Family Matters

Over the Fence to Hollie and May’s

A precious childhood role model of a loving and stable relationship

Bill Dewitt
Magazine Issue
May/June 2006
Over the Fence to Hollie and May’s

My friend Michael has spent decades as a mentor for young adults from a spectrum of cultural backgrounds, almost all of them badly bruised refugees–as I once was–from their early circumstances. He and I share a lot: his parents, like mine, were hard-bitten, impoverished children of the Depression, and, like me, he rose above his “place” through an academic scholarship. These days, we both love good beer, stimulating conversation, our marriages, our children, and digging drainage ditches together, which, at our age, we probably have no business doing.

So it was a real surprise when I mentioned wanting to see Brokeback Mountain not long ago, that Michael responded emphatically, shaking his head no, muttering in a dismissive tone, “Not me!”

That took me back, way back.

It’s a shame Michael never got a chance to sit in my Aunt Hollie’s kitchen back in the day and eat a bowl of her homemade chicken and dumplings. Or to go out to the backyard afterward to play catch with the woman I knew all my life as Aunt May.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Michael would have connected to these women–whose shared household, back in St. Louis in the 1940s and 1950s, was never remarked on by anyone I knew. I think he would have appreciated their lifelong dedication to the Methodist Church and their commitment to manifest the best principles of Christianity in their day-to-day lives.

I wish I could explain to him the joy I felt when, after their long day’s work, they would show up at Kingdom House (the charity preschool my sister and I went to while our single-parent mother put in her 10 hours, working at a beauty shop) to take us home to their two-room apartment. Or the naps I took at their place in the safest place I knew–their wonderful double bed, adorned with Hollie’s hand-stitched quilt, always smelling faintly like Yardley.

I wish I could get him to understand what it was like for our mother to walk over to Hollie and May’s to find her children fed and story-timed and in their jams, and dinner waiting for her, so she could push away, however briefly, that panicked fluttering that filled her chest, knowing that the cupboard back in her cold, one-room flat was bare but for one can of soup.

I wish I could tell him what it was like for us kids to go every Sunday to Mellow Memorial Methodist Church with them, where Aunt Hollie (our mother’s oldest sister) would play piano for Sunday School and Aunt May was the only woman on the church board of directors, and we’d be cooed over as their wonderful, well-mannered niece and nephew.

I wish I could tell him how, when we moved into a small little house with our new stepfather and two new half-sisters who filled it to the brim, what it was like when Hollie and May bought the house right behind us, just on the other side of a fence that a strapping, 10-year-old boy could hurdle at full speed, propelling himself over with only one hand.

On the other side of that fence, I’d get to help Aunt May dig the holes for Hollie’s rosebushes, while we secretly swore together that we’d always make sure there was enough room to play catch and that we’d get to talk about why Stan “the Man” Musial was the best left-handed first baseman ever to play baseball.

As things turned worse for me at home–as the sarcasm and ridicule began to escalate, as all the different flavors of physical violence began to blossom (switches, spankings, slaps, trips to the basement to get a butt whipping)–I couldn’t help but wet the bed most every night, except when I got to sleep over at Hollie and May’s.

When I leapt that fence, I landed in a different world. Here Aunt May would very gently let me know I wasn’t crazy for reflexively rooting for the Indians at the movies or for loving to sing and dance (the legacy from my Irish-Indian father who’d abandoned us when I was 2–the love of my mother’s life, whom I’d begun to resemble in most every way).

As I became a teenager with my mother’s rancor spilling over me with an acidic bitterness that was both numbing and enraging, it was Aunt May who’d remind me of those sacred words “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

It was Hollie and May who celebrated with me the scholarship that made it possible for me to go to college instead of the steel mill down the street. It was Hollie and May who mentored me, the way my friend Michael now mentors other children.

And when I came back from Viet Nam with blood on my hands and scars on my soul, it was Hollie and May who didn’t hesitate to embrace me and pray for me to a god in whom I had lost all faith.

Hollie and May and I never spoke openly about the nature of their relationship, even though it was the most stable and loving partnership I knew. That was the way it was back then, before the phrase “gay marriage” entered our culture. But during that visit, I noticed that their wonderful double bed–the bed I’d napped in hundreds of times over the past 25 years–wasn’t being slept in any more. Two single beds now occupied Hollie’s sewing room. I noticed, but there was nothing to say. It was during that trip back to St. Louis that my Uncle Hank told me (over a couple of beers) about my Aunt May’s week-long marriage, 30 years before, to a violent, mean-spirited man who’d sworn to his dying day he would take his revenge on Hollie.

Ten years later, after I’d married and become a therapist and moved to the Northwest, I took my new baby girl back to see them as Hollie was dying of Parkinson’s. Aunt May confided in me her fear that as Hollie became more disabled, she wouldn’t be able to care for her at home, and after 45 years together, her own medical insurance wouldn’t protect her. (As it turned out, Hollie passed away before her Medicare benefits were exhausted.)

The last time I talked to my Aunt May was on the phone five years ago, shortly before her death. I asked her if she still missed Hollie. She was silent for a long time.

Then she said, “Every day.” She was silent again.

Then she came closer than she ever had to acknowledging, in words, their shared lifetime. “You know, Bill, the most beautiful sight I ever saw in my life,” she said, “was the first time I ever saw your Aunt Hollie.”

After 25 years as a marriage and family therapist working with community-based adolescent drug treatment programs and an HIV/AID early intervention clinic, among other positions, Bill DeWitt is a stay-at-home dad in Astoria, Oregon. He writes, plays guitar, and digs drainage ditches. Contact: Letters to the Editor about this department may be e-mailed to