchildren of friends and distant relatives, never forgetting a face, a birthday, or an anniversary.
Still, she found time to give back.
As a member of the Houston Junior Forum, she volunteered as a candy striper on a hospital ward for terminally ill children. A certified Master Gardener, she later worked as a docent at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary at the Houston Audubon, leading toddlers in the "Titmouse Club" through the vast gardens.
In 1976 the couple bought nearly 100 acres of bluebonnet-blooming, oak tree-studded farmland near Brenham. They spent weekends there for the next decade while dreaming of one day retiring on the ranch. The couple later bought property in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where Sue prowled the forests, mountains and nearby trails. She soon transformed the property into a summer playground for the grandchildren where she could read under the shade of aspen trees near the sound of a roaring creek. But she always returned to the ranch.
The couple moved permanently to Brenham in 2003. There, Sue kept her hands in the dirt, tending roses, dogwoods and butterfly bushes as she watched the knuckles of the old oaks' branches droop to the ground.
Once the grandchildren arrived she adapted the grounds for them, adding a treehouse, zip line and tire swing dangling from an oak. Sharing her love of animals (she also volunteered for years at the ASPCA), she brought in goats, donkeys and miniature horses.
In her makeshift home office she set up in the playroom, photos of grandchildren spill out onto the floor. A consummate thank-you-note writer, a draft of her last note is scrawled on a legal pad, addressed to her book club. Her shelves boast titles ranging from Ernest Hemingway, Jhumpa Lahiri and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Nora Roberts and John Grisham. In recent years she often devoured several novels a week. The books on her Kindle could fill a small library.
Self-taught in life, she built the equivalent of several degrees upon her high school education. She loved history - whether poring through books or discovering the hidden stories of antiques - and served on the board of the Independence Historical Society. Though she worked at her lifelong education, her sense of grace and elegance - like her beauty, was innate.
At the time of her death, she was reading a book about foster children in preparation to volunteer with the Court Appointed Special Advocate program for abused and neglected children. After being hospitalized, one of her primary concerns was missing the next CASA meeting.
Still, her favorite books were the ones she read out loud, in the voices of characters her children and her seven grandchildren will hear for the rest of their lives.
As "Grandmom," she was the one making party hats out of newspapers and leading parades around the yard. She was on the floor coloring, painting, baiting fishing poles, paddling canoes, leading hikes, and reading. And reading. And reading.
During her last days, her three grown children and her husband cared for her in her bedroom under the oak trees along with help from Hospice Brazos Valley. In that final week, she did something nobody thought possible: she cinched the already tight family even closer together.
As she lay dying, her husband, Jim, looked over at her, thinking about the last 48 years.
"There are women and there are ladies, and she was a true lady," he said. "She would have made a great queen."
Lucky for all of us, she made an even better Grandmom.
Following her wishes, her body will be cremated and her ashes buried under the arms of one of her favorite oak trees, down below the strong branches, near the only part that's even stronger; a place where her family knows she belongs: among the roots.
Survivors include her husband, Jim; children, James E.R. Sheeler III and his wife Annick Sauvageot, Cassie Lawrence and her husband Chris, and Amy Hunter and her husband Hadley; brother Jerry Cammack; grandchildren James E.R. Sheeler IV, Christina Lawrence, John Thomas Lawrence, Caroline Lawrence, Blake Hunter, Courtney Hunter, and Jesse Hunter; and a pack of "granddogs."
Visitation will be held Sunday June 9 from 5 -7 p.m. at Geo. H. Lewis & Sons Funeral Home, 1010 Bering Dr., Houston, with a recitation of the Holy Rosary beginning at 6:30 p.m. A Mass of Christian Burial will begin at 10:30 a.m. at St. Cecilia Catholic Church, 11720 Joan of Arc Dr., Houston.
Donations in her name should be sent to Casa for Kids of South Central Texas, 2309 S. Day St., Brenham, TX, 77833; or to the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, 440 Wilchester Blvd., Houston, TX, 77079.