The Holler

“I’m always making Butcher Holler sound like the most backward part of the United States-and I think maybe it is.”

Loretta Lynn

“The pull of our roots can be such a strong force, no matter how far or wide we may roam.”

Lauren McDuffie

“Appalachia, in fact, is a very matriarchal culture. We revere our grandmothers and mothers.”

Anthony Harkins

I live in Tennessee, and I grew up in a holler. The holler, most importantly. Anybody who grew up in Appalachia, or many rural areas will know what a holler is. In case anyone reading isn’t familiar, as in, “what in the hell is a holler?” Here’s a basic primer. A holler is the colloquial term for both a geological formation, a place of mountain lore, and an integral part of many people’s upbringing; mine much included.

Technically a holler is a small valley or depression formed perpendicular to a ridge line. So far so meh.  Limestone caves riddled with caverns carved by acidic rain, will sometimes collapse, and then running water does the rest. I’d guess this may have been what happened to our holler. The physical description sure seems fitting. From the main valley floor, you would turn off and cross a creek. Across the creek you’d start climbing up the side of the ridge. As you climbed the shoulder of the ridge, off to your left you’d see a small (but big to me) rock quarry. almost immediately you’d level off into the holler, the entryway was something straight out of Tolkien, you entered the holler through an overarching tunnel of trees. Once through this verdant passage, the holler would open up in it’s lush expanse of brambles, chigger-weed, and johnson grass. In all its snaky glory. This was the place of the branch, of the poison ivy, and the ginseng. The time outside of time. The lair of the Wampuscat and other such mythical beasts — which I swear exist. And you would too if you had ever looked into the woods at dusk when the moon-eyed folk looked back.

I learned a lot of things growing up in the holler. Many I keep with me, they are like a Swiss Army knife of useful proverbs and outlooks. Many are used mostly as the juice for a nostalgia time machine. I learned to always go out the door you came in. I never really got that one, but I practiced it. For a time at least. And yet the thought pops into my head anytime I catch that I’ve broken this sacred rule. Then there’s to hang a horseshoe upside down so the luck won’t run out. Oh yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Not sure why a horseshoe would be filled with luck, but okay. Not all of the things I learned were silly like the horseshoe adage. I also learned things like that granny loved to see you eat. That was her love language I think. I remember going down to her house and she’d have made a big pot of mixed beans. Sometimes, if it were time, I’d run up to the garden and get some green onions to go with. Oh that was a gassy but wonderful time. And a vital tool on that utility knife. I learned that grandpa would sometimes take me out on the tractor to do some farm chores. But looking back I don’t recall us usually actually doing any chores. Sometimes we’d just ride up the side of the ridge in the holler. Often he’d let me steer. That steering wheel was as wide as my smile. Just like the one I have on my face right now.

I remember the times of love and happiness. And I remember the somber sad times. I remember grandpa in the hospital bed in the living room. And I remember granny and mom crying. No. Sobbing. I knew what it meant. I ran. Outside. Going no place, just away. Maybe I was just going out into the holler for respite. Solace. That was a beautiful thing about the holler. She would welcome you and embrace you and let you cry. This is something I’d do again in about six years.

From my birth until around six years of age, we lived with my grandparents. This was a log home my grandfather had built from logs he logged up in the holler. As you can see I am legitimately holler-born. There was no air conditioning in that place. In the summer months the windows would be wide open. I can remember hearing the stock cars racing at the race track up near Maynardville. Always amazed me, as it’d take a fair bit to drive to it, but I could listen on a Saturday night and get to enjoy, thanks to my lively imagination, just like all the attendees. This house was modern but definitely rustic. I came along just after it had gotten indoor plumbing. No water heater, just cold water piped in from further up the holler in the branch. A rock held the far end of the pipe under water. Oh man, if you went up there huntin’ water dogs and lifted that rock, you’d better make sure you put it all back right away. Granny would make you go out and find a switch she could whip you with. But I have nostalgically digressed. I can remember getting the bathwater ready. Mom would fill the tub, and then take this heating coil drop it in the tub and plug it in. To this day I still feel the fear she put in me… “do not touch the water.” Just the way she said it. Whew! The house had electricity, but I’m pretty sure grandpa wired it himself. And this was before the practice of using a grounding plug in the outlets and the electrical system. Don’t touch the water meant something. And I didn’t.

When I was about six years old my dad had built a house just up the hill from granny and grandpa’s house. That was kind of the big shift for me. I think. At least looking back things changed a little. But I was growing up, so it’s hard to differentiate. I was still in the holler though. And so, my playground was huge. There was the rock quarry [link], which was great. There were all the woods. Down by granny and grandpa’s, there was a pond, and up the hill behind the pond was a steep grade, and lots of vines in the trees. I do not know what vines these were, but I called them grape vines. And I’d do my best Tarzan yell when I swung on them. But that pond. Oh so fun. There would be moss, or other aquatic plant growth around the edges, and I would take a rake and rake in some moss. In that rake I would have captured many tadpoles. I’d do this repeatedly over the next weeks and I would watch as the tadpoles grew and eventually were almost frogs. By this time they were not catchable in the rake. The state fisheries department would stock the pond. It was so much fun to go out there and catch bluegill and crappie. I don’t recall us eating them that much. Honestly I don’t think mom or granny would like cleaning and cooking the fish. Made the house smell.

Since we are speaking of fish, once as a teenager, I came home to find granny’s driveway filled with cars and a throng of people around. Or was a gaggle. Either way, everybody was there. It seems that muskrats had wallered out the dam so much that it had given way. Someone who had come to visit saw this happen, and in a flash of inspiration grabbed an old screen door laying near the house and put that over the hole in the dam. By the way, this is why you never throw things away. You will need them. Especially if your dam gives way. Most of the menfolk were around the pond with their .22 rifles shooting snakes turtles and such. Someone caught a bunch of frogs, Oh la la, I was having French cuisine, frog legs, long before I traveled to France. Different pond involved in the latter. There was so much fish. We put filleted fish in every container we could find and froze them. The holler was truly a place of fun and adventure. And fish. At least that day.

But the holler was a place of sadness as well. My dad had a temper. Actually, he suffered from two maladies. Both from his time in the Navy, where he served in the Pacific in WWII. He suffered from malaria. I recall at least two times he had bouts of it. Violent tremors. Moaning. One of the most frightening things my young eyes had seen. The second condition dad had was the most truly frightening, though I didn’t realize its depth and breadth until I was older. I’m speaking of PTSD. Shellshock. Combat fatigue. Whatever you want to call it. I recall several years ago when my late uncle and I had a very heartfelt chat. He told me stories of my dad. Sad stories, highlighting his troubles. I remember him saying to me, “you know Marv, your dad never got over the war.” Of course dad didn’t seek medical treatment for this sickness. No, he was a man entrenched in the “greatest generation”, and would never stoop so low. No, he self-medicated with a wonderful over-the-counter concoction. His particular brand was Schlitz. I remember many a “grab me a tall boy son”, and dutifully I would. The most manifested aspect of dad’s sickness, other than alcoholism, was anger. I think he was genetically predisposed to anger, but I believe this condition greatly amplified its release. And so when dad blew up, he blew up. And there was trouble in paradise. Mom and I would have to escape down the hill to granny and grandpa’s. At least once it happened on a sweltering Saturday evening. That evening the sounds of dad wrecking the house was louder than those stock cars up by Maynardville. The soundtrack of the holler had taken a somber tone. Paradise lost. On one of these occasions, grandpa had had enough. He grabbed his .22 rifle and was going to take care of things. All the women were crying and standing in his way. Grandpa was outnumbered, and I’m glad. Between you and me I don’t think Grandpa would have gone through with it. Yet those were biblical days to be sure. Gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. We were just missing the sackcloth and ashes. Paradise flung against the wall and broken.

Concerning my dad’s temper, there was a time when he got really angry with one of my sister’s boyfriend/husband. I can’t remember if this was before or after they married. This was subtle, but ever present. This wasn’t the shark, this was only the fin that would pop up occasionally to let you know it’s there. Apparently it came to a head at one time. I am really murky on the details. I was maybe eight or so. But dad, another brother-in-law, and the one dad hated had gathered down the driveway at the bottom of the rock quarry. I remember sisters and granny and mom being worried. I remember the phrase tire iron being bandied about. The aftermath was anticlimactic apparently. Everyone came out unscathed. I don’t know, I felt a little scathed. I still do to continue being honest. Back to that first time I ran, when grandpa died. At the funeral home, while we were all mourning in the casket room (not sure what that room is actually called), I told mom I had to go the bathroom. However, I almost wet myself when I opened the door to the bathroom. There were two people facing off in there. Dad and the one he hated. I froze. My heart stilled in my chest. A moment or two to adjust and I realized they were. Talking. Was that a laugh? I went to the urinal and maybe I did my business. I don’t know. I was in shock. I moved as an automaton, mechanically through the motions. After, I went back to the casket room, and told mom what I saw. She didn’t look as happy as I felt. But she didn’t look worried. I didn’t get it. She just misses grandpa, I thought. Adults are sonsabitches if I may speak frankly. They sure are. Particularly the male of the species. Don’t sass me on this, I’m a male of this species and ergo… well you get it.

Well, look here. We are far outside the holler now. Funny how we wander so much in these tales, at least I do. Can’t be helped though [yes it can]. Regardless of the sad and ominous times, many fun times have been had in that holler. I grew up there until I was nineteen and I joined the Navy. Which took me, literally, around the world. I saw so much. It took a while for the tendrils of the holler to loosen from me. But they mostly did. After nine years in the Navy, I moved back to the holler where my children lived some formative years. They got to run down to mamaw’s, granny had moved into my old bedroom at mom’s (now known as mamaw). It was a wonderful matriarchy presiding over that beloved place. I moved to the Nashville area when my children were still young, but they remember the influence the holler had on them. There was a lot less plate throwing in the holler those days (down to zero actually), but still drama here and there. I think that’s just life in general. The holler can’t lay claim to all earthly delights nor afflictions.

The holler. Sheltered from time, in a way. When you left the main road and headed up into the holler cares seemed to sort of waft out the open window. I think it’s just that different cares took their place. I said ‘sheltered from time’, but really it wasn’t. We all know that. Time erodes all. I recently drove to visit a sister living in the holler still, and there did seem to be a little shimmery transition when I went through that tunnel of trees. Tears? Maybe, but maybe it was some sort of veil. I felt its embrace on my soul. But the change was evident. Maybe the spirit of the holler is still there, lying dormant. Waiting for a tender-hearted child or two to want it back to life.

I hope you all forgive me for this selfish rambling. And please don’t think that I think I’m special for these — good and bad — things in my life. I’m not. I’ve heard people speak of far worse, and far better, things in their lives. My life has had bumps to be sure, but the valley to peak ratio isn’t that bad. And growing up in the holler gave me much to learn from, to carry with me, and to look back on with introspection and often with happiness. If I press hard enough. I hope wherever you grew up gave you this and more. No. Let me amend that. I hope that wherever you are will give you this. Hope.

Peace and love

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