Wednesday, September 16, 2009

For My Birthday

September 16, 1943: An Update

In another year on my birthday, I might have thought about some object that I have been craving. On a trip to Denver at the end of July, I bought the Native American burl bowl with which I’ve been mildly obsessed for the last year or so. It was expensive, and I do love it. This too will pass. As I search my mind, I can’t think of anything that I feel I must have.

So, for my 66th birthday, I am happy just to have a few things that maybe we take for granted. Today, I’m celebrating by burning the brush pile in the cow trap to the east of my barn house—a pile that has been accumulating for the last year because of constant burn bans in these days of constant drought. The lovely, lovely rains that have visited us over the last several days have brought an end to the burn ban temporarily, at least.

And for my birthday, I am happy to have finally caught with my digital camera a butterfly, this one a Tiger Swallowtail, in my garden. Feeding on a bluish-purple Duranta, one of several happy bloomers in this erstwhile water-starved garden, following life-restoring rains, along with Maggie among the roses, Turk’s Cap, Hamelia, Salvias Greggii and Coccinea, Society Garlic, Althea, Rose Mallow, and Peruvian Pavonia—all celebrating, their faces surely smiling just for my special day.

I would wish for one more thing on my birthday, that my left foot, plagued with tendonitis since a May hiking incident at Big Tesuque in the mountains near my high desert home, would go ahead and get over itself. After several sessions of physical therapy, and now x-rays that showed nothing except a little arthritis resulting from age—okay, I’m 66 today—it’s still ouching day in and day out. Its complaints go naturally with a cranky back that wants a visit to the chiropractor. And I won’t go into the daily regimen of pills—although relatively light compared to some and yet my envy by comparison of a few others I know. I’m doing okay.

And today, my oldest sister, Joan, is taking our neighbors and me to the buffet at the Chinese restaurant in nearby Madisonville. How fortunate we are to have Asian on the table in a town of less than 5000 residents, a community that otherwise boasts at least five Tex-Mex eateries, yet to my knowledge, nothing that’s just plain old American. I guess the friend in Santa Fe who told me earlier in the summer that I have a sweet life was right on the money. Sisters who care about me and miss me when I’m away for most of the year, friends who call to say “Happy Birthday”, one from as far away as a South Carolina vacation, early autumn blooms and butterflies, a paid-for home that will always be here—“unless I burn it down today,” he considers, grinning. Life is good.

For My Birthday—Normangee, Texas (September 16, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Monday, September 14, 2009

We Keep Coming Back

So we keeping come back to the stuff we love, which isn’t always a good thing. In this instance, yes, it is a mighty good thing—at least, from where I sit. Yesterday afternoon the Hollis cousins of my generation gathered at Aunt Mary’s house in Houston on the two-month anniversary of her death. It was an afternoon where we were invited to preview the upcoming estate sale. Cousin Becky had already told me that Jean, who is not actually our blood relative, but who nonetheless has a close connection to Aunt Mary and to our family, had encountered Aunt Mary’s aura on recent visits to her home. “That doesn’t surprise me,” I said, sitting in my car outside the grocery store in the tiny Texas community I call home part of the year. I want to feel Aunt Mary’s presence, along with that of my mother and daddy and all the other family that I have loved, those who have defined and shaped my life. Jean smelled Aunt Mary. Not the Boucheron fragrance she loved, something I found out only after her death, but her very essence, something one could know only by hugging another often. Embedded in my memory are the many beautiful smells I associate with Aunt Mary and her home—room fragances from Neiman-Marcus, and what I always thought was her facial soap and cream. Maybe it was her Boucheron.

It’s interesting—what any of us have chosen to take as keepsakes from the William Woodrow “Frog” and Mary Louise Hollis Todd home. We all had an opportunity earlier to pick a few things before the estate sale began to take shape. Yesterday was our opportunity to buy early and to take our time doing so while we visited and ate the Hollis family chocolate cake, baked by my middle sister Sue. We’ve had that cake a lot lately—already three times this year when gathering on Sherwood Forest Street at the Todd’s rambling colonial built on over two acres on the outskirts of Houston some time in the 1950s. Unlike earlier times in the life of our family, that cake has taken a life of its on. It is the Hollis chocolate cake—attributed to our distant relative by marriage, Anna Mae Sowell—a recipe most likely from a Hershey’s chocolate box some time in the early part of the 20th century. Cousin Marilyn said yesterday that Aunt Mary used to put the butter and sugar icing called for in that recipe on brownies. Sue and I don’t remember Aunt Mary being all that interested in cooking, but for some reason, I do recall her making pecan pie for the holidays.

Yesterday, Revere Ware pots, along with a large assortment of utensils and pans, had spilled out of the kitchen cabinets and drawers. The pantry stood open, emptied of the Arabia of Finland dishes—blue laurel bands with flowers—and the pressed glass tumblers, only four remaining after all these years. Her German stainless from Houston’s famed Sakowitz is already a gift to me from the estate. I bought service for eight “on time” from Scarborough’s Department Store in Austin in the early 70s because it reminded me of my elegant Aunt Mary. It made me feel special too. How odd, stainless flatware making someone feel special. Of the gifts from the estate that I picked, that stainless is beyond value. “Sterling?” someone asked when I told of what I had selected as one of my gifts. “No, just stainless,” I say. The classic English rattail pattern, called Murray Hill, although still produced in China for the German company, isn’t the same. But then, what is?

While I was aware of what others were selecting to buy yesterday, on this family day—my two sisters focused on old Christmas tree ornaments—I roamed through the house, unable to make sense of the chaos. This was no longer a home. Every table surface was burdened with china, glass and metal. The only remaining bed was piled high with stacks of stuff. Aunt Mary’s washbowl set that had adorned the hallway bathroom for all the years I could remember had been removed to the dining room. I was seeing things that I didn’t remember and lots of evidence that all Aunt Mary’s treasure did not glitter. Closets and drawers had been turned inside out to reveal all the life that had simply been stowed away. And there was no Boucheron, no lovely soap or face cream to soften the harshness of this home-no-longer-Aunt Mary’s-home on this hot, sticky September afternoon in Houston, Texas. I wasn’t sad really. I just knew that, once again, everything had changed. Something mighty important had left Sherwood Forest Street, in spite of the affection we shared on this afternoon.

As I dug through a display case of jewelry, I wondered aloud if Uncle Frog hadn’t had a ranger-style western belt buckle set. Then I saw a silver set with tiny garnets set in the gold floral decoration. It was marked “Sterling Mexico”. Later, half buried among the odds and ends on top of the oak chest of drawers in their bedroom, there lay his tooled belt, silver and gold ranger belt buckle and tip, tarnished and worn. Yes, I wanted this. And I wanted his game warden badge—this one from 40 years ago a copper shield overlaid with pot metal and adorned with the shape of Texas and a typical star, the engraving fading into the background. I remembered Mother and Daddy commenting that Uncle Frog was “a dollar a year man”, a term it turns out for men who in times of war perform government work not quite for free. And I remember gatherings where one of Uncle Frog’s best friends who actually was a game warden was present with his wife. He wasn’t my blood uncle, and I wouldn’t have guessed that I would care, but then life is full of surprises.

We were there to buy, if we found something we wanted, and though a comment or two suggested an attitude different from mine, I was happy to pay for these treasures. After all, it was a choice. I was happy to pay, especially knowing that I had already been gifted beyond any expectation from the life and hard work of my aunt and uncle. I had no expectations. I would have taken home lots more, like the two packs of soft cotton bandanas, red, marked $3 and $2.50. But where do you stop, and where do you start? Beyond the very personal things that had belonged to this uncle of no blood kin, I had also bought from Aunt Mary’s antique treasures three things that I can with good conscience offer for sale in a business that likely never would have been born had it not been for the love of treasure mining that I inherited from Daddy and Aunt Mary. Theirs knew boundaries, however.

How suiting that I live in a barn here in Texas. Barns are for storing, and one day all barns are emptied. So too for this barn. But for now, I stow and I sort and I offer for sale a couple of times a year significant pieces of treasure. Much of what remains after each offering has a little less value. People who are genuinely interested in buying these days want most to buy the very best. A worn belt buckle on a tooled belt too small for most men and so used up as to have little practical use left in it—well, not so much something to sell. But then, it’s not for sale anyway. In my mind, I keep coming back to things I left behind yesterday—the Arabia of Finland dishes and the four remaining pressed glass tumblers. The silver flatware was stolen long ago, along with other keepsakes, while my aunt and uncle were away at their house on the bay. Most of the best glass and china were chosen as gifts by cousins shortly after Aunt Mary’s death two months ago. But it wouldn’t have mattered to me anyway. I value most the everyday dishes, and the old tumblers Aunt Mary would have bought on one of her treasure hunting outings. Maybe I was even with her. I don’t remember. It’s all stuff, and it’s all in motion, just like we are. Lucky we are to hold treasure in our hands when the treasure that matters most now must be counted in our hearts.

We Keep Coming Back—Normangee, Texas (September 14, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Monday, September 7, 2009

As Far As I Can See

I know the difference between the sound of a shotgun and that of a rifle, although my experience with guns doesn’t even count. As I pulled weeds in the garden yesterday morning, a shotgun thundered in the trees to my southwest—probably on someone else’s property—reminding me of why I stopped walking the pastures and woods of these 200 acres a few years ago. Shortly, a rifle confirmed my thinking. At daybreak this Sunday morning, I’ve heard the first rifle volley. So I ask, what is in season? Silly question, though, because hunting is born and bred in many who live and visit this rural county, where the population of the largest of several small towns is something under 1500. Wild hogs, squirrel, deer, rabbit, the woods of Leon county are ripe for the picking.

The Texas Department of Wildlife website lists the hunting seasons for 24 animals, from alligator to woodcock, although I also see from their listing that nothing is in season right now for our county. Nonetheless, the guns sound daily. Though I’m not opposed to hunting or hunters, still I think about Mother and Daddy reporting that their youngish lawyer had been killed over the weekend by a stray bullet while deer hunting—probably at least 40 years ago.

At 4 in the afternoon, pow pow pow—pow 10 times—comes from the woods to the northwest. No way that squirrel got away, unlike the lucky one that barely made it across Farm to Market 2446—bushy tail whisking the hot early afternoon air—as I made my way back home from a mid day outing today. Instinctively, I stomped my breaks, the same as if it had been a dog, or a bird. I really don’t want anything to do with killing, unless it’s a pesky fly or mosquito or a menacing wasp, or one of the vile rodents that has the misfortune of showing up in my barn house every once in a while.

Who hunts when the temperature registers 95 degrees—101 degrees with the heat index? There is clearly no romance to it, as far as I can see. But then, I suppose only the real men get it. For me, summer time is for lazy hours in the garden, under the trees, early in the morning and late in the day, when the chance of catching a breeze is believable. Hot weather is for stretching out on the sofa upstairs, barely mindful of the whirring of the bank of fans suspended from the loft ceiling, book in hand or on the chest as you nod off for a nap. We’re headed toward 95 again today. I will work early this morning in the garden, already anticipating the lazy hours indoors come afternoon. That’s for me. And early in the morning the shotguns have begun their work in the woods nearby.

As Far As I Can See—Normangee, Texas (September 7, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Gone to Texas

Okay, so I’m not excited about being back in Texas. I left a northern New Mexico ripe for fall—highs hovering around 80, lows dipping well into the 50s, humidity just above 20%. I imagine taking a breath that feels, well, unbearably light. Give thanks for refrigerated air on this hot and muggy—at least by comparison—September 1st, where by noon we’re breathing hard down the neck of another 90-degree day, in cow town—Ft. Worth, where the west begins.

I awoke this morning in Muleshoe, just about 30 miles across the New Mexico – Texas border. As I headed toward Lubbock, I scanned the radio for a National Public Radio station. And so the day began in the Bible belt. “Jesus radio” a voice announced, as I hit the Seek button again.

As I made my way down U.S. 84 South, I was pummeled one way and another by all of the conflicting messages—“Does the road you’re on lead to me? God”, “If you have to curse, use your own name. God”, “Don’t worry about the future. I’m already there. God” read billboards below Lubbock. The messages continued to and beyond Abilene—home to Abilene Christian University (Church of Christ), McMurry University (steeped in United Methodist tradition), and Hardin-Simmons University (Baptist General Convention of Texas).

Yes, I was in the Texas Bible belt—but wait, what part of the state does the belt not include? More than a few cars carrying women with uncut tresses piled high atop faces unadorned by makeup passed me. Because I’m pulling a 6 x 12’ trailer loaded with treasure, I’m sticking to the right lane and 60 m.p.h., which is over the recommend 55 m.p.h. posted on the trailer fender. In contrast were billboards advertising “Rock ‘n Roll Cowgirls”, bosoms oozing to burst out of spaghetti strap—western?—blouses. What’s happened to the Misses Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells? I think I know the origin of the old saying, “rode hard and put up wet”.

I had to be on my toes for the likes of the late model black Cadillac sedan that cut in front of me, only to take the next, and very immediate, exit to Snyder. Could he have been headed for a Tuesday morning gathering at one of several churches that can be found on the Internet for Snyder—Primitive Baptist Church, Apostolic Faith Church, Church of God, Faith Baptist Church, Bautista Primera Iglesia Church, First Baptist Church, Colonial Hill Baptist Church. These are the first seven churches listed for Snyder at

Along with the church ladies, big trucks and Bubbas owned the road as I made my way south toward the greater Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. I noticed a pink version of cojones suspended from the rear bumper of a Dodge 4 x 4—just like the metallic silver ones I saw on a truck with New Mexico plates as I was about to cross the New Mexico – Texas border late yesterday. That’s a new one for me—large fabric-filled testicle whimseys for, no doubt, the guys who have to walk with legs spread so as not to crush their manhood. The two guys, apparently hungry to be back in Texas and burning up the road, riding in a big Chevy V-8 carrying a pair of ATVs in the bed, and mindless of the posted 45 m.p.h through a construction zone just west of Clovis—well, I guess they didn’t count on the New Mexico State Police actually being out and about. I didn’t notice any cojones suspended from the bumper, however. Nor did I see them on the truck of the Bubba west of Abilene on I-20—ball cap pulled down, sporting a well-fed tummy that was tucked under the wheel of his “big ‘un” and pulling a fifth wheel with the name Shady Brook Lite stamped across the rear of the trailer. He passed me as well.

At the Muleshoe McDonald’s this morning, as I waited for a breakfast sandwich and small cup of coffee, Waylon Jennings and Jessie Coulter huffed out their version of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. Hearing the words, I appreciate more and more why Uncle Ray, toasted on a few too many long necks (more likely, it was cocktails) at a summer barbecue gathering of family and friends some time in the '50s, called out to the band hired for the day, “I’ll give you $10 if you don’t play ‘Davy Crockett’.” Yes, I’m gone to Texas, as they said in the early 19th century—G.T.T.—gone to Texas, to fight for freedom—and according to documented history, to escape debt—and the culture shock becomes greater each time I return here to my home. Hanging out in the likes of liberal Santa Fe, I forget that my great home state is not all that different from most of New Mexico. They’d likely elect the “W” again, as hard as that is to believe. In the words of the late Molly Ivins, Texas is a “…damned peculiar place.” I’ll always be a Texan, however, and I claim the right to make fun of my own. Pardon me, but we’re not all like that.

Gone to Texas—Ft. Worth, Texas (September 1, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis