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  • Holly Shirley, ASID

A Well of Tears I Wasn't Expecting Yesterday at Holley House

Yesterday morning, I made the trek from Birmingham to Brewton with my friend and landscape designer, Rebecca Kinney. She was going down with me to look at Holley House and see what might be done to create intimate garden spaces and event spaces among the grounds.

We walked through every nook and cranny, and then measured the outside of the house and the yard, and then she took an inventory of the existing plants and trees. Her mind must have been going ninety miles an hour. She recruited my Mom to help her measure and I took a break in the backyard and reflected on my childhood.

There is still a bit of a mound where we had a baseball field in the backyard. Daddy built the mound up and measured the bases to regulation distances for us. We had a real field. The remains of our pitcher's mound is still there after all of these years- almost forty years- the thought of adding parking there made me cry. I don't know why, but out of nowhere I had alligator tears streaming down my face.

The back apartment is where my Granddaddy lived out the last few years of his life. His blood pressure would come and go and he thought that I owned a huge company and made $12million per day. He called me "Boy" from the moment I was born, even though he was at the hospital with me when I gave birth to my own daughter. Still he called me "Boy" and would say "Boy, how much'd you sell today- five million or twelve million?" I would always answer with $12million. If my Uncle, the bank vice-president, was there Granddady would ask him "Fonto, why don't you see if you can get Holly to hire you and you can give up that job as a bank teller?" Al would always say "DADDY, I AM A VICE PRES- I- DENT!"

Those back apartment days with Granddaddy were some of the best times of my life. I would bring him Cuban cigars and milkshakes, and we would roll down the windows in my jeep and listen to Frank Sinatra and smoke Montecristos , Diplomaticos, and Cohibas. He would always ask me if the cigars were illegal and if Lenis knew I had them. Then, he would ask if I was old enough to be smoking. He would smile and say "I won't tell anybody you're smoking, since you brought us Cubans." Good times spent with my best friend that I will never forget.

Granddaddy lived his best days as a young man doing surgery, delivering babies, and saving lives in that building, and he was blessed enough to spend his last days surrounded by family and loved ones in the same building that brought him so much joy in his early years.

I walked around the side of the building where the pecan tree once stood- the same pecan tree that was home to the tire swing Daddy put up for me, the same tree where my Mother's tire swing flew high in the fifties, and the same tree that Dr. Bob Smith climbed in the forties to see his Granddaddy do surgery through the plate glass window that is no longer there.

I can close my eyes and smell ribs on the grill, and see my Mother and Daddy up on the roof putting shingles over what was once the operating theatre. I think back to Hurricane Ivan when my husband, Jimbo, and I put blue tarps up on that same roof to keep the rains out until an insurance adjuster could come to town.

Around that side of the house, I remember going into the side apartment to get my jacket one night. I had been at a party and it was senior year. A young man from my class had ridden with me so I wouldn't be scared going in there alone. A lady who lived in the next apartment, Gertrude, was in her 70's then and had Parkinson's. We opened the back door and there was Gertrude holding a pistol on us and calling the police. We were scared to death. The policemen laughed and let us go. We didn't think it was so funny.

I remember sitting on those same back steps the day after I got my first bra and my mother finding a grey hair in my head. She couldn't believe it. My Daddy said "training bra one day, grey hair the're getting old, sis." I was mortified that she had told him I got a bra. The grey hair didn't bother me nearly as much as the fact she had revealed my secret.

When the building was divided into apartments, the cornsilk haired Johnson kids lived in the side apartment. They were nasty, mean little girls and they were always scrappy and wanting to fight. I was constantly running inside and telling my Daddy how mean they were to me and in a few minutes, their Dad would show up and ask my Daddy "You think yore kids are better'n mine?"

Many times my Daddy would be diplomatic and say "no" and give the Dad speech about kids needing to get along, be good neighbors, blah blah blah. And then one day, Mr. Johnson, in all of his big toothed, shiny headed glory once again said "You think yore kids are better'n mine?" And my Daddy said "Why yes, yes I absolutely do- now keep those little kool-aid faced, nasty, mean yard apes on your side of the building." I have never been prouder of my Daddy than I was that day.

I remember the neighborhood bully picking on me when we walked home from school and finally getting up enough nerve to hit her back. I hit her with all of my might, dropped my books and ran like hell all the way into my house, locking every lock on every door and praying for my Mother to hurry up and get home.

The first cheer I ever learned was on the big front porch. Taffi and Shane are my cousins; they are sisters. They lived in the very back apartment and we played together all of the time. They taught me Two Bits, Four Bits and Firecracker, Firecracker. The front porch was our 11 x 22 stage where we could be anything we wanted to be and Highway 31 was our audience. Our only cheering audience was always Ms. Mary Hardin, who was hump backed a little bit, and could chain smoke like a mafia boss. She had the brightest red/ orange hair you've ever seen. She didn't talk much, but smiled a lot and told us how great we were. Shane and Taffi and I started our first business on that porch- we were going door to door doing manicures and painting fingernails. We made $1, from Mary Hardin.

The front living room off of the big porch was my living room as a child. It is the living room where I got my first stereo system and a Pink Floyd album. I wore that vinyl out! It's the same living room where, the year prior, I was waiting for a bicycle that my father promised me for Christmas Eve and didn't deliver. My stepdad (Daddy) drove to Pensacola to Schwinn and got me the most tricked out bike there was (and the last girl bicycle in Pensacola) so I didn't wake up crying on Christmas day because my real dad broke yet another promise to me. When I woke up on Christmas, my Mother said that Santa must have decided to bring it to me and how lucky I was because it had everything! It did have everything- a basket, a bell, a white leather banana seat, it was a 3-speed, and it had a book rack on the back.

I danced on the coffee table in that living room on prom night because my date and I got into some questionable punch that had been spiked with ecstasy.

The bedroom next to the living room is where we lived when my daughter was six weeks old and I was going back to junior college and working at Holley House when it was a retirement home. I got up early, bathed the baby and myself, cooked breakfast for 15 and then had to be at school by 8am. Youth, that's the only way I can imagine that I pulled that off back then.

That's the same room where she had colic during the Gulf war and nothing would cure her other than her swing and the sound of Wolf Blitzer's voice.

Walking around the building, I could almost hear the laughter in apartment number 2 where Willie Fred's room was. Her room was right next to the old kitchen, and Mrs, Wiggly's room was across the hall. I laughed so hard that I am surprised my face didn't crack in that kitchen and in Willie's Room. For years before Willie moved in and it was Holley House, that was where Daddy would drop me off at 6am and I would watch I Dream of Jeannie re-runs while I waited on Miss Judy to honk the horn to take me to school.

I would eat lunch every day when I was pregnant at the end of the hallway of #2, that has recently been transformed into a bathroom. Grandmother would have a huge meal cooked and then she would rock me in the rocking chair on my lunch break from Dr. McInnish's office. Yes, I was grown and pregnant and she rocked me in that chair until I was about 9 months pregnant, and it wouldn't hold us anymore.

The little ladies who were the first generation at Holley House, were in their eighties and nineties, some of them frail and so skinny, and to me they were old. They would tell stories about their husbands, their children, and what shocked me was when I walked in on a conversation they were having about sex. I don't know why that embarrassed me the way that I did- because nothing shocks me- but little ole church ladies in Mason shoes talking about the deed, shocked me and taught me a lot at a young age about our humanity and how our spirits truly never age at the rate of our bodies.

One Christmas dinner, we invited the little lady who used to wear her winter coat up and down the road and always shopped at IGA at least twice a day. She choked on something mid-meal and we ended up spending Christmas in the ER with her after performing the Heimlich maneuver. I still don't remember her name, but I got a green blazer for Christmas that year. There was never a dull moment at the Holley House and I hope there never will be again.

People have asked for a while, why is it taking so long for this project to be completed. We have a lot of memories to preserve. This is our history, our heritage, our story. This building holds our secrets, our hopes, our dreams, our bad dates, some of our best moments and many of our worst, college parties, science fair projects successes, failures, bridal showers, baby showers, 105th birthday parties, and mostly family. As 512 Douglas has been rebuilt, it has been rebuilt to withstand another 100 years, and another five generations. We look forward to you all sharing them with us and creating your own memories at Holley House. I can't wait until we can invite you all into our family home.

Love y'all,


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