The Hollerin' Tree
Most of you know what I mean when I say “holler.” Like many Southern colloquialisms, it can have several meanings, and context is everything. When I tell you that Uncle Rufus and Ain’t Sally live directly east about 5 miles from us down in a holler, that has nothing to do with yelling and everything to do with the small valley where they live. If, on the other hand, I were about to enter a holler where I thought there might be a still, I would holler loudly before I entered so my relatives wouldn’t think it was revenoors sneaking in to interfere with their alcohol production systems. They don’t take kindly to visitors of any type, but will occasionally tolerate relatives for short periods of time, especially if they don’t drink.
My Dad was a world class profanicist, and used profanity sprinkled around in everyday conversation like most people use salt on their butterbeans. He’d been doing it so long the words just seemed to flow naturally without sounding forced or unnatural. It was the way he spoke, and, while he might tone it down a little when around a preacher or if a school teacher were present, everyone else received the unadulterated version no matter the situation. I’m pretty sure he didn’t think anything of it, and wasn’t intentionally offending anybody, it was just the way he talked and part of his everyday verbiage. He also hollered from time to time, but that was usually because either me or one of my brothers left his tools out or lost one or, even worse, loaned to “one of those damn shiftless neighborhood kids.”
Until I was 8 or 9 I was pretty sure he must have learned those words and their effortless inclusion in his speech patterns from his Dad or his older brother or maybe even the Air Force, but learned, accidentally and to my surprise, he had in fact learned a significant portion of them from overhearing his mother. Now don’t misunderstand; Grandma didn’t curse at or to or around anyone, and would have been mortified at the thought that anyone might be aware that she even knew - much less could use proficiently - those words and most of their cousins - first, second and shirt-tail - and other relatives. My Grandad passed away before I was born, and from all accounts was rather quiet, soft spoken and talked just enough to be sociable, but no more. Grandma, on the other hand, was about 5 foot 4, whip thin and what Mama politely called “fiesty.” Grandma sincerely believed that most people thought of her as meek, mild and passionately religious, but I’m not sure what magic mirror she was looking in to see any of that in her behavior.
We used to spend the day with Grandma occasionally when school was out or Mama had to go shopping or, as I learned later, she just needed a break from the three of us. Grandma wasn’t much on entertaining, and usually gave us two choices: we could stay inside and watch her shows on her tiny black and white TV (The Edge of Night was her favorite) while she ironed, or we could go outside and play in the yard. You can guess - Glen and I were about 7 and 8 - which we chose. Les was still too little to hang with us, but he always found plenty to do inside the house. He couldn’t be trusted yet not to play in traffic, but supposedly we could. There wasn’t a swing set or toys or games, but we could climb trees, play chase or dig stuff up and any or all of those were better than TV, because she didn’t watch Bugs Bunny on any of her 3 channels.
One fateful afternoon Glen and I were resting in her detached garage - Grandma didn’t drive, so there was no car - and exploring the interior to see if there might be old tools, paint, half empty oil or paint cans or other valuable treasure. The swinging door on the front was closed because she didn’t really want us in there because some of the stains we got on us the week before had mysteriously transferred themselves to her couch and chair, so she didn’t know exactly where we were but didn’t worry because there was no yelling or fighting going on.
She walked through her back yard to an old oak tree that had withstood countless storms and kids and woodpeckers and even me and my brother, stopped, looked around, looked back at the trunk of the tree, and began to curse. She started softly and got a little louder as she went along. Glen and I heard her clearly from inside the garage just a few feet away, and we were pretty sure we were not supposed to be hearing this, so we made sure neither of us made a sound and listened carefully. She cursed fluently, seemingly without effort and with amazingly little repetition, and went on for maybe 10 minutes. Her voice got a little louder as she gained momentum, and I looked around the garage for a paper and pencil so maybe I could write down a few of the words that I didn’t know to practice on later. After a few more minutes of a solid, steady stream of verbal abuse, she stopped, took a deep breath, turned and went back into the house.
My brother and I looked at each other with open mouths, and couldn’t believe - much less understand - what we had just witnessed. Was she possessed by demons? Maybe she was a witch. Did it look like maybe the bark on the tree was a little blistered right there about the height of her mouth? Did the rest of the family know about this? If not, we were about to make them aware as soon as someone picked us up after work. We knew better than to try out any of the words we had heard in a sentence to Mama, because the taste of a bar of Ivory soap had been deterrent enough for us to know she really didn’t want to hear those words from us again. Ever.
It seemed as if the hours passed slowly until we heard Mama’s car pull up in the gravel driveway. We couldn’t wait to get in the car and tell her what we had seen and heard, but she had to go inside and get the baby and ask Grandma how her day had been and whether or not we had done anything that deserved punishment when we got home. We hadn’t that day, and it seemed as if the conversation before we left was unusually long and pointless, especially since we had important information to share once we were on the road home.
Mama finally said her last two or three goodbyes and made arrangements to pick us up a little earlier the next day and carry Grandma to the A&P down the street for groceries, and we were all loaded in the car and backing out of the driveway when Glen and I started with our questions. “Mama, do you think Grandma is crazy?” Glen asked. She knew when she was being set up, and didn’t answer right away. “...and Mama she cusses!” I continued. “And she yells at trees,” Glen added. A light went on over Mama’s head. “You heard her at the hollerin’ tree, didn’t you?” she asked. We were both astounded at her perceptiveness. Again. “You know about that?” I asked. “Honey, nobody can know your Grandma for as long as I have and not have heard her at the hollerin’ tree” she replied. “Mama, where did she learn all those words?” Glen asked. “She lived in the country most of her life and plowed with mules and raised 3 boys, including your Daddy” Mama said. That pretty much answered our question about that one.
“Mama, why in the world does she do all that hollerin’ at trees and cussing and stuff?” Glen asked. “She says it relieves her stress and releases the anger that builds up inside, and after she does it for a few minutes she feels calmer and a lot less angry and frustrated. Besides that, usually nobody else is around and it certainly doesn’t hurt the tree. At least not much,” Mama said. I thought I detected a slight emphasis on “usually nobody else is around” part, but decided not to comment. I did have one last question for her, though. “Mama, does it work?”
She had to think for maybe 2 seconds before she answered. “She hasn’t killed either of you, has she?” We didn't answer. Even at 8 and 9 we knew a rhetorical question when we heard it, even if we couldn’t spell the word. Both of us were quiet the rest of the way back home, thinking and figuring and trying to decide if this was one of those things we were supposed to learn something from. I decided it was, and when we got home I went straight out in the backyard and found a sturdy oak tree and named it Glen. I’m willing to bet he named one after me when I wasn’t looking.