Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Hattie Kolbe

I was only thirteen the last time I saw Hattie Kolbe alive, in my late 40s when I paid last respects to her as she lay in her coffin. The Kolbe family was part of my early growing up in Houston, Harris County, Texas. The Kolbes and the Oberprellers (Hattie’s family name) had been part of that post Civil War wave of German immigrants to Texas, the wave that brought my great-grandparents Benfer to Galveston and then to the Klein community of northwest Harris County. I really don’t know anything about Hattie’s family, only that she had at least one sister. They called her Fat Mama. Hattie’s son, John Jr. “Bubba” Kolbe, was one of Fat Mama’s favorites. Hattie and John Kolbe Sr. had two children, a daughter named Eula Mae and her younger brother. Bubba was six years older than I, so not a playmate. I stayed in his room when I visited the Kolbes periodically at their frame house on small acreage on Katy Road, acreage that was claimed for development decades ago and has been through as much metamorphosis as a caterpillar—only not so pretty.

I don’t remember why I went to visit the Kolbes, but I see their home in my mind’s eye. It was a typical 20s-30s clapboard, with a front porch that butted up against a bedroom to the left, front door leading into a living room, then dining room, then kitchen. To the left a hallway joined two bedrooms situated around the one bathroom. Bubba’s room must have been an afterthought prompted by his birth—maybe had been some kind of porch. Wood floors throughout the house, of course, linoleum on the kitchen floor and drainboard. A small entry porch at the back was cluttered with stacks of newspapers, bottles, other things I don’t remember, as was the kitchen drainboard. Hattie’s attitude, simply, “I don’t care”! She said it staccato: “I don’t kayuh”!

Hattie told my parents that I liked to sit in her lap and be rocked on the front porch. I kind of remember this, but I remember other things more clearly, like Eula Mae all dressed up and ready to go to her job at the bank, the smell of bacon and sausage being fried at breakfast, Mr. Kolbe telling me the story of the rat that ran up his sleeve when he was sitting at the wheel of the car in the garage. Or maybe it was his daddy’s sleeve. Anyway, it was in a year long before my birth year (1943), and the car was open enough that the rat found its way in. As I recall, the driver had put his hand to the floor, maybe to release the brake, and yeah, the rat. I cringe at the thought. Give me a snake any day.

I also remember the time that the Kolbes, our family the Hollises, my mother’s birth family the Fuchses, and our friends the Warnekes, went to Playland Park on Katy Road. The rides were for children—ponies tethered and moving in a circle, a miniature ferris wheel that Hattie and Kate Warneke got on, and then panicked with peals of laughter when they were stalled atop while new riders were getting on below.

My later memories of Hattie occurred in the early 50s, around the time that my middle sister and I were in junior high. The Kolbes had moved to land in very rural Fayette County, near the old, historic community of Rutersville. Their country Victorian house set in the most picturesque of settings, front porch facing the long drive from the county road, swept yard, Hackberry and Live Oak trees, a large two-story barn nearby. Hattie had gained a big house in the move, more room for clutter, including a kitchen cellar where she stored potatoes, onions, preserves. One time while visiting without my sister I had time on my hands and decided to rake up the variety of debris that Hattie had tossed out the backdoor, I’m remembering eggshells, but I know there was more. Hattie got angry for some reason. I guess my efforts to help out were interpreted as criticism of her “housekeeping” habits.

The Kolbes had a Black family that worked for them. They lived in a shack down the road. I don’t remember if it was on Kolbe land. One day Hattie discovered that some of her potatoes in the kitchen cellar had gone south—turned “ropey” was the colloquial term—and she instructed us (maybe that was my sister Sue and me) to take those potatoes down to the “niggers.” Painful and yet funny memory. Waste not, want not. German thriftiness, but not German tidiness, a stereotype not completely fulfilled. I can hear her say, “I don’t kayuh!” “Do you like pickles? I don’t kayuh!” She was the product of early 19th Texas southern attitudes, so for her to refer to their Black workers as “niggers” was expected. My Texas German grandmother, born in northwest Harris County, Texas in 1897 would have used, in fact did use, the same term. I love old things, Texas history, but for some reason not much was passed down through the generations—at least, not in our branch of the Benfer-Fuchs family. One time I asked my grandmother Lizzie Fuchs why we didn’t have any old stuff. She replied, “I don’t know, I guess we gave it all to the niggers.” This speaks volumes. Such memories embarrass me, yet warm my heart at the same time, because I know the intent was not malicious.

My memory of Hattie goes no farther than the summer when I helped Bubba and his daddy, along with the Black workers, make hay. We ate good food, drank iced tea, sat on the front porch during the worst heat of the day, slept in old iron beds in rooms with 12 foot ceilings, windows thrown open to catch the breeze. Maybe John Sr.’s sister Mickey—Aunt Mickey—who wore a maroon beanie with a pom-pom swinging from the back in winter time—might have been there. If not, she needed to be to complete the picture in my mind.

Hattie Kolbe was a short chunky lady, medium skin tones, fair colored hair, blue-green twinkling eyes. She was all about love and nurturing, even though she didn’t care so much about keeping a tidy kitchen, back porch, and dooryard. “Do you like my pickles? Oh, no you don’t! You don’t like my pickles. I don’t kayuh!” Rest in peace, dear Hattie.

Hattie Kolbe
Harold Hollis (December 8, 2005 – Normangee, Texas)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Brokeback Sunday Afternoon

Amazing the simple things we take for granted, like being able to sit in the midst of others, yet undisturbed, on a Sunday afternoon, collect our thoughts, and maybe even commit them to paper or to disc. Before leaving the city almost five years ago, for what I innocently thought would be a relatively idyllic life in the country, I wasn’t particularly drawn to test this truth in Houston, Texas. In fact, I didn’t even use the laptop that I had already owned for a year. Back then, although I had periodic urges to keep a journal, I was too distracted—perhaps unfocused, perhaps lazy, or even lacking purpose. That’s a scary thought—living quite literally in the middle of the 4th largest city in the United States, exposed day in and day out to all kinds of stimuli, yet feeling no compulsion to simply document or purge, examine or raise an angry fist. It took almost five years of routine, frequent isolation—oh, if only life were as uncomplicated as relative isolation would afford—to hit the wall and discover that I have to collect some thoughts and put them into words, if for no other reason than to maintain my sanity. If memory serves me well, this is one of only three epiphanies I’ve known.

This epiphany hit hard in the pre-dawn hours of December 3, 2005. I experienced a flash—call it spiritual—that would change the way I viewed myself and what I am doing with this precious life—or what remains of it at age 62. I’ve looked over this precipice before, gotten a glimpse of resolve, but then become lost in the day to daze of earning a living, chasing this dream or that, taking the road more traveled. So on this day of December 3rd, I realized that I had to make some changes, unload some excess of things, and get rid of some baggage. I understood anew that I simply can’t go on in the same way. Does this mean I volunteer—not more, just volunteer? Does it mean that I give away more of my worldly gifts? “For Sale—All My Earthly Possessions”. Does it mean that I consciously seek to influence those around me in a positive way—be a positive role model? Does it mean that I stand in the window and shout to the world, “hey, I have something to say here”? Does it mean that I just need to grow up?

So here I am this Sunday afternoon, waiting to see “Brokeback Mountain” for the third time. I didn’t expect to be here in College Station, Texas this afternoon—humorously yet sadly referred to as Closet Station. So someone described this bastion of conservatism on one of the blogs carrying discussions of Ang Lee’s 21st century rendering of a late 20th love affair, set in the desolate and apparently deadly world of West Texas and points farther north and west.

It is a homosexual affair. The lovers are both men, cowboys even. They fall in love in 1963 while sheepherding over a summer on Brokeback Mountain, somewhere in beautiful Wyoming big country. Later, the widowed wife of one of these still relatively-young men is caused to reflect that she thought Brokeback Mountain might be “some pretend place, where the bluebirds sing and there’s a whiskey spring”. Her husband Jack’s long-time affair with his friend Ennis has escaped her, at least to some degree. Jack always traveled to Wyoming from Childress, Texas to “fish and hunt” with his long-time good friend Ennis Del Marr.

When these guys met they were just short of 20. Poor, mostly uneducated, feeling their seed, and for some reason fate had brought them together. When Jack dies on a lonely back road, apparently at the hands of “gay bashers”, he’s only 39, yet still dreaming of a life more complete than what he has been dealt thus far. We’re talking about life unrealized—life only marginally fulfilled, chronically repeated poor choices—choices that numb, living in fear—fear of living from the heart and gut, blind sacrifice, indecision.

After their first coupling, one is quick to say, “I’m not queer.” The other, “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.” The summer ends, each goes back to other lives already in the making, and for the next 20 years they steal chances to meet and love, making havoc, robbing not only themselves but the ones whose lives are closely linked with theirs. Jack would have them together, making a ranch of their own—“Listen, I’m thinkin’, tell you what, if you and me had a little ranch together, little cow and calf operation, your horses, it’d be some sweet life”. Jack marries prosperity, the spoiled daughter of a spoiled, ignorant man, and Jack and Lureen have a son. Ennis married only three months after the summer on Brokeback—a plan that was already in motion—and quickly fathered two daughters, whom he loves and adores. Sadly, his wife Alma gets the truly short end of the stick. Her witness of Ennis and Jack’s first reunion—arms locked and lips devouring, only partially hidden in the alley behind their apartment—stuns her, but doesn’t really prepare her for what follows. At this point she’s lost her man, temporarily lost her sense of herself as a woman, and she’s immediately forced to come to terms with this realization on her own as Ennis goes away with Jack, first for the night, and then for the next few days.

This story ends tragically, of course. How could it be any other way? Ennis and Alma divorce while their daughters are relatively young; she remarries and has at least one other child. Ennis doesn’t escape the scrape-by mindset that has defined his life. In spite of Jack’s efforts to bring them together, Ennis can’t come to terms with it. Early only he has told Jack that life has taken him down a different road, with a wife and two children. It just can’t be. “I’m stuck with what I got, caught in my own loop.” And “if you can’t fix it you got to stand it,” Ennis says. If you choose not to fix it, then you’ve chosen to try to stand it.

Remember, though, our setting is the American West, conservative, God-fearing country, one where Ennis as a nine-year-old boy was made to witness what happens to men who try to live together, even ones who are “tough old birds”. This is West Texas in 1983, where a seemingly regular guy like Jack Twist can catch the attention of the wrong eyes and wind up beaten to death with a tire iron on an isolated back road. Not so different than the Wyoming of 1998 where Matthew Shepard was savagely beaten to death by two men claiming to be gay who lured him away from a campus bar. Or for that matter, pick any city—New York, Houston, Chicago—where anti-homosexual crimes occur on a regular basis.

Hate is so much larger and more pervasive than Jack’s untimely, brutal, hate and fear-filled death. Hate is waged on a world scale in the name of some God. Hate apparently is in the human genes, it is generational, it is infectious, it is a killer. Hate comes at us from the pulpit, from the stadiums filled with revivalists, from the political stage, from the neighborhood café, from the school board meeting room, from the playground. We stand proudly on our ignorance and prejudice, so proud that we want to model it and inculcate it. Some are so bold as to attempt justifying it by turning to the Scriptures and using proof text to make a hate-filled, self-serving point.

So what is this epiphany thing? Could it just be a conscious decision to make a difference? Repentance is associated with sin and Biblical New Testament teachings. The Greek source is Metanoeo, meaning “to change one's mind and purpose, as the result of after knowledge.” Do we have to become born-again Christians to escape the shackles of hate and fear? Some would say so, but as a friend said to me some weeks back, “I suppose that’s fine, if that’s what you believe.” Decency, tolerance, compassion, respect are not the sole property of Christians, or any other faith. How much do we have to witness to realize that we can’t make this journey failing to escape ourselves and fighting to cling to our self-imposed ignorance? What does it take to wake us from this sleep walk that so easily becomes a way of living?

Brokeback Sunday Afternoon
Harold Hollis (January 11, 2006 - Normangee Texas)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Taking Things to Completion

A few years back, a friend who shares my compulsion for projects revealed that she takes things to 96% completion. I had just commented that I can’t seem to get past 80%, or maybe it was 72%, so I was embarrassed by comparison. Now how you actually measure such things escapes me. I just know in my bones that I rarely get projects to the point that I can stand back, survey the landscape, and say, “I’m pleased”. The problem is that just about all the things I do have to stand juxtaposed to one another. Gardens, people, oh what a tangled web we weave.

For seven years, starting around the time I began converting this 2-story barn into a home, the shovel has been my best friend at times. What you can accomplish with a shovel and a wheelbarrow is amazing. During times of stress and boredom, I have dug my way through the landscape, building bed upon bed, all joined by garden paths, all of which support grass, weeds, call them what you will. That which befriended me at times has become a monkey on my back.

Feeling contempt for this garden embarrasses me and leads me to curse my lack of forethought. Why did I have to make it so big? Why couldn’t I just put down the shovel? In spite of efforts to give away plants, they do what plants do, reproduce. One of my sister’s has asked, “Couldn’t you just let the grass take over the beds and let it go back to the way it was?” Well, not in my mind I can’t. A big part of this dilemma is that old invader of dreams, Expectation. Why start a building and abandon it after erecting the framework? I can’t do like my Aunt Mary who threw her knitting into the fireplace, needles and all, because she couldn’t get the hang of it. Some people are just not cut out for knitting. Like life, gardens aren’t supposed to be perfect. Instead, they are works in progress, sometimes really messy, other times not as messy. Sometimes they’re downright cleaned up and on their best behavior, although temporary.

Recently I recommended to a friend that he read the collection of essays, PEOPLE WITH DIRTY HANDS, by Robin Chotzinoff. Among the assortment of passionate gardeners Ms. Chotzinoff includes are antique rose rustlers in Texas, a family that grows chiles in Hatch, New Mexico, a guy in California who raises and sells lady bugs, and most importantly for this conversation, an array of eccentrics, I am reminded, who eschew deadheading and weeding. So I go out and look at the 30-yard-long bed I finished weeding early this morning, and I think, “Damn, that looks good.” Relax, breathe slowly, deeply.

For some time now, I have felt an especially strong pull to brush my hands against each other, to be done with one thing or another. Given my struggle with Expectation, though, backing off from taking things toward completion is oh so complicated. I am reminded that I am overly concerned with how my decisions affect others, probably a victim of my own sensitivity. I’m also advised, “Harold, you’re hard on yourself. You agonize over how your efforts to take care of yourself affect others. It’s okay to take care of yourself. Yes, your choices that lead to gain also result in loss. That’s okay. It’s about balance. It’s okay to achieve only 70% completion.” It’s okay for the grass to take control of the flower beds. I’m thinking, “Damn, that feels good.” Relax, breathe slowly, deeply.

I can’t brush my hands against each other and magically change my circumstances. I can fall short, in my own eyes. I can disappoint and frustrate people because my choices conflict with their choices. Does that rob me of my right to choose? I hope not. Do I have the right to walk away? Sure. To change the rules? That too. Do I owe you something? Only to treat you fairly, if we choose to have some kind of relationship. You owe me fairness as well. How do you define completion? And, by the way, how do you measure it? And most importantly, how do we not use the measuring stick as a means of beating up on each other.

Taking things to Completion
Harold Hollis (Normangee, Texas—July 26, 2007)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Making Art

As I complimented an artful pillow my good friend Joy was repairing during a recent visit at her daughter’s home, I admired the patchwork of color, shape, and pattern. Joy, whose work is diverse, and can range from naïve to sophisticated, commented that she hasn’t made much art lately, that she hasn’t had anything to say. Her words caught my ear, reminding me that all art springs from the need to say something. I guess it doesn’t matter if the audience ends up being only the creator.

And so it is with words. I’ve read interviews with fiction writers who talk about their discipline, blocking out time for writing, maybe beginning early in the day, like going to the office for several hours. I marvel at the wellspring from which a piece of fiction takes life. I’ve read that the story and characters can just take charge, challenging the writer’s fingers to outrun his thoughts. To me it’s a miracle, and a gift I don’t have.

It’s been over a year since I’ve thought seriously about the discipline it takes to write something worthy. Most of us talk all the time about one thing or another, send all kinds of electronic communications, some protracted, others short and disjointed, lazy, incomplete sentences. We talk in our families, with intimate friends, with church friends, people in the grocery store. You name a place, we’re talking there, usually trying to make a point, or win an argument, or assure ourselves that someone else really understands what we mean.

Sometimes art takes form in seemingly simple human interaction. My friend Marlin is doing an internship at a geriatric facility in Miami to complete the requirements for a degree in music therapy. Marlin loves old people, and he’s spent significant time working as an aide in a nursing home and a geriatric hospital. Several months ago on a Sunday after church we took chocolate cake to one of his hospice patients at her nursing home. She was blind, virtually deaf, skin and bones really, a spider pawing the air from under her covers. She really didn’t understand who were, and she didn’t want to be bothered by us. I was touched and a little anxious as Marlin comforted this dying, 92-year-old woman. I watched him tenderly adjust the covers, reassuring “Miss Alma” that someone did care about her, even if only for a moment. It didn’t take long, and it didn’t take many words for him to say what was in his heart. He does this over and over in his work.

On this night, here in the middle of this rural Texas county, the only sounds I hear are the whirring of a ceiling fan, set to run counter-clockwise now that it is winter, an occasional bug cracking against the French doors, Casey the Blue Heeler barking at some distant, threatening sound that only a dog’s ear can sense, and now a neighbor dog answering her concern. There’s a hint of spent oak from last night’s fire in the wood stove, a satisfying smell, one not shared, however. I am with my thoughts, needing to say something, needing to say something a lot lately, and tired of arguing with myself. I practically burned up my keyboard earlier today sending the most important messages, prayers from the Book of Common Prayer; a sermon authored back in the 80s on homosexuality and Christianity, a sermon I visited again today in my continual struggle to understand exclusion, bigotry, and hate; a message to a friend lost who has suddenly become a connection to yet another loss. Oh, how fragile the web we climb on this journey to the heavens.

Today I made another bottle tree, one I’m planning to use in my booth at an antiques market I’m doing this weekend. The other day I harvested an unwanted Red Bud tree from the garden and planted it in an old galvanized bucket filled with mortar mix. I actually had to deal with three separate trunks because that’s how the tree had grown. It was a little tricky, and the mortar mix took much longer to set up than I had expected because I had weakened it with playground sand to make the mix go farther.

In southern Black folklore, the bottle tree was a means of protecting the home by trapping evil spirits within the colorful bottles. Though not so common today, bottle trees have become popular with some southerners who strive to create artful folk gardens. I have several planted around my garden. You never know when you might need to ward off an evil spirit. Bottle trees have been one of my passions of the past few years. They’re a fairly simple way to let loose some of my creative juices. Sometimes the words just aren’t there. Sometimes it’s just easier to juggle three trunks in compromised mortar—holding your mouth just right—toss in a few shards of rock to help keep it together, stand back with your hands poised, maybe mumble a prayer or a harmless curse, and just hope everything comes out all right.

Making Art
Harold Hollis (Normangee Texas – January 9, 2007)