Despite what advertisers and big-box stores tell us, Christmas is about small things.

Or rather, the greatness within small things.

Look at the story: God blesses the most forgotten of women. She and her rag-tag husband give birth in a lowly barn. The infant — smallest of all — is crowned king of all.

So this Christmas Eve, let us praise the small stories, meager moments and humble acts. Let us praise the paradox: within small things, we found the greatness of life.

No one understood this like Keiko Brewer.

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An origami crane folded by Keiko Brewer.


Born in 1930 to American Quaker missionaries in Sapporo, Japan, Katharine Lane Brewer and her twin sister spoke only Japanese growing up. (Keiko means "blessing.") Then the war came. Fearing capture by the Japanese military, her parents sent the two girls underground; sheltered by Japanese friends, then Catholic nuns, Keiko and her sister escaped away on a ship — as their parents were captured — for a two-month voyage across the ocean.

They were 12.

They came to America, where a Massachusetts grandmother took them in.

Something was perhaps forged in these harrowing years; under such stress, the essentials— the rules of life — are learned quickly.

Take care of one another.

Don't neglect the here and now.

Above all things, love.

"No judgment, no putting on airs," one child would later say. "With Mom, what you see is, and always has been, exactly what you get."

Keiko graduated Piedmont College, then married a Navy man, Dick Brewer, and raised one daughter and three sons — Dawna, Mark, Marshall, Gordon — while living on Signal Mountain. (Ten grandchildren and five great-grandchildren would come later.)

As far as I know, she never made a headline. Never won an award. Her life, by some standards, was quite small.

It was also remarkably great.

"When I think of her, I always remember her beautiful smile. But the quality that I loved and coveted most was her gentle spirit. I have never known anyone who so consistently exhibited such gentleness in every possible arena," said Marcia Kling, well-loved TV personality and an old friend of the Brewers. "Keiko proved that gentleness is not the opposite of strength."

Keiko Brewer’s Oatmeal Cookies:

Mix 1 cup of shortening, 1 cup of brown sugar, 1 cup of granulated sugar, 2 beaten eggs, 1 tsp. of vanilla.

Mix 1.5 cups of enriched flour, 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. baking soda.

Mix together, then add 3 cups of quick oats.

Put dough on cookie sheets, bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.

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David Cook

Her life was a grand tower of tiny acts built upon tiny acts:

She practiced origami, folding tiny paper into cranes.

She hand-wrote letter after letter.

She hung clothes on the line, taught children at church for years — the Second Presbyterian Church nursery is dedicated to her — and hugged everyone she could. (But Keiko was no pushover. One son, who'll go unnamed, had a sailor's tongue. Keiko would routinely wash his mouth out with soap. But she'd follow it with a stick of Juicy Fruit.)

She walked three miles every morning for more than two decades, picking up newspapers already delivered in neighbors' driveways and redelivering them, walking them up to front stoops and doorways.

She folded napkins at retirement homes, baked oatmeal cookies like they were second only to the Eucharist, hunted four-leaf clovers, savored the smallest of errands.

"Mom was love-thy-neighbor in the flesh," said her son Mark.

Each night, around the dinner table, the Brewers had one prayer:

May we have eyes that see,

hearts that love,

and hands that are ready to serve.

Her kids put the prayer into action.

In 1980, son Gordon's sixth-grade classmate, Karen Lawrence, died from leukemia. To honor Karen, Gordon raised $68 to run a New Year's Eve race that benefited St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

That was 37 years ago.

The race was soon renamed the Karen Lawrence Run and is one of the best races in the city, with all its proceeds now going to the Ronald McDonald House.

Between 1980 and 2017, Keiko walked the race 36 times.

This year, the race is dedicated to her.

"Consider this your invitation," Gordon likes to say.

In 2005, Keiko beat cancer. Then, Alzheimer's came. Earlier this fall, a stroke.

On Oct. 21, she died.

She was 87.

"Her most fluent language was nonverbal," Gordon said at her funeral.

This Christmas Eve, let us praise a life made great through the small things. Let us praise decades of consistent, unconditional kindness. Praise for courage in the face of loss. Of trust in origami and oatmeal cookies as power. In gentleness as strength.

This New Year's Eve, let's run together in honor of such a life.

Yes, we need activism and street-marching protest. We need revolutionaries and righteous anger. But in every recipe for social change, love must be present.

Nothing becomes great without it.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.