Bob Hollis was my friend.
We first met at Navarre United Methodist Church in Florida. He had read a book I’d written titled Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide? (Zondervan) and may have encouraged his pastor to read it as well. I received an invitation to come and speak at the church.
That was in March of 2011. I know because he sent me a note the day after we met, telling me how much he enjoyed the book and meeting me. In fact, my inbox on Facebook, and my two email accounts are full of notes I’ve received over the years from Bob.
We talked about writers we loved, preachers we enjoyed, the pain of losing a parent as a child, the wrongs of the world and the love of family and food, nature and all things Southern. Two of my favorite talks with Bob were about snake-handling churches and about hexes. I should note here that Bob was a student of the Word of God. He taught Sunday School at his church and took that duty very seriously. He studied daily for his lessons, but he didn’t act like he had Truth held hostage. Instead he pursued Truth like a lover possessed. Christianity wasn’t something that made him right. Christianity was the thing that redeemed him from self-righteousness. Christianity wasn’t the source of all answers as much as it was a well he continually drew from to quench his thirst for more knowledge, more understanding, deeper questions.
Bob sent me the following missive after I wrote about my Granny Leona, who some referred to as “Mrs. Spears, that crippled woman”:
Crippled John Lee got the name because he was in fact crippled. During the Great Depression, many folks moved from the Prescott Mountain and “Hollis town” areas to Pell City for employment in a new cotton mill. As was the custom, the mill built houses for its employees, collectively called the Mill Village. Crippled John knew many of the people in the village so it was not unusual for him to visit. John was walking through the village one day and children playing in the street began “making fun” of him. Apparently, one of the children, the little daughter of “Cousin Nanny B.”, I assume a relative, was particularly mean in her remarks. Later when he was relating the incident, John made the remark, “Something bad is going to happen to that little girl.” Sure enough, in a few days the child was “sick unto death”. The person to whom he had mad the remark went to Nanny B., told her what had happened and most likely John had put a spell on her. If so, she said, he would come by to see if it was working. Under no circumstance, she said, do not give him anything, if you do the child will die. Sure enough, John stopped by. The family cat had borne a litter and Nannie B. had found it impossible to get rid of the kittens. As John was leaving, he asked for a glass of water, which was denied, he then asked for one of the kittens and was again denied. After asking repeatedly for “stuff” and being denied he eventually went on is way. Within a few days the cold had recovered. Cousin Nanny B. sent word to Crippled John that if he ever so much as came near the family or one of her children again, she would kill him. Crippled John is buried in the same cemetery with my parents and one of my brothers. Never visit the cemetery and see Johns grave that I don’t think of this story.
Over the years, Bob and his wife Viv and I would try to meet up whenever I was in Navarre. Once, we had a coffee planned but Bob ended up in the hospital the very day I was to meet with him. He’d had a heart attack. He and Viv insisted that his excitement over meeting me had been the cause of the heart attack. We worked in our visit at Baptist Hospital instead, and forever after the two of them teased me over that.
If I had a book signing in the area, he would come out to see me there. Once he visited author Ann Hite and me at Sundog Books and brought us a plate of cookies he had made. They were delicious and that was the sweetest. If I happened to be on book tour, Bob would touch base with me to see where my travels were taking me. This was especially true whenever I traveled to South Carolina, where Bob taught during his career days.
It was while visiting Pawley’s Island for a book event that Bob called me. He had just finished reading Mother of Rain (Mercer University Press) and wanted to share something with me. He had been particularly moved by a section of that novel:
If ever there was a time when the earth, moon and sun ought to cease their ritual dance, shouldn’t it be when daughters die? Had the sun no respect for Maizee? For Doc, Leela and Rain? For all of us who loved this family? These are the questions I shouted at the sun as it set over the Holston. But the sun answers to no one, don’t make no difference how loud a person yells or how disturbed they might be. It just goes on setting and rising, setting and rising. Maybe that is the sun’s answer. Ma always claimed keeping to a familiar path is the best way to straighten out the twisted things of life.
Bob shared with me that he’d had a daughter who died. She was young and newly married. The cause of her death was undetermined. I had not known that Bob & Viv had a daughter, so I was quite stunned to hear his story. He was sharing it because the story of Maizee had touched him so deeply. Bob reread that novel several times over the years. I know because he would send me notes telling me so. His daughter’s death had broken his heart, as it would any of us. Bob was a natural-born teacher and nurturer. The deaths of his mother and his daughter at such young ages shaped Bob into a man who loved people deeply. (Bob was raised – reared, he’d say – by his grandparents because his mother died when he was an infant).
Bob became one of my early readers on the subsequent novels I wrote. His edits were brilliant and he continually stayed after me to write faster so he could read the next book. The problem, as I explained to him, was that he could read much faster than I am able to write.
When I moved to Central Oregon a couple of years ago, Bob sent me this message as a way of encouragement:
On this Thanksgiving eve, just want to say hi and thank you for all the joy you have brought into my life through your writing and friendship. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s remember not only to give tanks for the many blessings in our lives but also say a prayer for our troubled nation and the wretched “refuse” that besets us. As Ernst H. said, “The Sun Also Rises” and Scarlet promised “Tomorrow is Another Day.”. This we can bet on. Be blessed, my friend, and enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving with your family and friends. HAPPY THANKSGIVING! MANY BLESSINGS.
The sun is falling behind the Cascade mountains as I type out these words: My friend, Dr. Robert Hollis, passed away on Saturday. I spoke to Bob briefly a week ago after he was admitted to the hospital following a decline in his health. I am not sure he knew who I was because of his suffering. I am sitting in my office right now, looking out over the pasture, watching the brown thrashers flit, and recalling all the stories Bob and I shared over the years. I don’t know what I believe about heaven any more. I have more questions than assurances, but it is my greatest hope that Bob was welcomed to the other side by his beloved daughter and his long-missed mother.
I always weep over the endings of really good stories, don’t you?
Bob Hollis was a good-hearted man who wholeheartedly loved his God, his family, his friends, and this life. He always signed his Facebook posts with “Life is good.”
It is good.
Bob’s presence always made it better.
Karen Spears Zacharias is a slow-writer of poorly-selling books that a few people love. Bob Hollis was one of her best-loved fans, and her friend.