During a career in journalism spanning almost 30 years now, I’ve interviewed all types of people…politicians, criminals, educators, researchers, business people and, of course, farmers. And whenever people ask me about my favorite interview subjects, the answer is always easy — farmers. Farmers are the most honest, unpretentious, hard-working people you’re likely to find in a world far too crowded by others, with less appealing attributes.
This thought came to mind recently during the death and funeral of my father, Joel A. Hollis, Jr. My father wasn’t a farmer. He spent most of his life — nearly 50 years of it — toiling in an east Alabama textile mill. But he probably would have made a fine farmer, because he had the temperament and the character for it.
What I remember most about my father is his unwavering work ethic, and I don’t believe that’s a bad thing, especially today, when it’s largely a lost virtue. During my entire childhood and teenage years, he worked the third shift, leaving the house at 11:30 p.m. sharp, after the late news, and walking the two blocks to the mill, lunch sack in hand. He’d return the next morning, shreds of lint in his hair, at about the time me and my two brothers were leaving for school, and he’d sleep until supper time.
The roles of father and mother were very distinct in that particular time and place. My mother, who passed away seven years ago, was nurturing, ever-present, and forever encouraging us to better ourselves. My father was the example — work hard each day, pay your bills first, never complain about doing either, and take care of your family.
He was also a man of great faith. I purposefully don’t say he was a religious man because, to me, such a characterization can be wrought with bad connotations. He loved his church, which he attended faithfully for as long as he was able. He loved to sing the songs in the brown Cokesbury hymnal though, like me, he was quite tone deaf.
But he was never one to beat you over the head with his faith, or to wear it on his sleeve. While it was good for him, he understood that it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. He believed the church was truest when it followed the teachings of Christ, and lifted up those who are less fortunate, and he thought that interjecting religion into worldly things such as politics only cheapened it, and made it less significant.
There were many times when, after paying the bills and buying groceries, there simply wasn’t enough money left over for tithing to the church, but my father believed we were obligated to give back in some form or fashion. So, on Saturday mornings during the spring and summer, he would put a rake and his rusty Western Auto lawn mower into the trunk of the car, and the five of us would spend the day at church, cutting the grass, mulching the flower beds with pine straw from the nearby trees, and sweeping the porches and walkways.
Then, during the fall and winter, we’d clean the inside of the church, sweeping and vacuuming, gathering bulletins from the previous Sunday, and dusting and polishing the pews. It always brought me great pride, even as a child, whenever someone would comment on the immaculate appearance of the church, or whenever an unsuspecting parishioner would slide rapidly down the length of a pew because I had been over-exuberant in applying the Lemon Pledge.
Looking back over my childhood, I suppose we were poor, but we never really knew it, a testament to both my father and my mother. We lived in a four-room shack in a cotton mill village, but so did most everyone else in our neighborhood. There was always plenty of food on the table and there were clean clothes on our backs. There was always a tree at Christmas with presents underneath it. And there were always books, magazines and newspapers scattered about the house, with both of my parents believing that the only way to truly improve one’s lot in life was through education and knowledge.
My father lived to be 84 years of age, time enough to take great pride in the successes and achievements of his sons, and time enough to experience the sheer joy of grandchildren. I’m not sure why he was made to suffer during his final days, as my faith is not nearly as strong as his. But I am sure that he knew the reason why, because he bore the pain with the same grace, humility, and dignity that he lived his life