Friday, April 24, 2009

An Old Story

As we grow older we become more interested in where we came from, and perhaps where we’re headed to when we “shuffle off this mortal coil.” At least, this happens for some of us. Thanks to my mother, I have always been interested in our family history. Daddy and his siblings talked little about their family. They didn’t know anything. I don’t remember either of my grandmothers entertaining us with stories about the Fuchses or the Hollises. Especially now that it is too late to learn first-hand more of what had to be an interesting story, I regret that I wasn’t insistent to learn more. It was short sighted on everyone’s part.

I know that our maternal German side landed at Galveston in 1866, from what was then Prussia, and settled northwest of Houston. Their family name—Benfer—appears as one of seven on the historical marker for the Klein community, along with Brill, Klein, Hildebrandt, Roth, Strack, and Theiss. An elementary school is named for my great-great grandparents. Only recently am I learning that one particular Fuchs branch, the offspring of one of my grandmother’s older brothers, is exploring their roots. Lovers of good food, just like my Hollis paternal side, this clan of cooks is regularly producing cookbooks with only family recipes—and now adding family history to their work. How delightful. How filled we pride in our heritage and hope for the future. One of my distant cousins told me a few months ago, after discovering me on the Internet, that she wanted her kids to know about their family.

Our branch of the Hollises immigrated from southeastern Alabama to Montgomery County Texas in the last decade of the 19th century—by train, according to some accounts. As I drove through Louisiana and Mississippi a couple of years ago on my first—and so far only—trip to Dothan Alabama, I tried to imagine what the road would have looked like in 1895, not knowing then that my Hollis ancestors hadn’t traveled by wagon.

Our Cousin Marilyn, whose mother Frances Edith was one of five Hollis siblings from the first generation born in Texas, is on a mission to uncover some of the story of the Hollises, one that begins in pre-Revolutionary North Carolina, with the birth of our great-great-great-great grandfather, Isaac. Until Marilyn began her work, I had determined only that our great-great grandfather, another Isaac, along with his wife, Cynthia Morrell, and their children, appeared in the 1870 census for Pike County Alabama. Cynthia’s roots were in Georgia, and the records show that Isaac and Cynthia were married there—I suppose just over the Alabama/Georgia line. It’s hard to imagine that these lovers could have met had the distance that separated them been of any significance.

Our great grandfather, David Riley Hollis, was born in Alabama in 1854 and our Grandpa Stephen Edgar—who died before my birth in 1943—was born there in 1882. Somehow David and Stephen ended up in two different cemeteries in East Texas. And to make the trail a little harder to follow for those who come after us, David’s wife—Martha Frances Ray Hollis—is buried by Stephen and our grandmother, Sallie Antoinette Forest Hollis, not by her husband. Their final places are indeed in two different counties. When I think about how our branch of the Benfer/Fuchs clan and the Hollises have ended up in who knows how many cemeteries, it gives me cause reconsider what I intend to have done with my own remains.

Marilyn’s curiosity has put her on the tracks of the maternal side of the Hollises as well, Meadows and Forest, with roots in Louisiana and North Carolina. That immigrant path down the Atlantic seaboard was a popular one, no doubt, as evidenced in the artisanship reflected in the architecture, furniture and utilitarian and decorative arts that made their way to Texas, well before the Civil War. What of any of that might have been part of our family history is lost to time. Families of modest means traveling south and west carried only the most cherished keepsakes and portable utilitarian goods with them. Looking at old photographs of Hollis faces we don’t know, folks garbed in Victorian dress, well, we won’t ever know.

In the last couple of years, I have spent most of my time in northern New Mexico. I’m not the first of the Hollises to plant some roots here. Daddy’s oldest brother, Pat, brought his family to New Mexico from Texas in 1946. Although his oldest son, Donald, returned to Texas after graduating from college, the remainder of that Hollis branch continued living their lives in the only city that really counted as home by that point. Uncle Pat and Aunt Martha, who had begun her life in northeast Texas, and their youngest son, Byron, moved to Arizona 30 years ago, which became the final resting place of Pat and Martha. And though I’ve continually reminded that blood ties do not produce close ties, given that I have cousins here in Santa Fe that I don’t know, we Hollis first cousins who have lived most of our lives in Texas continue to be close in a comforting way, as I was reminded recently when several of us gathered around our Aunt Mary, soon to celebrate her 92nd birthday. She is the last of her group of siblings.

Cousin Marilyn’s vigorous pursuit of our Hollis history is energizing and fun. The time she spent with my sisters and me just before I returned to New Mexico has renewed our childhood affection. Soon, she and my two sisters will gather in Texas again, just the girls, digging through Joan’s stuff and helping her get organized in the place she now calls home, what used to be the family home in the country. No doubt, they will talk throughout the day and late in to the night about their shared memories, reminding one another of things that each of them has forgotten. The interest my Fuchs cousins—the offspring of my maternal great uncle—have shown in their story—one we share—is nothing short of wonderful to me. I feel privileged to have been invited to walk a little of their journey. Except for a few sketchy memories of one cousin, their branch of the Benfer/Fuchs clan had become lost to me. I’ve contributed one of my Grandmother Lizzie’s recipes to the next edition of the Fuchs family cookbook. Details of our part of the family are documented in the book. The connection feels good.

An Old Story—Santa Fe New Mexico (April 24, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Things Done and Things Left Undone

Today will be busy. I have much to do before leaving this afternoon for East Texas, the first leg of my return trip to northern New Mexico. My list-in-progress is made. The back of the Toyota already shows evidence that someone is going somewhere. I already know, beginning with the day I traded my Ford crew cab for the 4Runner, that the back area of this mid-range SUV holds a mighty stash of treasure, but today will be another proving ground. I suspect that any plans I might have had about having room for any treasure hunting on the 700-mile journey will be foiled. Clothes, books, the boxes of merchandise I brought to Texas with the hope of selling for friends in Santa Fe will be mostly making the return trip, along with three precious Rubbermaid tubs of Pueblo Indian pottery, the third installment in my efforts—so far unrealized—to lighten my load of vintage American Indian arts. As of this writing, “antique” baskets and rugs have languished in a Santa Fe gallery for the last nine months, priced by the gallery owner so that “I couldn’t afford these prices,” I observed after consigning them. There must be a message here, one that I will have to consider seriously when I get back to Santa Fe and before turning over any more collectible goods to be offered for sale.

Here on the land we are on day three and the final day of a mini family reunion of Hollis cousins. My older sisters, Sue and Joan, and I are being visited by Cousin Marilyn, the daughter of Daddy’s youngest sister, Frances. We’ve had a grand time. In the true Hollis tradition, Marilyn came with food, and food has been the centerpiece of much of the visit. We’ve dined in my garden, relished cheese and wine on the second story deck of my barn home, reminisced with bowls of Cream O’ Wheat sitting in the kitchen area of the bunkhouse part of the barn, and lunched on venison and pork sausage, complemented by mashed potatoes and sauerkraut on the patio of Joan’s home, which is the family home on this place that our parents bought as retirement property in 1973. Mealtime is a special time of celebration in the Hollis family. We’ve talked about everything from recipes to religion and politics—in spite of everything we all know about the danger of discussing R &P—“Only a fool discusses religion and politics,” Mother often quoted her daddy Frank as saying. And of course, we’ve had plenty to say about family, both blood and otherwise.

I told my sisters and cousin late yesterday that today I have to focus on closing up this place and getting on the road. And though I have been slowly, slowly, getting things in place for my departure, the last day always demands a last-minute burst of energy and focus, focus. The list will be observed, line-by-line, even though some things just might not be checked off. And that, I have learned, is okay. The floor will be mostly swept, the commodes—all three of them—cleaned, the bed changed and the laundry done, the refrigerator emptied of perishables—especially in consideration of the two most unfortunate experiences I’ve had over the last two years because of power failures in my absence.

The garden is lovely and lush, following life-giving rains over the last six weeks. And though the beds and paths are a little weedy, I’m letting it pass. I’m leaving money with Joan for paying the hombre who I hope will do a little cleaning in my absence. He knows the drill after helping me a couple of times. It doesn’t really matter all that much for right now, however. The water feature will go silent this afternoon. Only the birds of song and hum and the butterflies and various things that bzzzz will fill the air with sound in this sanctuary. I’ve noticed lately that rabbits are enjoying this garden space, and I wonder, just like I have about the cardinals, if maybe, just maybe, some people I have loved and lost, though just for now, might be in this space. Not one of the winged and four-legged creatures cares a whit about a patch of “weeds” here and there. On the contrary, working on the notion that a weed is just a flower out of place, they’ll all probably sigh in relief that it’s a little messier around here than it used to be, and that's cause for celebration of the artful wildness of this place.

So I will work my list today, taking time for coffee and Cream O’ Wheat with sisters and cousin, while I do my laundry, mostly sweep my floors, stow the worldly goods making this leg of the journey in the back of the Toyota, and set the AC to 85 and the ceiling fans upstairs and downstairs a whirring in anticipation of a Texas summer. On-off, up-down, in-out, sigh and go. Some things will get done and some things will be left undone. I’ve given myself permission to be messy and incomplete and a little more at peace than has been my habit in the past.

Things Done and Things Left Undone—Normangee Texas (April 16, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Sunday, April 12, 2009

And So It Is

Easter Day began with rain. Awake from 3:45 a.m., I didn’t realize that the forecast had been borne out until I trekked from the downstairs bedroom over to the lean-to that serves as office, library and catch-all on the west side of the barn. It was a lazy day. Coffee perking on the gas stove top, I indulged myself with conversations about God and faith via the Internet, where thanks to a website new to me I found thinkers and believers recorded live in forums at which I can now only wish I had been present. I found myself typing madly, taking notes from a talk by Marcus Borg, Biblical scholar and teacher, and then emailing the notes, High Priority, to myself. In the same forum, Christine Pelosi talked about her work for political and social reform and the call to serve that was an important part of her family upbringing and her Roman Catholic faith and continues to shape her personal and professional growth.

I was called to consider, once again, what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers of this world were not, and reminded once again that in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom on earth, in our lives, in our times. In a separate recording, another writer talked about her research on Mary Magdalene, the first witness at the tomb, and the fiction piece that grew out of her study. And though I did not regret that I was alone, on Easter Sunday, as many other Christians throughout the world gathered to celebrate, I took comfort in knowing that in my own quiet, solitary way, I too was a part of this day of active expression of faith.

This afternoon I soaked up the sunshine that followed the rain, sitting in the garden, and finishing a novel about a young girl’s struggle in the 1950s with undiagnosed Tourette’s Syndrome. Around her tenth year, she is institutionalized for several months, dropped in the midst of a small group of children who suffer far worse conditions. Only after returning to the grandparents who are rearing her, and following the death of her grandfather, does she realize through her grandmother’s insistent faith and her own gifts, including that of words and an “angelic” singing voice, that God does indeed love each one of us, including her, no matter, no exceptions.

And so it is.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Beautiful Answer

When I came back to Texas in mid February, I wasn’t at all clear about what I needed to happen at that time. I just knew that I was ready to be on the road, ready to put Santa Fe and winter behind me for a while, eager yet dreading the gardening challenges that faced me at this Leon County barn home, and not the least bit excited about pulling it together for the spring Round Top Antiques Fair. I was restless and unsettled, and muddier in the head than I like. I sort of made myself a quiet promise at the outset that I wouldn’t be too hard on myself—that I would try to take day by day all of the work facing me. Maybe I couldn’t have known how badly I needed time for reflection—and as it turns out, time to heal from the healing that I thought I had been working on for the last 18 months.

It is Good Friday, the day after Maundy Thursday, the day before the Great Vigil of Easter. I haven’t darkened the door of a church since leaving Santa Fe on February 15th. I haven’t wanted to go to church, although I have not backed off from my spiritual quest. I have not stopped the daily reading, my own odd way of praying—who’s to say that praying needs rules—my awareness that there is so much that is so much greater than I. Early in this visit to Texas, as I dug in the garden, removing weeds, pruning and then spreading mulch in anticipation of a brutal summer when the garden will be left to its own, although I knew how beautiful this quiet place would become with a little rain, especially after a long period of unusual dryness and warm temperatures, my heart did not remember the beauty. It also didn’t remember how restorative a garden and the labor that gardens want can be.

I’ve made it through the hardest part of this leg of the journey. The antiques fair is behind me. I’m a little more comfortable that I did pretty much all I could do to make it a success. God willing, I will have another chance in the fall. Whatever else I do in the garden before heading to my home in northern New Mexico is adding blessing, both for the garden and for me. In the last week, late afternoons I’ve sat quietly in the shed that looks west, soaking in the washing of water in the fountain, watching the cardinals busy activity—reminding myself that as I much as I talk about them I still don’t have a picture from my own camera—listening to all of the birds that call this sanctuary home now and then, and I’ve delighted in the new blooms that emerge each day. Slowly, I’ve rearranged the stacks inside my house that grew out of my return from the antiques market, some things going in the mail, some being reabsorbed into this home, and some prepared for the trip back to New Mexico.

Very much on my mind are the things I’ve been reading while here, fiction and non, and I’m not surprised to realize that I haven’t been away from God at all, even though I have been away from church. It seems that my entire experience here has been one, relatively long prayer. I’ve read about families in conflict—even across generations—loss of loved ones, regeneration and rebirth. I’ve read two scholars' attempt to explain the last week of the life of Christ. I’ve read one man’s fictional account of a journey here on earth in the "physical" presence of God the Father and Mother, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. And at the heart of all of this has been a simple message. The answer is love. And the answer is forgiveness. As painful and demanding and confusing and exasperating as love can be, it is the sweet answer to all that ails us. Regardless of where or how, or even if, we pray, it is the only balm to heal our souls. No amount of proving or asserting our rights can hold a measure to the act of forgiving and being forgiven. As I prepare for Easter on this important Friday, I’m holding on to this good news.

The Beautiful Answer—Normangee Texas (April 10, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Rose by Any Other Name

This healthy vine growing on a make-do arbor at the rear gate to the fenced in part of my landscape came from my Aunt Edna, who was married to Mother's brother. Aunt Edna has a green thumb. Here in Leon County she had a rose growing in her front yard that she couldn't kill, in spite of repeated efforts to dig it out by the roots from the tire planter where it thrived in her front yard. I have several roses in my landscape that came from her garden, but I can tell you a name for only one, which she called either Two Sisters or Three Sisters. She could never remember which it was supposed to be. It's not Seven Sisters, an old climber well known in the South. That blooms only once, usually late spring/early summer. My sistuhs are repeat bloomers.

Aunt Edna can stick just about anything in dirt and smile as it prospers. She goes by the signs too. No dental work unless the signs are in the feet. Since Aunt Edna is not blood kin, I couldn't have gotten my gardening instincts from her. I did get a generous dose of love for digging in the dirt from Mother and Daddy, although neither of them took it to the lengths that I have over the last seven years. Aunt Edna got her start of the hearty vine pictured here from her mother in northwest Harris County. Miz Rustenbach would be 109 this year. She always commented concerning her birthday that she was as old as the year. "Mama always called it Blue Bells," Aunt Edna has told me several times, and as the claim goes, "it's old, old....She always had it growing in her (swept) yard." I've shown an image of this evergreen vine in bloom (blooms only in the spring) to a few people, including someone in the school of horticulture at Texas A&M, but no one has identified it yet. I'm fine with Blue Bell, though. If that name was good enough for Emily Rustenbach, it's good enough for me.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Back Home

At 5:45 yesterday afternoon I climbed behind the wheel of my Toyota, worn down to a nub, ready for the journey north and east from rural Fayette County to equally rural Leon County. Behind me friend Jim pulled his cargo trailer carrying most of the remains from my booth at the Round Top Antiques Fair. The back of my 4Runner was loaded as well. It had been a draining six-day run. Our show—the original, the one from which tens of others have sprouted since 1968—had been a success for me, although on the low end of what I’ve learned over the years constitutes success. I was still on my feet, modestly rewarded, nothing broken, and nothing stolen that I know of, and I had the luxury of a good friend who had graciously offered to help me get there and back, set up and take down my booth, and though I paid him a respectable amount for his back, van and cargo trailer, dollars don’t really matter all that much when you consider the other choices by which an important end might be accomplished.

As we sat in my garden around 7:30 in the evening, sipping Early Times on the rocks with a splash, listening to the evening sounds, feasting on the visual results of spring that had become much more present in my absence, I gave thanks for arriving back home safely and with a lot more in my pocket than I had six days ago. Though the work had to continue the next day—unloading the trailer, van and Toyota—the unburdening of being back home with something worthy and worthwhile accomplished was palpable.

Inside the barn house leftover chili and beans thawing from the freezer promised a welcoming meal, complemented by a nice chunk of mild cheddar cheese and crackers. No royalty could have felt more blessed than I felt as later we sat upstairs in the loft, watching easy-on-the-mind programming on Home and Garden Television, ceiling fans stirring a sweet breeze, doing their work from the large pine beams of the 50-foot expanse of what used to be the hayloft. Home, yes, and I was reminded of how I feel about this place and the collected evidence of my life’s passion as we sat downstairs drinking coffee this morning. If love of old things is a punishable crime, I stand guilty. As we entered the front door last night, into a house filled with old wood that had been locked tight for the better part of a week, I breathed deeply, acknowledging and luxuriating in the rich fragrance that time (only time can) brings to the treasure that has called me for more than four decades.

Over the four days of our show I was reminded that true love of old treasure is indeed a gift—even though this treasure can be burdensome when it owns you. As thousands of people poured down the aisles of the large exhibit hall that houses the Round Top Antiques Fair, I was reminded that we who truly know the exquisiteness of old things constitute a small minority. A slight woman—recovering from cancer—from a nearby town loved and bought a pair of walking sticks whose steel heads were ornately decorated with stars and shields and the provenance, “LaGrange Texas July 1892”. A few days earlier another woman wanted the entire collection of embroidered pine needle baskets from the Alabama Coushatta Indians in Woodville Texas. An older guy, although a native Texan, for many years a resident of the Alabama Gulf Coast, couldn’t walk away from a small table with a drawer. The underside of the table lid was inscribed “August Hahn 10 April 1878 Harwood Texas”. And there were others. I, who pride myself on knowing at least some part of the story behind the things I collect and offer for sale, revel in the journey. Engaging in commerce on the Internet, a past time that has grown in popularity over the last couple of decades, doesn’t work for me. Collecting is all about the journey—where I went, who I met along the way, and the unexpected treasure that had someone asked me in advance what I hoped to find, well, I couldn’t have answered that question.

Wherever I call home, I am bound to treasure—be it a table lovingly crafted and signed or the anonymous work of someone whose name is lost to history. And I am bound to the land, to my garden where I have toiled while here in Texas. The songbirds who greet the day, busy with their vocalizing well into the evening, have taken respite for the night, leaving the garden chimes to answer the wind, along with the coyotes nested in the woods that lie a few hundred yards from my barn home. I will take to bed with me thanksgiving—for friends, especially the ones who take my hand when it most needs taking, and for like-minded spirits who love the sweet art of the humblest of the most humble, and for home, which for a couple of more weeks is here in Texas.

Back Home—Normangee Texas (April 5, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis