Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Visiting Aunt Mary

On Good Friday, I knew it, as emphatically as we can know anything. The Monday after Easter I was going to visit my Aunt Mary, who lives 125 miles away on the northwest side of Houston, the only remaining sibling from my Daddy’s generation, now halfway to her 91st birthday. It was a trip I had promised to make after returning to central Texas from New Mexico at the end of December, but I just hadn’t made the time…made the time…given the time…shared the time. How many times have I heard Aunt Mary say without bitterness, “I know everyone is busy, living their lives, working, taking care of their families”. Yet she yearns to see her Hollis relatives. While her physical health is good, she is compromised by dementia. These days Aunt Mary stays close to home, although she goes to church, “goes shopping” and gets her hair done each week, all in the company of a caregiver. Except for periods generally not exceeding a couple of hours, someone is with her 24/7. As fortune would have it, I developed a stomach virus the evening before Easter. I went to church on Sunday, but after church I had to come home and go back to bed. The visit seemed in jeopardy. Monday morning I felt 100% better, but I called Aunt Mary to say that I had been sick and didn’t want to expose her to anything. She insisted that she’d rather risk catching my bug than to miss a visit from me and my middle sister Sue.

I hadn’t seen Aunt Mary since the summer of 2007, when many of our family members attended the funeral of one of our younger cousins—the generation after mine—one of Aunt Mary’s great nephews. Aunt Mary and her husband had no children of their own. The day of the funeral, she approached the chapel where the service was being held on the arms of her nephew, our cousin Donald—the oldest of our generation, moving along in his septagenarian years—and his wife Patsy. I went over to greet her, not remembering when I had last seen her, although I had talked to her on February 1 of 2007, to tell her that our mother had died that evening. The morning of second cousin Neal’s funeral, she said to me, “Hi, sugar,” although there was no look of recognition on her face as we stood there on the sidewalk leading to the funeral chapel. My two sisters, Joan and Sue, went over to greet her as well, and sensed the same absence of our aunt.

In April of 2007 I had traveled through the southeastern U. S. on a trip to visit a friend in Florida. Part of my journey both directions was time in Dothan, Alabama, the point of origin for our Hollis relatives, beginning with our great grandfather David Riley Hollis. At the Dothan library in the 1870 census for what was then Dale County, I had found our great-great grandfather Isaac Hollis, born in the coastal North Carolina county of Craven in 1823, along with his wife Cynthia (Morrell) and several of their children. I could find nothing for the 1890 census, which would have included our grandfather Stephen Edgar Hollis. I called Aunt Mary to share with her my great excitement over being in Alabama and finding even stingy amounts of information about our Hollis family and to ask her if she knew Grandpa Stephen’s birth date. Because she couldn’t remember where she kept the family Bible, I had to call her back for the date, which turned out to be 1882. Aunt Mary couldn’t remember much else on her own, and the information in Papa’s Bible was again, very stingy.

Thankfully, our mother loved talking about her maternal Texas German roots, which we can trace to 1866, when the Benfer family arrived at Galveston and made the journey overland to Harris County, settling in what is now part of northwest Houston, a great sprawl of a city. My natural curiosity encouraged me to document what my mother remembered. Now, with Mother gone, I don’t have anyone else to ask those questions that keep coming up about some Aunt Hannah or Aunt Sophie. Were they blood kin, or did they marry into the Fuchs family. Mother even remembered a lot about the Hollises, much more than those of Hollis blood offered up, even our Daddy. Why are some people so lacking in curiosity about their own roots? In the case of the Hollis family, we never heard much about their history—only that Grandpa Stephen, whose death in 1941 preceded my birth still two years away, had been born near Dothan, Alabama. Now, Aunt Mary is the only Hollis left of the greatest generation, and her memories are so few and so sketchy that they likely couldn’t be patched together to make even a baby quilt. On Monday of this week, though, I loved asking her questions, coaxing her to remember, and hearing her delight at being visited by her Hollis kin. She loved the tuna salad I made in her kitchen and the apple pie I had picked up at Central Market on the way in to town. As I mixed the tuna with mayonnaise and pickle, washed lettuce and sliced a tomato, eggs began boiling on the stove top. “Harold, is this pepper in the water?” she asked. “Yes, Aunt Mary, I picked up the wrong shaker. I meant to put salt in the water.” Meanwhile, she rifled through the pantry and refrigerator, taking inventory and offering other complements to our tuna on toast lunch.

Over lunch, I asked, “Aunt Mary, do you remember the Hollis family chocolate cake?” ”Anna Mae’s cake,” she replied automatically. She went on to talk about the icing, which is made with butter, cream and granulated sugar—not powdered sugar. Sue is the only Hollis in our part of the family making that cake these days, and she had a hard time last week remembering the particulars of constructing the cake. All I had was a list of two groups of ingredients. Sue has been puzzling over why the cake itself always falls while it cools. We’ve turned to our friend Robert, who shines in the pastry department, to sort through this dilemma. He’s taken on the cake-making role for a cookdown we’re having here soon in the country. Unfortunately, it would take way more time and effort to bring Aunt Mary here for that day than anyone will be able to work out. Fortunately for those of us who are here and who remember, Sue made Aunt Mary this, her favorite cake, for Mother and Aunt Mary’s September birthdays in their 88th year— birth dates only one week apart.

Aunt Mary treasures all of her nieces and nephews, both on the Hollis side, and the Todd side, her deceased husband’s family. Every one of us has great memories of visiting Aunt Mary and basking in her bountiful love and good humor. The Hollises love telling yarns, and Aunt Mary still has some of that spark. “Don’t slip on that floor and tear up your Rooster Jane,” she cautions. On Monday we talked about her years with the telephone company in Houston, a job where she excelled and was promoted over the years from the mid 1930s into the early ‘60s. Our Uncle Pat, her oldest sibling, had encouraged her to continue her education after she graduated from what was then 11 years of schooling required for a diploma. “I wanted to have my own money,” she said. “I loved clothes, and I was able to help out Mama after Papa died.” Always stylish and elegant, in spite of severe thinning of her hair that began when Aunt Mary was in her 30s, she has always like being well turned out, with a splash of lovely fragrance as part of her aura. She loves pretty things, old things, and I attribute my love for antiques to her and my Daddy.

On Monday we talked about a little of everything, mostly our Hollis family. Although Aunt Mary hasn’t been a regular churchgoer for many years, she informed Sue and me, “I go to church most Sundays”. “Which church do you attend, Aunt Mary”, I asked. “Methodist, but I’m not becoming a Methodist,” she replies. The Hollises have deep roots in the Baptist Church, East Texas primitive Baptist, foot-washing Baptist, hard-shelled Baptist, although none of them was ever particularly compulsive about church attendance, not that I remember anyway. Uncle Pat and his family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in the late 1940s for him to start a career as a pharmacist. They became Roman Catholic, and as far as I know, they’re the only ones sprung Stephen Edgar Hollis and Sallie Antoinette Forest Hollis who have a long, uninterrupted history of faithful church attendance.

“Aunt Mary, do you know who Isaac Hollis is,” I asked. She didn’t. “He was your great grandfather. I found him and his wife, Cynthia Morrell Hollis, along with some of their children, including David Riley Hollis, your grandfather, in the 1870 census in Dothan, Alabama.” I added this information to a list of names she kept in Papa’s Bible, a list that didn’t even include all of Papa Stephen’s siblings. “Aunt Mary, who was Minnie Sowell”? She, along with sister Miriam, had somehow not made it to Aunt Mary’s list. I have pieced together that Minnie Lee was the oldest of Papa Stephen’s siblings. “How do you remember all of this,” Aunt Mary asked, smiling. “I pay attention,” I replied.

We had a great four-hour visit last Monday, Aunt Mary repeating how much she loved her Hollis family and thanking us for coming to visit. “I have three bedrooms, if you ever decide you want to come spend the night,” she offered. As the afternoon moved on, I announced that I had miles to go and responsibilities awaiting me along the road. Hugging and promising to visit again, we made our way out the back door. I had moved onto the driver’s side of my truck, while Sue continued talking to Aunt Mary at the end of the porch walkway. I sensed that they were having a private moment. I discovered then that Aunt Mary had asked Sue, “Now what is your name?” With a smile, Sue reminded her, and then said, “Aunt Mary, Mother told me that you had something to do with naming me Carolyn Sue,” but Aunt Mary didn’t remember. She remained at the end of the porch walkway until we had turned around and headed toward the front gate, smiling and waving as we drove away.

Visiting Aunt Mary—Normangee, Texas (March 26, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Nectar of Friendship

Some days I feel like a boat cut loose from its moorings. That is how I feel today, and the boat feels empty as well. A friend from years ago, someone with whom I haven’t spent time in many years, someone who I don’t talk to or write to on a regular basis, visited me overnight. When he stepped out of his car, I saw that his hair was a little grayer, but otherwise he looked the same. He’s gotten leaner over the years. I’ve gotten heavier. We probably weigh about the same, although he's several inches taller than I. We hit the ground running, exercising our smart-ass humor while catching up. Not until he commented on his father in the past tense did I realize that the man had died, just recently. In the last year we have both lost a treasured parent.

Although my house is out of control these days, I did have a loose game plan for getting it somewhat in order for this visit, but I put off pulling it off until the day of his arrival. Sheets had to be laundered, the vacuum run over the carpet upstairs, the downstairs floors swept and mopped, front door glass cleaned, sidewalk swept, and things that I am routinely allowing to collect where they are deposited because frankly I’ve run out of room and out of motivation had to be organized at least a little. The sense of orderliness that has always governed my life to a good degree has been violated, by me, so lately I soothe my conscience with assurances that I am in the process of selling down my stuff. It will be a long process, I fear. No, I don’t fear it, I just don’t like the way this reality feels, but I’m trying to own it and not let it own me.

I got my house sort of in order for this visit. Today I am reminding myself that those who care about us don’t come to see our houses, especially after so many years, even a house they haven’t visited before. They come to see us, to rekindle friendships, to be reminded of why we are friends.

As I get older I am beginning to understand how people just let things go, especially dusty furniture and weedy flower beds. Even people who don’t collect treasure somehow manage to build piles, losing things, finding them again, wondering why they can’t just let go of things they’ll never use, maybe never used at all but instead imagined a need in some distant future. Someone I worked with 20-plus years ago, someone who was a fan of trinkets and other more valuable objets commented to me once, as we talked about our shared passion, that someday they would have to peel back the stacks of newspaper and magazines to get to her after her demise. My 80 year old aunt, raised by a mother who in her later years lived with stacks, has for some time now emulated her mother. Neither of my sisters is a “housekeeper”. Our mother was obsessed with having things dusted, swept and mopped.

I’m beginning to see that simple conversation with someone whose company we enjoy, gathering for a meal and stacking the dirty dishes for later, ending the daylight hours in chairs out in the garden, a water fountain quietly doing its work almost out of earshot, have a lot more value than a dusting cloth or a cotton mop.

We can count our friends on one hand, most likely. I didn’t really have childhood friends. My early playmates were kin. Although I am surely blessed to live near good friends here in Texas, most of those long-time friends I count on one hand live far enough away in one direction or another that getting together happens seldom. Even phones calls and emails can be months apart. Aside from my family, my habit seems to be always a ways from those people who have loved me, even when I didn’t realize it, and maybe even when I didn't think I deserved their love.

In the aftermath of a really nice visit with an old friend, I am feeling a little forlorn today, even though the sun shines and the promise of spring is evident everywhere. Clearing the grass and early spring weeds from the front path and the flower bed it borders is only begun. The product of my efforts from two days ago litters the area. The shovel stands planted in the ground, handy, but I’m not in the mood for weeding today, even though the weather is perfect. For someone who generally enjoys the solitary act of digging in the dirt, I don’t feel like being alone today, even though gardening is therapeutic for me. I can't get going. I’ve sipped the nectar of old friendship, and I need to rest for awhile.

The Nectar of Friendship—Normangee, Texas (March 14, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Snow in East Texas

Last Friday I struggled off of the sofa—my bed of late—dreading the day before me. On Saturday I would be setting out my wares at a one-day sale focused on antique Texas stoneware. Friday was set up day. As I had already said to a friend, “I’d rather be beaten.” The packing part mostly behind me, I had only to load the tubs containing my stuff and the furniture I use for display. In the early light I made my way to the bathroom and then back to the sofa to gather up my emptied water bottle, the book I wanted to carry on the trip, and “WHAT! Snow? March (implied)?”

Indeed, it was snowing. The upstairs deck was already completely carpeted as large flakes continued drifting down. My reaction was a mix of first disbelief and then dread for the job ahead of me, both colored by some amazement at what I saw outside the doors of my sleeping loft. My head wasn’t clear enough to consider how this unexpected winter wonderland would impact my plans, which had been feeling way too much like an obligation with little hope of worthwhile gain. A phone call to one of the guys hosting the Saturday event met with his assurance that it would all be over with in 45 minutes, according to the radar he was watching, and of course, snow doesn’t last long on the ground in our part of the world. He and the radar were pretty close to correct. With the sun shining and virtually all traces of our March gift disappeared, I pulled out of the driveway around noon. Without looking closely, no one would have known that a late winter, rare event had occurred that morning.

The sale turned out to be a pleasant enough experience. In an historic, lovely setting, artifacts also rare were displayed and offered for sale. For those of us gathered, these artifacts were evidence of our human artistic genius, even in crafting utilitarian objects intended in their day simply for storing that which sustains. Antique pottery from around Texas—some pre-dating the Civil War—reflecting the specifics of potter, clay, and tradition, gave visual testimony to a very specific reality. Someone happening by, with no clue to the truths represented by this event, could have easily concluded, “Gee, there must have been a lot of that stuff.” Not so, but maybe not as rare as snow in Texas, especially in March.

Friday seems far away now. Luckily I shot a few images of the morning with my digital camera. Spring continues to press forward. The 30-plus rose bushes I pruned on the eve of St. Valentine’s Day are leafing out, even the one I virtually decimated in my attempts to remove dead wood from among the canes. Blooms on two of my roses, the Old Blush climber and Cramoisi Superieur, are showing. The wild pear is having a snowfall of its own.

Daily I am reminded of how much work I face as I think about and try to do something about the accumulation of seven years of living in this two-story barn, where too much space has been at least a little bit of an enemy. Today I am reminded once again that when it’s all said and done, too much is, well, simply too much. As I look around at my own version of excess, though, I am thankful for gifts that sustain in unanticipated ways, asking me to ease up, consider the rarity that surrounds me each day, and be amazed. I am thankful for our creative genius expressed in simple things and for snow on March 7th in East Texas.

Snow in East Texas—Normangee, Texas (March 9, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Texas 1842

At the end of February, 1842, Caleb Ives, Episcopal priest of Christ Church Matagorda Texas, recorded in his journal yet another entry reflecting his deepest concern that his preaching of the gospel of Christ be blessed by God, leading to the salvation of his parishioners and to his own sanctification. His next entry, for March 3rd, simply commented on the prospect of a Mexican attack in south Texas, in response to reported communications from San Antonio and Gonzales. On this date and others in his journal, he discounted the likelihood of a full-fledged conflict with Mexico. Of course, we know that war between Mexico and the U.S. erupted in 1846.

Ives’ journal, which he kept from 1842 through the middle of 1848, is rich with first-hand detail of life on the coast of Texas, beginning in the latter years of the Republic, continuing into early statehood. The journal reflects what we today would consider mostly ordinary things—his priestly duties and his concerns for his flock, his family, goings-on in his town-country-state, his travels relating to his work, and most importantly, his private reflections on life. All of this is complicated by the time in which he lived. Even though Matagorda was a thriving coastal town by the time Ives’ accepted a call to go there in 1838, it was indeed the frontier of early Texas. All the things that many of us take for granted these days—modern transportation, access to life-saving medicines and healthcare, abundant worldly goods and conveniences that make our daily lives easier, infrastructure that enables us to flip on a light switch, fill up at the gas station, travel at illegal speeds because we are always in a hurry, mass communications that help us prepare for severe weather or even foreign invasion. The list could be longer, more discrete.

In no way is Ives’ journal an analysis of the times in which he lived. Yet his record is a wonderful snapshot of what captured his thoughts, day in and day out for over eight years. Over the last couple of days, I have been reminded of the richness of this snapshot as I’ve looked through the 95-page electronic file I created a few years ago by transcribing a Xerox copy of the Ives journal that resides in the national archives of the Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. In frontier times, ministers, like doctors, traveled to accomplish their work. They went to the people to preach, minister to the sick, to perform weddings and christenings. Traveling to the homes of Ives’ parishioners outside the town of Matagorda was necessarily by horseback or buggy over roads that were sometimes impassable, sleeping in a make-do camp when shelter wasn’t available, dealing with wild animals and people who would do you harm. Although Ives’ journal does not document any personal experiences with Indians, he does comment on reports of army conflict with the Comanches (March 28th, 1842). Doubtless, on his trips to Austin, the potential for an encounter with hostile Indians would certainly have been a possibility.

The journal records one reference to preaching at Gulf Prairie, where, according to the Handbook of Texas online, “Protestant services were held in a log cabin during the 1840s.” Visits to the plantation homes of people of means are mentioned several times in Ives’ record, as well as mention of persons of note. Gulf Prairie was settled by the Bryans, Perrys and Austins, and was the initial burial place of Stephen F. Austin, before his body was moved to the Texas State Cemetery in our state capitol, which was named for him. On April 2nd 1843, Emily Austin Bryan Perry, sister of Stephen and mother of William Joel Bryan (the namesake of Bryan, Texas), became a communicant at Christ Church Matagorda. “The weather was wet that day,” Ives commented, in closing his entry.

Caleb Ives, who along with his wife, Katherine, operated Matagorda Academy (1839), was a man of service. Serving as schoolmaster was a common means of earning income for frontier men of the cloth. “Begging tours” were a common means of gathering funds from the churched in settled areas for establishing churches on the frontier. Such a tour was conducted by Ives more than once, most specifically for building the first church at Matagorda after his arrival there in December of 1838. At this time, Texas was a “foreign country”, a mission outpost to the established church in the United States.

I’m sure Caleb Ives realized that he was breaking ground in Matagorda. He had already been instrumental in starting several Episcopal parishes in Alabama before coming to Texas in 1838. Yet his journal makes no dramatic claims relating to his life and work. He ministers, parents, blesses the newborn, performs Burial Rites, travels long distances under difficult but expected circumstances, grapples personally with the illnesses of his time. Malaria was common in the swampy, mosquito-infested coastal areas. Yellow Fever, which claimed many lives in Matagorda in the 1860s, was the cause of death of at least one parishioner recorded in the Ives journal, contracted on an “imprudent” business trip to New Orleans.

The last entry in Ives’ journal concerns the funeral he conducted for a Dr. Levy, who had died by his own hands after taking poison—this following an unfortunate attempted liaison with a Mrs. Herbert. Dr. Levy was married, but the journal doesn’t say if Mrs. Herbert was widowed or divorced. May 28th, 1848: “May what I said lead some to the wise step of beginning to prepare to die.” Comments on being prepared for death, especially in such uncertain life circumstances, is a thread running throughout the Ives journal. Little more than a year later, Ives himself would be dead. According to the Handbook of Texas online, he became ill in the spring of 1849 and went home to his native Vermont with the hope of regaining his health. Ives had documented in his journal a few instances of bilious remittent fever, a form of malaria. Perhaps this illness had something to do with his death. He died in Vermont on July 27, 1849, two months before his 51st birthday.

I remember the words of the Lutheran minister at my maternal grandmother’s funeral in September 1983. We actually buried our grandmothers one week apart—a September for the record books. “The words I have are for the living. The dead have no ears.” I don’t know whether Reverend Beltz had planned these words for my grandmother’s burial service. My mother and her brother, both who had been raised in the Lutheran tradition, but neither of whom had worshiped in the Lutheran Church in my recollection, apparently had forgotten Lutheran burial protocol. My mother especially wanted to have the casket open during the funeral, and asked me to go to the minister and make this request. Reverend Beltz denied the request, adding that if my mother and uncle wanted the casket open, they would have to find someone else to officiate at Grandma’s funeral. Clearly the salvation of those gathered to remember my grandmother was on the mind of Reverend Beltz that day, and such was the concern reflected by Caleb Ives throughout his journal. “I preached to the living, and not concerning the dead,” Ives recorded in his entry for February 13th, 1842.

Last Sunday the title of our young minister’s Lenten sermon was “God’s Last Hope,” and the subject of that sermon was, of course, on whose shoulders this hope falls. We need look no farther than ourselves. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11, KJV). The world in which we live, separated from Caleb Ives’ Texas by 166 years, really isn’t that much different. We’ve upgraded some, for sure, we have way more to distract us these days, but the journey remains the same.

Texas 1842—Normangee, Texas (March 4, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Old San Antonio Road

In Texas I live just about as far southwest as possible to still claim residence in Leon County. To get to this place from the east or the west, you travel the Old San Antonio Road (SH OSR). Less than one mile east of my county road stands one of the several markers placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the State of Texas in 1918, dedicated to this historic road.

This part of Texas has some historical significance, although scant evidence remains as testimony to anything that happened around here before the early 1900s. Like all Texas counties, Leon did produce one of the history books as part of the Sesquicentennial in 1986, and I’ve just rediscovered that there is a lot of history recorded for Leon, which was carved out of Robertson County in 1846, one year after Texas became part of the United States. Scores of local cemeteries do bear witness to early settlers, mostly of the late nineteenth century. A quick glance of a website devoted to Leon cemeteries documents family names, places, and of course, references to the Bible—Bailey, Bateman, Beaver Dam, Bethel, Bethesda, Boggy.

The Old San Antonio Road has its rightful place in Texas history. Also known as Camino Real, Spanish for King’s Highway, “It served as a lifeline for the missions (of East Texas) by enabling the transport of freight supplies and military protection, and it facilitated trade,” according to the Handbook of Texas. Further, from the Handbook, “During the eighteenth century Spanish ranchers conducted cattle drives along the route from points in Texas to the annual fair in Saltillo, Coahuila. In addition to being an avenue of commerce, the road enabled immigration. Moses Austin traversed the trail en route to San Antonio to request an empresario grant from the Spanish government in 1820, and many Anglo-American colonists entered Texas at Gaines Ferry on the Sabine and arrived at Nacogdoches and the interior of Texas over the road.”

According to the history books, Leon County is named for Mexican empresario Martin De Leon. However, also according to the history books, there is some claim among locals that the county is named for a yellow wolf of this region commonly called the león ("lion" in Spanish). I can almost guarantee that you’d have to look long and hard for someone in these parts who knows that tidbit of local history.

One of the gems of Leon County is its historical Renaissance Revival courthouse, built of locally-made brick in 1886. Two courthouse structures pre-dated it, one built in 1847 and the other in 1858, which is the prototype of the current building. Because of efforts by the Texas Historic Commission through its courthouse preservation program, many public structures around Texas have been given new life, and Leon County has been one of the beneficiaries of that program.

Recently I made the 30-plus mile trip to the county seat to conduct business at the courthouse, accompanied by a couple of friends. While there we cast our vote early in the Texas Primary 2008, and we toured the restored courthouse. As hard as I can be on this county, with it’s abundance of dirt roads that become hog wallows after heavy rains, its lion’s share of Bible belt mentality and conservative politics, illegal drug activity, and small-town political corruption serious enough to be under prosecution by the Texas Attorney General’s office, I am truly awed and so appreciative that Leon was able to come up with matching funds to restore the sweetest courthouse building in Texas (IMHO).

This weekend we celebrate the independence of Texas—March 2, 1836. Maybe we’re just as much the ragtag lot that populated this land when those brave men gave their lives at the Alamo 172 years. My thanks, on this date especially, are for people everywhere, but especially here in Texas, who see the value of honoring and preserving our historic past. Unlike some people who respond, “Aw, the Alamo, been there, done that,” I will never tire of our shrine to Texas independence. I don’t want to lose the thrill of revisiting my past. Entire towns, buildings, artifacts, roads where only granite markers remind us of our history, whatever treasures we are blessed to have, for these I give thanks. “I live just off OSR. You don’t know about the Old San Antonio Road?” Let the history lesson begin.

Old San Antonio Road—Normangee, Texas (March 1, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis