When he was in Brenda Giles’s sixth grade class, Lewis Hollie took home a tree seedling and planted it.
It’s still there, and last Monday, the student and the teacher went to go visit the tree.
They hopped in Giles’ suburban and drove to the Cook’s Quarters neighborhood where Hollie once lived. Just past the corner of Benton and Boynton, behind the New Beginning Bibleway Church, stood the tree.
They got out, put their hands up to shield their eyes from the sun and marveled.
“He said ‘It’s leaning a bit!’ But I said it looks good, doesn’t it?” Giles said.
She quickly pulled out her phone.
“Would you take a picture of us by the pine tree?”
“When I was in high school, we always took pictures with trees, and the boy would be on one side and the girl leaning around the other side. That used to be our pose!”
Meanwhile Hollie was just staring straight up.
“Look at that,” Hollie said. “Look at that.”
The tree’s journey began on Arbor Day 45 years ago. David Hall, a local forester, brought Giles some seedlings, and she passed them out to her students at Baker-Koonce Intermediate School. Hollie said he was determined to have his tree grow straight and tall.
He picked the spot near what was then a row of plum trees and a chicken coop and in the middle of two pine trees, behind Josephine Tucker’s house. Tucker is Hollie’s “Big Momma,” a woman who took Hollie in and raised him like her family.
“Over here in the back of the house, we would always play, but it was a bunch of shrubs we would go up under for shade and make a little playhouse,” Hollie said. “I said ‘You know, I’m going to plant my tree with the pine trees that are over there. I’m going to plant mine in the middle and that way I can watch it while we’re under the playhouse.’ You know how kids are, just like that shrub there. We cleared out an area, got cardboard boxes and made a little house and got up under there and played.”
Hollie remembers Tucker having one very important piece of advice: “Son, you’ve got to watch that tap root. Make sure your tap root is straight.”
“I said ‘Tap root?’ I didn’t know what that was,” Hollie said. “She showed it to me. It was in a paper napkin, wet. I buried it with the napkin.”
He dug a hole a little too deep, then ended up putting a little more dirt on it after Tucker advised him to make the hole shallower.
“I set the tap root so it was straight up and down, and I put a lot of water in the hole and I covered it in,” Hollie said.
Hollie, who now lives in Gary, hasn’t had an easy life. Born with throat cancer, he had an aneurysm at age 7 and he lost his mother at age 10 after watching her have a stroke one morning on the front porch of their isolated home in the woods near Overton.
His father moved them to Carthage, to a shotgun house near Blacks Funeral Home. But Hollie’s mother’s death took its toll, and Hollie’s father began drinking and driving. When Hollie’s father was sent to prison, Tucker took him in.
Hollie speaks of her with love in his voice.
“No kin to us at all, but right to this day I call her Big Momma,” he said. “She’s dead. She was born in 1909. She died in 2006.”
Giles had Hollie in her class about 1975 or 1976. She remembers Hollie as a good kid, but says he was teased because he had a growth on his face. That’s what caused Hollie to leave school in the ninth grade. He couldn’t put up with the bullying anymore. (Hollie has since gotten his GED)
“I can still picture in the old annex at Baker-Koonce where Lewis sat. He was a quiet student and very respectful. His daddy did a good job raising him,” Giles said.
“Life’s been a rough journey, but God’s seen fit for me to come through. I just keep pushing,” Hollie said.
The pair reunited last year, when Giles was delivering a poinsettia to Hollie at the nursing home.
“I just kept going in the back of my mind ‘That name is familiar.’ But knowing Lewis’s age would have only been about... 54-55, maybe it’s his daddy,” Giles said. “As I was walking out, he went ‘Miss Watson’ — because I hadn’t married yet. And he said ‘You’re the teacher that gave me the tree!’”
Hollie told Giles his tree was still standing. They made plans to go see it one day, but not before Hollie warned Giles that it was “on the wrong side of the tracks.”
“’Lewis, there are no wrong side to the tracks,’” Giles remembers telling him.
Still, the warning was a remembrance of their shared past. The pair remembers when Carthage’s racial divide was starker than it is now.
Giles recalled how, to receive federal funding, they had to make students participate in ‘the count,’ where students had to stand up and say if they were black or white, male or female. This was only a few years after Carthage ISD had integrated.
Hollie told stories of being stopped by police as a teen as he rode his bicycle to his job working in a wealthy white neighborhood. The only way police accepted his explanations for being there was after he called the white family he worked for and the family explained to officers he was allowed to be there.
“Back then I knew what it was,” Hollie said.
“I had to go in there and get on the phone and let him talk to them. ‘Well we’re just doing our job. I don’t mean no harm.’ But when they say ‘What are you doing in this area?’” he said. “Today I reflect back and this a part of the United States... what law says I couldn’t go ride a bike down through there? So I looked at it like that. Now I do. But I’m not a part of that ‘this color, that color.’”
Keeping It Straight
Hollie made sure to check on his tree every so often, to keep it straight. But then he said he started living out his teenage years and got away from it.
Still, he said last week he was amazed at how the seedling he planted had grown so big.
“Mostly I’m amazed of it,” he said. “But I already know that, you know, that’s something in life I have accomplished. Something someone gave me that I cherished. I put it like that. I really cherished it. The accomplishment was that it lived. It made it.”
Giles told Hollie the tree and his life reminded her of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” the story of a young girl who realizes that the tree outside her tenement apartment symbolizes resilience in the face of hardship.
“It shows even through impoverishment and poverty, people stand tall and they grow up and they prosper,” she said.
“God’s children are God’s children,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you are. It’s that you purposefully plant yourself, and I loved what you said about the tap root. That’s the key here that we tap into God’s amazing grace.”
Hollie agreed, even if like his tree, he never perfected that lean.
“That’s the growth. If you don’t get yourself in that tap root, you ain’t going to make it,” he said.