Aunt Sister

Cantankerous and independent, sharp-tongued and opinionated, Rosita Holdsworth Hollar was a frontier woman who loved teaching children and acquiring land, a terrible cook who had no use for housekeeping or fashion, a loner who was self-sufficient well into her nineties. In other words, she was the best role model a girl could ask for.

WHEN MY GREAT-AUNT SISTER WAS four years old, her uncle gave her a silver dollar. For weeks she took it to bed with her at night and looked at it first thing in the morning. At last she approached her father and said she wanted to buy an acre of land on their place, the acre in the corner farthest from the homesite. She could pay a dollar.

Her father’s mustache twitched. She would have to fence the land, he said. It would have no water. She would have to pay for a survey and get a lawyer to write up a deed. That would cost more than the land.

Sister replied that she would leave the acre under her father’s fence until she got another dollar. Then she would get another acre. Maybe she would buy a lot of acres before she had them fenced.

“Very good thinking, Rosita,” her father told her. “We will keep all this in mind. I like to think over a land deal.”

During her lifetime, Sister—Rosita Holdsworth Hollar—managed to accumulate a small fortune in land. When she became infirm and unable to live alone, she moved from her stock farm near the Hill Country town of Comfort to a retirement home in Kerrville, but spent her days longing for the farm. My uncle sat at her bedside and suggested that she sell some land and use the money to hire someone to care for her at home. Aunt Sister clacked her dentures. “I can’t do that,” she said. “I figure when you start selling land, then it’s about over.” She was 98 at the time.

She died a few years after that, at the age of 101, having never sold an acre of her land. For me her death marked the passing of an era: She was my maternal grandmother’s elder sister—a frontier woman—the first of six siblings in the Thomas Holdsworth family and the last to die. I attended her funeral at the old stone Methodist church in Comfort. Aunt Sister had been a teacher, and the church was filled with her former students, young people—not so young now—whom she had guided or prodded through the mires of education. But her friends, her siblings—“my people,” as she used to call them—were all gone.

I have measured myself against her people—the Holdsworths—ever since I was old enough to listen to stories about them. They were a branch of the family tree that seemed to cast, instead of shadows, a permanent imprint on the face of the earth.

I had other ancestors to reckon with as well: On my father’s side were the Crooks and the Devines, but I’ll save them for another story. On my mother’s side were the Butts and the Holdsworths. In 1905 my great-grandmother Florence Butt hauled her children and her husband, who was ill with tuberculosis, from Memphis, Tennessee, to the curative dry air of the Texas Hill Country, where she sold A&P Tea Company food products door-to-door and then opened her own grocery store in Kerrville with the family’s entire savings of $60, nursing her husband upstairs and waiting on customers below. The youngest of her three sons—my grandfather Howard Butt—started his retail career at the age of ten, delivering groceries for his mother in a baby buggy. He graduated valedictorian of his high school class and hitchhiked out to San Francisco to work the grape harvest; one day he took the train to Jack London’s house near Santa Rosa just to meet the author and shake his hand. He joined the Navy and gave himself the middle name of Edward, having always wanted a middle name, then returned to Texas. In 1924 he married Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth, my grandmother. “May God grant that our united life may be felt as a great and lasting good in our community,” he wrote to her before their wedding. “Any other foundation would not support the edifice we dream of building.”

His grocery empire, H-E-B, took root during the Great Depression and in the next generation would become the largest privately held company of its kind in the nation. When I was a girl, he would race us in the swimming pool behind his house in Corpus Christi, always leaving us in his wake. My grandmother often chided him about defeating children. He would count his grandsons’ chin-ups. “Now watch me,” he would say when the boys would drop, exhausted, from the chinning bar, and we would all watch awestruck as he did chin-up after chin-up or jumped rope endlessly or drove his meaty fists into the enormous canvas punching bag. He was a short, shy man, but we called him Big Dad. He loved Western novels about honor and courage. “What have you done today to justify your existence?” he would ask us, and we seldom had a decent answer. After his death, my mother and I cleaned out his desk and found successive lists of New Year’s resolutions, all of which he had accomplished.

But it is the Holdsworth branch of the family that has captured my imagination. I am fascinated by an old brown-toned photograph of my great-great-grandmother Margaret, who died in childbirth at a young age, losing the baby and leaving behind her husband, Thomas, and a five-year-old son. Thomas Holdsworth was the headmaster of a private school in the Pennine Mountains of England, close to the Scottish border, and several years after his wife died, he lost his livelihood when the wool trade collapsed and the merchants could no longer afford to send their children off to private schools. In 1881 he boarded a ship with his son, then fourteen years old, and came to Texas to establish a homestead in the thorny mesquite territory of Zavala County, where he set about raising sheep and cattle and trying to build a house without the slightest knowledge of ranching or construction. The drought came, the livestock died, the crops failed, the dam he had built washed away in a flood. The house was ten

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