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 years in the making. But Thomas had got his land, if not his actual footing, and never returned to England.
His son, however, certainly got his footing. Also named Thomas, he learned Spanish when he arrived in Texas as a boy and taught himself electrical engineering from mail-order books that he studied by the campfire while tending the livestock. He married Rosa Ross, and the couple moved to Mapimí, in the Mexican state of Durango, where they lost their firstborn child—a two-year-old girl—to dysentery because the doctor lived too far away. Later they had more children, and Thomas operated the Peñoles mining company’s electrical plant in the town of Descubridora. He developed a relationship—albeit an uneasy one—with Pancho Villa, who warned him on the days he should not let his children ride the train. Aunt Sister was his eldest child.
When I was a child, I was fascinated by the family stories—how the younger Thomas Holdsworth, tinkering with his engineering skills, created the first telephone line in Zavala County, stringing it along his fence to a neighbor’s ranch, for instance, and how Florence Butt refused for years to sell tobacco in her store. But as I got older, the stories began to burden me in unexpected ways, and I felt the weight of a reputation, not one that I had forged but one that had been handed to me, as well as to my siblings and cousins. I didn’t dislike it—none of us did. But living up to it was something different altogether.
AUNT SISTER RESCUED ME FROM that responsibility. She was old when I knew her, bent over, swinging a walking cane, cantankerous, independent, something of a loner. She didn’t buy into anything that wasn’t land—reputations and appearances included. I once saw her shoot a rattlesnake between the eyes. I saw her, at the age of ninety, skin a squirrel and bake squirrel pie. “The little fellow” was eating her peaches, she explained to me. It is a fine line between being forthright and being mean as a snake, and Aunt Sister walked it with no particular grace, plunking her black cane along and hoisting herself behind it, her feet in cloddish walking shoes, planting themselves squarely without shuffling. Like the other Holdsworths, she was sloe-eyed and had a broad face, a wide jaw known in the family as the “Holdsworth mandible” (“Feel my jaw,” my grandmother used to tell my grandfather when he tried to make her change her mind), and a benign condition called seborrheic keratosis (the “Holdsworth moles,” we called them)—raised, brown splotches that, if not removed, would spread and grow to the size of quarters and eventually overlap to cover sections of the body, usually the back and face. Aunt Sister had a number of these moles and, like the other Holdsworths, never had them removed. She wore a wide neck brace in the last two decades of her life because of arthritis, and when she walked, her head seemed to precede her body. Her dentures made loud clicking noises, which she didn’t seem to notice. Her hair was long and always tied in a knot. I had the impression that she never looked in the mirror. An inch or two of ragged slip usually hung below her heavy skirts. I never saw her in trousers.
Like the other Holdsworths, she was contemplative but seldom about herself, well-read and a good writer but not talkative. The Holdsworths were an odd blend of English and Texan. They planted English gardens and grew hollyhocks in the dry soil of South Texas and the rocky terrain of the Hill Country, watering them with a teapot; they had tea at four o’clock in the afternoon. Aunt Sister was the oddest of them all.
She was born Rosita Franklin Holdsworth in 1899 in Piedras Negras, Mexico, and was carried about on Pancho Villa’s shoulders whenever he passed through Descubridora and asked my great-grandfather to show him, once again, the operations of the electrical plant. She spent her early life in Mexico and Texas. At the age of eleven, she encountered the Mexican revolutionary and future president Francisco Madero in a general store, and forever afterward considered this one of the great experiences of her life. When the Mexican Revolution broke out, Thomas sent his family back to Texas for good and later returned himself, eventually purchasing the Kerrville Light and Ice plant.
At the time, Rosita had received no formal education, having been schooled by her mother, and spoke better Spanish than English. She attended Tivy High School, in Kerrville, and by the age of seventeen was teaching in Pipe Creek, in Bandera County, and later at Block Creek School, a one-room school with seven grades northeast of Comfort. She earned $60 a month, from which she paid out $12 for room and board with a local family. Two years later she took a teaching job in Dumont, in northwest Texas, and soon wrote home that she was planning to marry Roy Hollar, a man who worked on a nearby ranch. Her fiancé was barely twenty, no older than she. When Thomas Holdsworth received the letter, he got on a northbound train to stop the marriage but arrived too late.
Rosita and Roy were never a good match. They had almost nothing in common. Roy had a reading problem, and Rosita’s greatest love, aside from land, was literature. Their only child, Ammie Rose, who now lives in Kerrville, was born the year after they married. They moved to Abilene and lived in an apartment attached to a filling station that Roy managed. Rosita wanted a college education and started taking classes at McMurry College. Needing money, she began to travel and teach throughout Texas, taking Ammie Rose along and placing her in the schools where she was teaching. At times she and Ammie Rose lived in houses with no running water. Roy came along sometimes, and sometimes he didn’t. He found work where he could.
During the summers, Rosita took college courses wherever she was living. After she earned her bachelor’s degree from McMurry, she took Ammie Rose and moved to Louisiana, starting work on a master’s in library science at Louisiana State University. She did not go home to Roy after getting the master’s but instead moved to Arkansas and supervised branch libraries in Poinsett County, visiting them by bus or train and by hitching rides on milk trucks or with county agents. There were other library and teaching jobs, and then finally, in their fifties, she and Roy moved under the same roof again, purchasing the stock farm near Comfort. She taught in Center Point and Comfort and was the principal of the elementary school in Hunt and a co-founder of the Comfort Public Library. After Roy died, in 1966, Rosita continued to operate the farm. When she retired from teaching, she tutored students free of charge—”any child, any time” was her motto—and coached them for UIL and 4-H events. On occasion she contributed tuition funds for her most promising students, but, having as a matter of principle sunk almost every cent she made into buying land, she often solicited donations from family and friends.
I would doubt that Aunt Sister was a very good mother. The travels were a hardship for Ammie Rose and deprived her of much contact with her father. Aunt Sister was also a terrible cook and had no use for order: She dropped her clothes on the floor where she undressed. Her daughter was often lost among the detritus of her ambitions. But she could tell a story that would hold you spellbound. She could nurse a sick calf back to life. She could take the dullest child and teach him to love books.
It has taken me into my forties to cobble together all the components of a life that I am happy to be living, and there have been many times when Aunt Sister’s example—less than perfect but strangely beyond reproach—has been a comfort to me. When my first marriage failed, I thought of how Aunt Sister had never felt the need to explain to family members the shortcomings of her marriage or her lack of judgment in getting into it in the first place. When, in my present marriage, I suffered three successive miscarriages—babies I desperately wanted—in an attempt to have a second child, I reminded myself repeatedly of how Aunt Sister had been content with one child.
I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN INTRIGUED by how different yet intrinsically alike Aunt Sister and my grandmother were. They valued many of the same things—books, libraries, and helping children chief among them—but unlike Sister, my grandmother married a man with her same vision and drive, and together they influenced Texas in more ways than Aunt Sister could ever have dreamed of. I don’t believe Aunt Sister was ever envious of my grandmother—Mama Two, we called her—though she would have had reason to be. Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt was more beautiful, she had a better marriage, and she had more money and more children. She could recite more poetry than most of us have ever read. She wore kidskin gloves and large picture hats and wielded her influence in a charming, soft-spoken way. She had a girlish laugh and was never agitated or hurried. Like her husband, she was shy but inherently powerful. She read voraciously and gave so many books to her grandchildren—always with her own judgment about each one scribbled on the flyleaf—that she would sometimes lose track and give one grandchild several copies of the same book, sometimes on the same Christmas. Her handwriting became less legible over the years, but her opinions became stronger. I have a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray with her remarks on the flyleaf: “I did not care for this story, I doubt you will enjoy it.” I have two full sets of the Brontë novels that she gave me several years apart, the second set inscribed with basically the same opinions as the first.
When my grandmother was in her twenties, bearing her children and living in Harlingen, where my grandfather was building the grocery company, her dining room became the area office for the State Crippled Children’s Program. She was the chairman of the Cameron County Child Welfare Board. She started a program to diagnose and treat tuberculosis in the Valley and bought the first equipment for testing the hearing and vision of the area’s schoolchildren. She and my grandfather started the H. E. Butt Foundation, using it to build libraries, tennis centers, community swimming pools, and a camp on the Frio River where church groups and underprivileged children could stay for free. After the family moved to Corpus Christi, in 1940, the YWCA, the Nueces County home for the aged, the Mary McLeod Bethune Day Nursery for black children, and a local tuberculosis hospital were all organized around her dining room table. She led the citizens movement to have juvenile offenders removed from county jails and placed in separate facilities, then called in the fire department to have those facilities—a rickety old barracks—condemned as a firetrap so that the city would have to build more-decent housing.
In 1955 Governor Allan Shivers appointed her to the board of the state agency that later became the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, where she served for a quarter century. On one occasion, when her fellow board members were reluctant to approve the use of knives and forks for the patients at state mental hospitals, Mama Two sent each board member a metal bowl and a large spoon like the ones the patients were required to use, suggesting that they eat their Christmas dinner from the bowl so they might know what it was like. Some of the board members became so annoyed with her pressures for reform that they secretly asked Governor Price Daniel to remove her. He summoned her to his office and offered her instead a place on the UT Board of Regents, but she declined his offer. She was not looking for power, she said; she was trying to effect reform. “I just want to finish the work I’ve started,” she told the governor. “Mr. Butt”—as she always referred to my grandfather—”would be very disappointed if I were not allowed to finish what I have started.” Mr. Butt was, of course, a major campaign contributor. I can see the scene now, Mama Two in her picture hat, her gloved hands in her lap, her smile whimsical, her voice soft, her threat beautifully veiled. She outlasted the other members of the board, and all of her reforms were eventually accomplished.
She kept a journal every day for sixty years and wrote stories based on tragedies that she had witnessed in her social work: a girl who longed to drown herself because of painful boils in her ears, a stillborn baby preserved in a jar of formaldehyde so it would not become a duende, a troublesome spirit. She had an eye for the tragic and the grotesque. This did not include a tolerance for the salacious. When I was in my twenties and writing a novel, The Raven’s Bride, I would sometimes read aloud to her what I had written during the day. On one occasion the passage involved a sexual encounter between Sam Houston and a woman in a barn, and at Mama Two’s request I reluctantly forged my way through it at the lunch table. She was quiet for a while, sipping little spoonfuls of her soup. Then she said, “That was very vivid. It was very clearly depicted.” I knew better than to take this as a compliment and waited for the other shoe to drop. She had another spoonful, put the spoon down on the table, looked at me directly, and added, “Why don’t you blur it just a little.”
She developed an annoying habit in her later years of watching television with the sound turned off while people were trying to have a conversation with her. On one occasion an uncle of mine was telling her how a bank had loaned someone an amount of money. Mama Two was watching CNN with the sound off and was unresponsive to the story. Finally, my uncle said, “Mother, that just drives me crazy when you do that. It seems like you’re not listening. Can’t we turn the TV off?” Very slowly she turned to look at him, as if her thoughts were far away. “I was just wondering, dear,” she said pensively, “if ‘loan’ can be used as a verb.” She had not only been listening, she had been diagramming the sentences. She was, I believe, one of the most controlling women I have ever known—disapproving and loving in the same breath.
I am her namesake and have always wished to be more like her. Her goodness and accomplishments continue to impress and intimidate me. But I am more suited to long hours of solitude, pecking out words and chiseling down my sentences. From time to time, with a sense of obligation, I have served on community boards, but I was always puzzled by the budgets and the power structures and at times only vaguely cognizant of what, exactly, I was supposed to be doing. It is when I am alone and my fingers are poised on a keyboard that my heart begins to thump and my mind to find passion and focus.
GIVEN A CHOICE, I SUSPECT I might choose my grandmother’s assets over mine. But I was not given a choice. Instead I was given Aunt Sister to balance my view of things and provide another type of role model. Aunt Sister did not have Mama Two’s charm. She had a caustic Texas stubbornness. She said what she thought, coyness be damned, manners be damned.
I was never at ease with her bluntness, being more accustomed to subtlety and nuance, and even today cannot explain why I felt such an affinity with her. But I always felt linked to Aunt Sister, and I think she did to me. She would write to me when she was leaving the farm: “I’m going to Brownwood to visit a friend from other days. If we have any real illness in the family, let me know . . .” I regret now that I did not know her on more equal terms. There were too many years between us. We never lived in the same town. Our relationship had mostly to do with books and my writing. She read my manuscripts and told me to “eat” my vitamins and keep the novels “percolating.”
Even though they were so different, Aunt Sister and my grandmother adored each other. They had grown up in a close-knit family, milking cows together in the mornings and staying home from school during hog butchering time. The girls were Rosita, Mary Elizabeth, Eleanor, and Willie, and the boys were Kirk and Robert. They were a family of frontier people, but the frontier was dying off. They went away to school. My grandmother’s three sisters earned seven graduate degrees among them. My grandmother attended the University of Texas in the summer and taught first grade back home in Kerrville and Center Point in the fall and spring to make ends meet. Then she married Howard. Aunt Sister married Roy. Aunt Eleanor married Dean Wilson, a grocer, and settled in Beeville, where she taught school, like her sisters. She was the only one among her siblings who ever drank or smoked, and many of us in the younger generation secretly admired her for it. Aunt Bill, as we called Willie—or Dr. Willie Holdsworth, as her students at UT referred to her—sent a telegram to her sisters the day she received her doctorate from Columbia: “Educated, by gosh.” She never married, though in her old age she showed me a stack of love letters from a man who had wanted to marry her many years before. She had turned him down because he was an atheist. She was the most beautiful of the sisters, and the most persnickety.
It never seemed to bother Aunt Sister that while her sister Mary Elizabeth was founding hospitals and building libraries and being waited on at her dining room table, she herself was killing chickens from the back yard for dinner. The house, as I remember it, smelled of rancid food and moldy old books. There were so many books stacked in the rooms that pathways had to be made between the stacks so that one could pass through. Mama Two tried to give Aunt Sister things to improve her standard of living. She used to send clothes—fine wool suits—but Aunt Sister never wore them. She tried to hire someone to help Aunt Sister cook, someone to clean up her house, someone to replace her faulty pipes. But if she wrote a check to Aunt Sister to help pay for these things, Aunt Sister would only set the money aside to buy more land. “Don’t give her any money,” Mama Two began to tell the family. “If you want to do something for her, pay the contractors directly.”
The problem was, Aunt Sister didn’t want anything done for her. She was self-sufficient well into her nineties. She loved land, cattle, dogs (often maimed in some way and acquired late in their life), books, and children who wanted to learn how to read. Her letters to family usually involved information about the crops. I have a letter that she wrote at the age of 94: “Cropwise we are blessed with early rains and a fine first cutting of hay. . . . Cattle have fared fine—sold reasonably well. The seedling peach I so nearly took out three years ago yielded a good harvest.” The letter goes on about her dogs, a kitten that had survived “the hazards of barn owls and dogs and other cat enemies,” and how the recent removal of cataracts had allowed her to read telephone numbers without her glasses. It draws a vivid picture of Aunt Sister’s daily life in her farmhouse: “I store away feed and count the days until grass will rise again.”
THERE IS A CONCEPT IN science called “regressing to the mean.” Along any spectrum, there is the tendency for things to move toward the middle, to average themselves out. For example, if a mother is particularly tall, it is likely that her daughter will be shorter. If a father has an unusually good disposition, it is likely that his son will have a worse one. If a parent is exceedingly brilliant, ambitious, or neurotic, it is likely that his children will be less so. The world is peopled with remarkable families that peter out somewhere along the fourth or fifth generation. The drive, the gift, whatever it is—the blood?—gets watered down.
If you inherited the turned-up Crook toes, the Holdsworth moles, or any version of the large Butt nose, you were considered blessed in my family, though an outsider might see it differently. I was lucky (or unfortunate) enough to acquire all three, though in mitigated versions. My Holdsworth moles are smaller, and there are fewer of them, than those carried so unapologetically by my great-aunts and great- uncles, but nevertheless I am preposterously proud of the fact that I seem to have more of them than my siblings or my cousins do. My dermatologist has for years wanted to remove them, but I have clung to the Holdsworth moles as tenaciously as they have clung to me. They are a mark of my heritage.
Over the years I have watched my glasses begin to slide down my nose the way Aunt Sister’s did, my chin begin to jut forward. “Well, Aunt Sister,” my own sister says to me sometimes, when I have made a snarky remark at the dinner table. I would be presumptuous to believe that I am like Aunt Sister. But at times there is a certain slippage in attire, a certain oblivious neglect of formality that seems to come to me from nowhere—from some inexplicable link or strand of DNA, a remnant of the past. Left to myself, I will work all day at the computer in the T-shirt I have slept in, jog in that same T-shirt, shower, and put on another T-shirt, which I will sleep in and wear the next day. Hanging in my closet are a number of timeless designer suits my grandmother gave or handed down to me that, like Aunt Sister, I have never worn. I recently found myself speaking before an august gathering wearing a jacket from a thrift shop and ten-year-old shoes. The “Aunt Sister gene,” as my mother calls it, had leaked through. It also shows up in my pack-rat propensity. When my mother insisted last summer that I remove the boxes I had stored for years in her attic, I discovered among the artifacts a collection of high school hall passes, clippings of hair from horses I had loved, instructions on how to wear my orthodontic headgear, and the beard of a turkey I once shot.
I am undecided as to whether I should be proud of these meager tokens of a link to Aunt Sister. My home is not—as hers was—an eyesore; I am not committed to a life of squalor; I am investing in Pilates classes to prevent my posture from folding into hers. But having her image before me—sharp-tongued, opinionated, generous if she liked you, scornful if she didn’t—elevates my mood at unexpected times. It liberates me from the burden of good breeding.
I have managed, in my forties, to have the second child that I so badly wanted. My husband and I have given her the middle name of Holdsworth. With a son and a daughter, our family is complete. I have learned how inescapably the generations segue into one another, how strong the ties can be. How comforting the memory of an odd old woman who refused to be anyone other than who she was.