Monday, September 29, 2008

The Innocence of Redbirds

When a female friend up in Dallas used to the term CHL with me in a recent conversation, I understood what she was talking about only because of the context of her remark. What had begun as a suggestion from me that she needs to upgrade her Internet access from dialup to high speed segued into an explanation from her about decision making in a marriage. Oh well, maybe you had to be there. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that this well-coifed lady from Dallas would carry a handgun. After all, she grew up in the likes of Abilene, and for Pete’s sake, this is Texas. I know at least one other woman who is handy with a gun. No well-coifed lady from Dallas is she. She definitely wears the pants in her oddly conceived marriage.

Guns? For me, no thanks. When my daddy died in 1981, Mother gave me his guns, if I wanted them. It was a gesture of pure considerateness. She knew I didn’t use guns. I in turn gave them to my nephews, keeping only a police pistol that I remember being in their bedroom chest of drawers all my growing up life, hidden under the underwear and socks, and never loaded, as far as I know. I had no interest in finding out. Guns frightened me. And they do to this now government official senior time in my life.

I had a Red Ryder BB gun growing up. And it was this gun that I used to kill the redbird when I was 11. Standing in the front yard on West Montgomery Road. I can see it in my mind’s eye, and as I consider all of the beautiful Northern Cardinals that consider my native garden here in rural Leon County one of their homes, I to this day don’t know why I would aim that BB gun at any living thing. Only one other remorseful redbird story lives in my memory, and it tops mine for sentiment. Someone I knew in Austin back the 70s, an equally tender hearted guy, had a tale of redbird massacre that takes the prize. He, too, shot a bird as a kid, and then realizing that its mate was nearby and utterly distraught over the slaughter of its partner, he eliminated the second bird and its suffering. I am no longer around this guy, but I wonder if he ever thinks about this tale he related 30 some odd years ago. The story has much greater literary potential than my tale of senseless killing from a child with idle time on his hands, from a child that doesn’t yet understand the preciousness of life. BW’s tale probably explains his love of The Opera and why he related to me that he couldn’t imagine life without Maria Callas.

Right now, I have an old Daisy gun leaning against the wall between two cupboards in the bunkhouse. I came across it just the other day, having forgotten that it is loaded with BBs, ready for action as a warning to the neighborhood big dogs that use the garden paths of my fenced in area and just outside that fence as their personal potty. Actually, my sister Joan’s rat terrier, Sadie, is one of the culprits. The gun hasn’t seen much action, certainly not this year. I usually just seek out the round bladed shovel and throw the offending matter over the fence into the horse trap. Or, if it’s really not in the way, I leave it to disappear on its on schedule with the help of sun and rain.

I guess I am just at the mercy of the world, certainly if it comes to wielding a gun in self defense. I understand sport, sort of, and while I don’t want to kill that deer—and I love meat just about as much as the next guy—I don’t object to people who hunt, with guns or bows. And I guess I understand, sort of, rationally, people who want to protect themselves, with a handgun nearby. My friend in Dallas apparently went to school to learn how to use her gun. Yes, I’ve shot beer cans off the fence post with my nephews. I was not very good, but I had a good time with them. They were grown by then. And there is that rabbit that I shot from the tailgate of their pickup track, in the company of my friend David—two city boys visiting my family in the country west of Houston. Somehow I don’t feel much of anything about that rabbit. I don’t recall that anyone ate it. “Like rabbits,” goes an expression about sex. I don’t know a similar one for redbirds. I had a cat here for a while, who came here as a kitten. His job was rodent control. When he grew up, however, Smokey loved to kill birds. After about the third redbird carcass, I found Smokey a new home. Damn the rodents. I should have listened to the friend in Houston who, when I asked, “Should I get a cat—no cat fancier am I—or should I put out rat poison". “Put out poison,” he replied, laughing. No cat fancier was he. Yes, I realize, redbirds don’t eat rodent bait, discreetly concealed in the confines of my barn house. They just live colorfully and melodically in my garden. They are, after all, songbirds—“purdy-purdy-purdy”, they call to one another, inviting my mother and Aunt Edna to smile, repeating their song.

The Innocence of Redbirds—Normangee, TX (September 29, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Friday, September 26, 2008

Stop, and Listen

“God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we will be saved, in quietness and confidence will be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” Book of Common Prayer, the prayer for Quiet Confidence

“Put it all in God’s hands, and LISTEN!” That was the advice recently from a fellow pilgrim in Santa Fe. To that I would add, and hope, for the best, of course. And perhaps never has there been a time for me where I needed so badly to hear those words, and to regain the sense of hope that used to greet me each morning as I awoke, before the long journey as we watched our mother’s decline and death, the day of infamy, September 11, 2001, a war in its fifth year, and eight years of hard times for most ordinary Americans on just about any matter. Yes, a renaissance of hope could rejuvenate. The advice of the southern-bred now Santa Fe pilgrim is staying close to my mind, and heart, especially in the middle of the night, when the darkness steals defenses. “God is still speaking,” we say on Sundays at a church where I worship while here in Texas. Interesting, isn’t it, for any of us who profess a belief in God to have ever thought otherwise? “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) “Selah” concludes each verse, from Hebrew, which can be translated “stop, and listen.”

Let me be honest. I am worried, almost panicky at times, about my financial future. I’m in over my head, or so it seems, as I watch things that must be translated into dollars and cents unravel, as I bleed. And while I can look around me, recognizing clearly the bounty of my own life by comparison, I remain worried. I’m not a hurricane victim, I have my health—as far as I know—I have treasure aplenty that has exchange value for that which pays the bills, and sometimes, SELAH, I believe what I used to say to our mother as her health failed and she worried, worried, worried that her money would not hold out, when in reality she was so blessed with material comfort, ample reserves, and more importantly, family treasure, that cannot be assigned a value. “Mother, where is your faith?” I would plead, frustrated to madness at times over her fears, about everything, while I was standing in the middle of a bonfire of my own creation that was consuming the modest reserves I had garnered from a career I left too soon and a subsequent series of poor choices. Unfortunately these choices seem to continue. SELAH. “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” (Sir Walter Scott) Mother was a child of the depression, and though her growing up family did not suffer the loss that so characterized that time for many, like our daddy’s family, she nonetheless carried the scars of having matured in such a difficult and scary period of our history. LISTEN.

Twice since the turn of the 20th century, some of us have seen our efforts to earn very modestly for the future—in a fickle, fickle stock market—falter, frighteningly, dizzyingly. As far as I can see right now, at this moment, and I’ll borrow words right out of the southern veins of my paternal bloodline, “…I might as well call the dogs and piss on the fire." It’s time to give up the hunt. In fact, another southernism, “this dog won’t hunt.” I think it’s time to hang up my spurs, to borrow a metaphor from my southwestern roots. SELAH.

I don’t even like guns, and I certainly don’t have the stomach for killing. What I know about hunting is shooting an innocent redbird from our front yard on West Montgomery Road, the highway to Tomball, and feeling instant, gut-wrenching regret and shame. Why would I do such a stupid, thoughtless thing? And why would I shoot a rabbit, which I did in the company of my friend David and my nephews? I had no intention of eating it. God only knows what was in my pitiful 11-year-old brain when I shot the redbird. Were I living in earlier times, I guess I would be a vegetarian, or at the mercy of someone who hunts, like the person firing a shotgun in the woods to the north as I sit here, fans whirring above me on a fall-like Friday morning. Yes, had I lived in earlier times, I would have been at the mercy of this hunter, just like I’ve put myself at the mercy of the guy who has invested for me and a market that swats the likes of me like a complaining mosquito. And though I’ve ridden horses just about my entire life, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve strapped on a pair of spurs. My attraction to spurs is limited to their historical and artistic value. I can shed tears over a painting depicting a working cowboy, spur-clad boots crammed into a saddle stirrup, like the night scene from a south Texas ranch that hangs large in the old bunkhouse part of my barn home. Sometimes I think I would go down the tubes before I would sell this representation of my Texas heritage, regardless of its exchange value. LISTEN.

I am told that my God has a sense of humor. So he, or she, surely must be smiling, waiting patiently for my discernment to kick in, for me to take a deep breath and just listen. I am also told that we are meant to struggle, that in doing so we can learn patience, humility, trust, and we can learn to hope. My friend who preceded me by more than a century—surely we would have been friends had we been neighbors—Emily Dickinson writes, “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune--without the words/And never stops at all/Yet, never, in extremity/It asked a crumb of me.” SELAH.

Stop, and Listen—Normangee, Texas (September 26, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Die Has Been Cast

Growing up, I remember hearing a few expressions and superstitions in our larger family. Some of what sticks with me to this day comes from Aunt Edna, who at 15 married Mother’s brother, Frank William “Bubba” Fuchs. Aunt Edna has quite a store of superstitions and expressions from her Texas German (Rustenbach) family. Some of those come to mind any time I find myself doing something in violation of the rules of superstition, the rules that are forever absorbed into the marrow of my bones. It’s bad luck to rock an empty chair, lay a hat on the bed, sweep under someone’s feet. If you spill salt, throw a pinch over your shoulder. From someone I remember that it’s bad luck to tell your dreams before breakfast. I’ve had some of my own goofy little compulsive notions over the years—nothing rooted in tradition, just things that grew out of the fears that we were carefully taught, my own iteration of things to worry about. Trusting that things will work out surely comes from my Scots Irish Daddy. The worrying part absolutely comes from Mother, a product of the German Benfer/Fuchs clan.

What’s happening now in this land of opportunity, the great place of capitalism, this home where prosperity, according to many, is supposed to trickle down to those who, by any definition are without sufficient worldly resources, is cause for worry. Mother’s family didn’t really suffer during the great American depression, not like the Hollises, who did their own trickle, a third migration of sorts for our branch of this family of Scots Irish heritage—North Carolina before the American Revolution, Alabama before the Civil War, East Texas by train before the turn of the 19th century—narrowing, narrowing in numbers—to the family of Stephen Edgar Hollis heading to Houston, in search of resources and a more secure life, in the very throes of the depression. And those children—the members of what Tom Brokaw calls “the greatest generation”—all went on to prosper, in varying degrees. The Benfer/Fuchs clan had land in northwest Harris County from the time they disembarked from Prussia/Germany in the third quarter of the 19th century. To this day, that land continues to translate into other land, and sometimes into money. “They’re not making any more land,” you hear from those who insist on the importance of passing on this heritage.

My maternal grandmother, Lizzie Fuchs, the product of German stock that came to Texas just after the close of the Civil War—actually from the northern part of Germany that was Prussia until WWI—had a few choice sayings, a reflection of her rural heritage, characterized by hard work, grinding tenacity. “If you can’t listen, you have to feel.” “You made your bed, now you have to lie in it”. For all the value of much of this, I can see the source of the conflict of traditions between Mother and Daddy. Mother was the driving force in their marriage, and because of who they both were, they worked very hard, teaching us the value of being productive. Daddy lost his health to hard work, and cigarettes. Grandma Fuchs could work like a man and then fry up a mean steak. I remember her working until she couldn’t, just like my mother. Great industry translated into expectation that others follow suit.

Wikipedia, that treasure trove of interesting and useful information on the Internet, offers some history on my maternal ancestry that causes me to nod my understanding about some of the rules of life that became very familiar to me while growing up. “Many Prussians believed some specific ‘Prussian virtues’ were part of the reasons for the rise of their country, for instance: perfect organization, discipline, sacrifice, rule of law, obedience to authority, but also reliability, tolerance, frugality, punctuality, modesty, and diligence. In the eyes of non-Prussians who were forced to become subjects of that state, the culture of the Prussian state represented lack of freedom, personal repression and bureaucratic regimentation, blind obedience, cultural arrogance and amoral rationalism.”

And all this time, I’ve been blaming my ways on my Virgo birth sign. Apparently, at least some of my Prussian German heritage has had its way with me. Obviously the Scots Irish from the Hollis line has had is way, at least a little…Irish temper, for one. I chuckle as I think about lying in a bed at times uncomfortable, but I don’t chuckle so much at some of my hard-headed ways. Wait, there’s another expression: “hard-headed Dutchman” (Deutschlander). It gets so confusing at times, trying to figure out who we are. Yes, indeed, if you don’t listen, you suffer the consequences. The tough times are trickling down to the likes of me—I have plenty of company—to the likes of me. Oh, there’s another expression: “We’re all in the same boat.”

In a recent meditation from Forward Movement—a website devoted to reflections on the scriptures appointed for the day, based on the Revised Common Lectionary used in many church denominations—the writers include a quote from Kirk Byron Jones—“Shackles are shackles, even if they happen to be made of gold.” Also absorbed into my bone marrow, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). From George Santayana’s The Life of Reason: “Happiness is the only sanction of life; where happiness fails, existence remains a mad and lamentable experiment.” And also from Mr. Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Listen up, I say to myself. I suspect that Grandma Fuchs’s spirit is saying, “I told you so.” But to that voice that wants to keep me mired in the past, especially those parts colored by regret, fear, blame, I say, “Shut up.” Well, truthfully, sometimes my language is a little stronger.

I’m thinking about the storied benefits of horseshoes, which, along with the Irish four-leaf clover, bring good luck. One theory has it that the horseshoe must be hung with the open end pointed upward. Otherwise, all of the luck runs out, and alas, you are without luck. In the hallway of my barn home is displayed a rack our daddy made back in the 50s for hanging tack—bridles and so forth—from our growing up days when we spent a lot of our leisure time riding horses. Daddy’s design causes the open end of the horseshoe to point downward, I guess based on the theory that this design allows the luck to flow out. Maybe it wasn’t a design choice, but instead a choice of practicality governed by the shape of the wood mount on which the bridles would hang. Back at the turn of the 20th century, when I first started working on converting this two-story barn to residential space, Aunt Edna pointed this out to me one Sunday, as she and Mother sat on lawn chairs in the hallway of the barn, visiting while I worked, productivity born and bred into me. Hmmm. Well, there’s another expression: “The die has been cast”…an irrevocable choice has been made. At least, so goes the expression.

The Die Has Been Cast—Normangee, Texas (September 25, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Growth is Optional

It is early morning. Here, on these 200 acres of land in rural Leon County, I’ve given up sleeping through the rest of what would be called the night. Daybreak is still almost three hours away. Today, my sisters and I prepare to sell off the cattle that have been a part of this place for the 35 years it has been in our family, and to lease the land for grazing. A small herd of commercial cattle—Hereford bulls were popular back then—grazed this place in 1973 when our mother and daddy bought the land, actually a gift from our maternal grandmother, money from land she had sold in northwest Harris County, that sprawling area near the Gulf coast that the city of Houston has laid claim to over the last 30 years.

Where we grew up, Jackrabbit Road, a two-lane blacktop, was one of the major roads, but dirt roads were not uncommon in the early 1950s. Jackrabbit Road has been a 6-lane combination speedway/traffic snarl for some time now, Highway 6 it’s called, running east and west across a heavily populated, at times nightmarish part of north Houston. In our young years, expansive pastures still dominated the landscape, part of that great salt grass plain that goes to the coast—or comes from the coast—forests of pines and hardwoods breaking the sameness. Dairies were common in the first half of the 20th century, but by 1973 things had begun to change, as the city crept north. The land increased greatly in value, sold by the square foot, and of course, the taxes crept higher and higher. Land that had been in the family since the late years of the 19th century, a gift to our grandmother from her mother, became too expensive to own, practically speaking. For people who love land, and that is important, especially to German Texans—Theis, Kleb, Benfer, Fuchs, Feuhs—the migration was farther to the north, for those of modest means, those who cashed in on family inheritance in northwest Harris County.

November will mark 35 years for our family on this land, a place that wasn’t a home, except in the beginning, for a short time before daddy got sick, and they moved back to northwest Harris County, closer to doctors and hospitals and family. The retirement place in the country became just a place, a place that daddy claimed to love—“If I could just get better and go to Normangee,” he said, not long before he died. I think he got to make that trip—he, Mother, our sister Sue and her husband Henry, and most likely our Grandma Fuchs, the matriarch, the source for the land, and by some consequence, the cattle that inhabit the land. The Fuchses always had cattle. In the early years of the 20th century, before busy Memorial Drive was a street, which along with Buffalo Bayou separates luxurious Houston River Oaks from the historically working class neighborhood known as the West End, the stretch just south of the neighborhood was our great grandpa Will Fuchs’s pasture. In the late 1940s and early 50s, our hard-working Grandmother and her son operated a dairy on the 80 acres out in the country she had inherited from her mother, Louisa Benfer Fuchs, whose family settled in northwest Harris County in 1866. The historical marker for the Klein community lists the Benfer family as one of the early settlers, along with Theis and Kleb and Klein. An elementary school is named for our great-great grandparents.

Yesterday afternoon the neighbor who looks after our small herd here on the land in Leon County rounded them up, riding a bright orange Kubota tractor, bags of range cubes the prize once the two dozen cows, half as many calves, and these days a Brangus bull made their way into the corral and the holding trap that sits to the east of my barn house. Throughout the night, the mothers, separated from their current crop of offspring—an aid for our brother-in-law Henry today when he attempts to pair them up—have bellowed without ceasing. This ain’t no “Cattle Call”, no romantic tone as captured in the lyrics of Eddy Arnold’s famous old cowboy song: “The cattle are prowlin'/The coyotes are howlin,” with cowboys on horseback, spurs jingling. The coyotes around here that typically announce the coming of dusk and greet the early morning have been drowned out by the plaintive bawling of cows trapped, separated from their normal routine, wondering what’s going on.

This morning, as I lay in the bedroom downstairs, only 50 feet from the corral and the trap fence, I moaned at the intense protests of the cows. Dumb beasts they are, but their instincts tell them something isn’t right. When a few seconds would pass, marked by absolute quiet, only the chirruping of crickets just outside the door that leads from the bedroom to an outdoor shower, chirruping crickets occupying sound space, I would think, “Oh, how wonderful is the quiet”. No more sleep for me, however, because the bellowing continued, and it continues.

As the saying goes, our cattle are town dog fat. After a hot, dry June and July, the rains started in August and have continued into September, the most recent courtesy of Hurricane Ike. Today, decisions will be made. Some of the herd will likely remain—the young blacks, and maybe the black baldies—remain to graze on the only land they’ve known, land to be leased to their new owner. All of the others, including the Brangus bull, will go to auction. Perhaps that won’t be the decision, however. If the price is “too high” for the prospective buyer, others claim to be waiting in the wings for their chance at this small herd and the lease. One way or another, change is in the works. Soon, we will no longer be “in the cattle business”. Producing round bales of hay from our 20-acre hayfield will no longer be our concern. Paying someone to put out hay and cubes in the winter won’t show up in our check register. Fretting over when the cows and calves will get worked each fall will be a memory. Maintaining the fences and mowing the pastures will fall on the shoulders of the lessee. Yes, change is in the works, and there is no need to fear it. Now you have a cow, now you don’t. Want another cow? That is indeed a choice and a possibility. Now you have a horse, now you don’t? Want another horse? Yes, that is also a choice and a possibility. Want to be free of responsibility for livestock? Want to make some choices for yourself, in all due respect to the choices that have been made for you by those who thought they knew what was best for them, and for you? How does that feel?

Pay homage to your heritage, and try to move forward, honoring not only those who begat you, and before them, those who begat yet another generation of ancestors. Change doesn’t have to mean loss. I am reminded of one of the many bumper stickers I see in northern New Mexico that cause my antennae to salute. “Change is inevitable. Growth is a choice.” I like the way that feels. It’s a little scary, yes, but it carries with it the wonderful promise of being alive, living the only life we know in this odd reality where we exist, and hopefully, where we do our best to live it loud and clear and strong, every chance we get.

Growth is Optional—Normangee, Texas (September 23, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

On My Birthday

At 3:13 this morning I was awake, at first thinking I felt plenty rested and that it was just time to get up, put on the coffee, and do what? Picking up the history I’m just about to finish on the conquest of the west—namely New Mexico, and namely an exploration of the relationship between Anglos, New Mexicans, and the Indians that populated the area historically—I wasn’t in the mood to read facts, even though in this book by Hampton Sides the facts are presented in an interesting manner. Instead, I thought I’d just wait out this hopefully momentary sense of alertness, and I remembered that today is my birthday. It is the big one. I’m 65. My mother was 46, my daddy 54, my grandmothers 68 and 75 when I graduated from college in 1965. As my mother said more than once in the last years of her long, 90-year-old life, “where did the time go”.

Regardless of what any of us might say. “Oh, no big deal, it’s just another day.” Well, when you consider the alternative, yes, it is a big day. A friend I’ve known for 20 years celebrates the entire month of October for her birthday. At least that used to be her view of her special day, her month. I haven’t been around her over the last few years. To her, the birthday of every one she cherishes is a big event, something to be celebrated and honored. I remember some fine occasions in years past when our little group of friends spent lots of time with one another.

The instant in the wee hours that I remembered my birthday, I did feel a tinge of excitement, even though I knew I had no special plans for this day—no birthday cake, no flowers, no invitation to a meal. A friend, one of the members of our gang from years ago who now lives in California, called to say “happy birthday!” just as my oldest sister, Joan knocked on my front door, card in hand. Joan has her own special day coming up soon as well—the celebration of a new decade. Over coffee she and I talked about stuff—Hurricane Ike, the stock market, the place here. All of the small towns in this part of the state are still without power in the aftermath of this multi-billion dollar act of God. Later in the morning I was headed to the county dump with household trash when I called a friend 65 miles to the east to see how she was faring after the storm. Her power was out for less than 48 hours, and she is playing host to old friends who had moved to a retirement high rise in Houston, and whose place is still without power from the storm. “What are you doing special for your birthday,” she asked. “Right now I’m on my way to the county dump.” “Well, I guess that’s special,” she quipped. “Yeah, I guess so.”

I’ve made a temporary decision to take the day off after spending all of yesterday raking and piling limbs from our share of hurricane winds. Late yesterday someone came to cut up and move to a brush pile a 60-foot-tall green ash that finally gave it up late in the seven hour period where Ike hammered those of us on the western side of his eye. Having just spent the better part of 30 hours over the first 10 days I was back in Leon County pulling weeds from everywhere in my garden, I doubled the size of my burn pile as I collected fallen limbs in very welcome moderating temperatures—a preview of fall in this part of the world, and no doubt, a welcome respite to the hundreds of thousands who are without power, yet trying to make it in their homes, those who still have homes, unlike the residents of the coast. Yesterday, the mayor and city manager of Galveston advised the 20 or so thousand who did not flee Ike to “Please leave…the city is in ruins”. Dear God, yes, it is a day for celebrating, for some of us. For many thousands of others, not so much, perhaps. Yet many whose lives were spared, even though they might have lost every earthly possession they own, are giving thanks.

So, yes, today is a big day for me. It is my 65th birthday. I’ve had coffee with my oldest sister, a long phone conversation with my middle sister, phone calls from old friends far and not so far away, and birthday cards in the mail. Even though at times I wonder if I’m melting down, I am able to collect my thoughts once in a while. I have a roof over my head—two, in fact—I’m able to sit up and take nourishment, as the saying goes. So far, I’m able to keep the wolf away from the door, and even better, able to give some of my time and resources to others. All it takes is logging on to the Internet or switching on cable network news or a conversation with just about anyone I know or meet to understand emphatically that I am blessed. And though I remain without a mate, having passed the 22nd year of being officially on my own, I remain hopeful that somewhere out there someone special is getting ready to walk this journey with me.

On My Birthday—Normangee, Texas (September 16, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Monday, September 15, 2008

Choices Before the Autumnal Equinox

It’s too damned hot to think. Am I just ruined by mountain climes? When I arrived here at my Texas home at the very end of August, my garden was owned by weeds, which had prospered everywhere. Beds and paths alike were knee high. As I made my way back to Leon County, the short leg from Ft. Worth my only objective for a Saturday, I welcomed an invitation from neighbors Jim and Robert to stop by for a hamburger before making the last three miles to the place from which I had been absent for the last four months—four mostly rain deprived months. After all, faced with the prospect of problems to be solved, who wouldn’t opt to delay the inevitable. While August had generously given up significant moisture, June and July had taken their toll in consistent temps hovering in the mid 90s, with nighttime lows dropping to perhaps 80.

That’s too damned hot, and it reminds me of a historical note I learned some years ago. The famous Civil War general, Philip Sheridan, is credited with having said, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I’d rent Texas and live in Hell.” He said this some 35 years before the storm of 1900 claimed between 6000 and 12,000 lives in Galveston—a  category 4 according to current measuring standards—changing the course of history and leaving Galveston in wreckage, paving the way for Houston to become the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest in the nation.

We are well into September, and the high continues to hover around 95. The autumnal equinox will come and go, and those of us who are blessed to live in refrigerated air will continue to retreat to our shelters for the better part of every 24 hours. We are spoiled. I suppose, we are weakened by a luxury most southerners embraced in the second half of the 20th century. And though I remember well growing up and graduating from high school in 1961 without air conditioning, I wouldn’t want to live here without it now. Yet we may get to witness heat and humidity where we sleep, and indeed the darkness, as Hurricane Ike makes its way through our part of Texas.

As we wait out the latest in the fall 2008 crop of hurricanes, I’m reminding myself of good advice my friend Eugene offered recently. “In times of stress I attempt to consider the worst possible alternative, then say thanks for the light load I have been handed.” Oh, that this would be the first thought that comes to mind when I’m feeling pitiful for myself. In the early hours of this day, the birds are doing their usual announcements of the coming of dawn. The cows and their offspring who graze the land around my home are lowing. And I wonder if in their feathered and hidebound sense of things they feel something threatening in the air and thus are giving voice to it.

Perhaps I’m beginning to understand why before leaving New Mexico I finally raked up the courage to own something that nagged me in the several days before abandoning my fledgling high desert home for what, in my mind, insisted on making a claim on me here in Texas. I didn’t understand what was in play, what waited in the wings speaking silently but oh so emphatically about the uncertain prospects of my making it back to northern New Mexico for the changing of the leaves, for that opportunity to once again embrace the bends in the mountain roads winding up into the Sangre de Cristos, for that chance to gasp, “oh-h, my God”.  In early August, as I speculated about getting back “in time” to a friend who was leaving her summer place out on the mesa between Santa Fe and Taos and heading back to her home in Oklahoma, she suggested, “There will always be leaves”. Well, of course, for someone. And there are always opportunities to react to the awesomeness of our creator.

I guess we tend to be where we need to be. As the storm breathes down the neck of coastal, and even inland, inhabitants, friends here are grieving the death of one of their four sons, the second in age, in his 40s, the victim of a freak accident. For a week they kept vigil at his hospital bedside, and now they have had to let him go. I can’t imagine the crushing sense of loss. I just heard someone on cable network news answer what seems like a silly question from a news reporter concerning what it feels like to be fleeing, leaving behind all of your earthly possessions. “All you need are your pictures and a prayer.”

Our cousin from southeast Texas, who just spent two nights in my sister Joan’s home here on the land in Leon County less than two weeks ago—how odd that sounds when I consider that this home was our family home for 35 years, the home where our mother died only 18 months ago, and her mother 25 years before her—is once again on the road, fleeing another storm. Strange, I don’t remember asking her what she chose to save the last time, what she and her daughter brought with them. I seem to recall that much of their family treasure has already been claimed by previous acts of God.

So as pilgrims make their way, and some have chosen not to flee, we can only wait to see the outcome. Network television will reflect and record for the world the progress of nature at its angriest. Many of us will pray to dodge the bullet and hope to give thanks for the light load we’ve been handed. Some of us will be distracted by personal loss that actually defies description. Many will us will understand in our most essential heart that, unlike what some want to suggest, it isn’t just about choices.

Choices Before the Autumnal Equinox—Normangee, Texas (September 12, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis



Sunday, September 7, 2008

Let anyone with ears listen. Matthew 11:15


How utterly painful, how frustrating

To be misunderstood,

Worse, begrudged.

God forbid this as our answer to another.

Deaf we make our way,

Narrow instinct our careless guide.

We crown our right.

Childish dreams color

From a palette of fear—will—malice.

On this journey sometimes dark

Need we beg light,

Yet no friend or kin steps forth

To spare us on our way.

God forbid this as our answer to another.

Let Anyone With Ears Listen--Normangee, Texas (September 7, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Day for Celebrating

Today is my Aunt Mary’s 91st birthday. She is the last in the line of the siblings from Daddy’s family. Russell, my daddy, his older brother Pat and younger brother Ray, sister Frances, and from Mother’s side, both she and her brother are gone from this the only reality we truly can know. I suppose there are those who might have glimpsed the other side, even claimed to have visited it, but this is the life most of us confess, and it is in this life we miss those we have loved and lost. I remember asking the Lutheran pastor and Baptist chaplain who officiated at Mother’s funeral 18 months ago, “where is Mother today, as we sit here?”. Neither had a profound answer. The cheerful chaplain simply referenced scripture, “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). The somewhat reserved Lutheran answered another question I asked—in eternity, will we know those who have been part of our earthly family?—by saying that he someday will fish again with his dad.

When I visited Aunt Mary just after Easter last spring, she seemed to enjoy talking about her early years—those with her blood family. And during the course of the few hours that my middle sister Sue and I spent with her that day, she talked lovingly about the memories we shared—those that still remained clear to her—although she became confused as we were leaving, asking Sue, “now what is your name?”

I’ve been away from Texas much of the time since Mother died, I guess in an effort to sate the wanderlust that I must have inherited from the boys on the Hollis side of the family. Only Uncle Pat left Texas, to raise his three boys in northern New Mexico, and eventually to die and be buried in Arizona. Ray didn’t really wander much, although I sensed that spirit in him, as I did in the few stories Daddy shared with us about his limited travels—mostly looking for work during the depression—after he and Pat left East Texas as teenagers. Were they courageous? I trust that they just did what was expected of young men, especially in tough times.

Aunt Mary, who is childless, used to love talking about her few trips to New Mexico to visit Uncle Pat’s family, but I don’t think she ever had a desire to be anywhere other than here on the Gulf coast with her Willaim Woodrow Todd and near all the rest of her kin. She has told me many times since his death in 2000 that she is “ready to go” because she misses him. “I’ve had a good life,” she affirms. Our Mother certainly had no interest in being away, even traveling for enjoyment. On the only family vacation that ever took us out of state—to Santa Fe New Mexico in the early 1950s—she was ready to head back to Harris County Texas, and almost immediately after our arrival in Santa Fe wrote her mother a letter saying that we would be back, on whatever certain day she named in the letter. Grandma Fuchs would have been maybe 55—born in 1897. Only a week separates the birthdays of Aunt Mary, then Mother, and then mine—September 2, September 9, and September 16. How did Aunt Mary become 91? I am amazed to realize that Mother was short of her 90th birthday by only seven months. And here I am, just two weeks shy of 65. As of September 1, I am officially on Medicare. My oldest sister, Joan, is 70. I am the baby of the family.

Today a few of the few who remain gathered for lunch in the house on the land Grandma bought for Mother and Daddy in 1973. Present were our Aunt Edna, the widow of Mother’s brother Frank William Fuchs—affectionately known all of his life as Bubba—Joan, our cousin Becky, and Becky’s daughter and grandson. Hurricane Gustav had uprooted Becky and family from their homes near the coast in southeast Texas. It was nice getting to visit with her. She is actually Mother’s first cousin, the daughter of the youngest of our maternal Grandma Fuchs’s siblings. Becky’s mother (Aunt Lea) was born in 1904 and died of breast cancer when Becky was only six—1954, only a couple of years after the Hollis family vacation to deliver Mamaw Hollis to Uncle Pat’s in Santa Fe. Our maternal great grandmother Louisa Benfer Fuchs was crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, and Becky has been afflicted as well, seriously for going on 20 years. Joan showed Becky a gorgeous studio-quality photograph of Louisa laid out in her casket—taken almost 70 years ago, the first time in many years that Louisa had been in a reclining position because of her painful physical condition. Over the last couple of days we enjoyed bittersweet memories and some laughs as we monitored the storm's progress on cable network news and talked about the upcoming presidential election, and as we sat at the lunch table today I remembered , “Today is Aunt Mary’s 91st birthday.”

We’re making our way, the walking wounded—conscious and breathing, with relatively minor injuries. We are the survivors among our close kin. When I considered my return to Texas for a while, I thought mostly about all the responsibilities waiting here for me—a garden much overgrown, other responsibilities begging my attention and action—but I didn’t know that a hurricane would drive a few of us together for a reunion of a precious few and that I would remember in the course of lunch that we need to send flowers to Aunt Mary in honor of the second year into her ninth decade. I pointed out to Aunt Edna, who will turn 83 on her next occasion, that she is the younger of the only two who remain from the generation of our parents, their siblings and their spouses. Today is indeed a day for celebration.

A Day For Celebrating—Normangee, Texas (September 2, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis