At 103, she still was teaching us things

by | Jan 19, 2014 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

She was born just a few years after the Wright brothers invented the airplane. She was a baby when the Titanic sailed in 1912. She was a schoolgirl during World War I and a grown woman by the time the stock market crashed in 1929.

Her husband fought in a segregated Army during World War II; when he came back, he worked two jobs to buy her a house in Detroit.

She lived in that house for nearly 60 years.

And when she was 101 years old, she was thrown out into the street.

They say the mark of a society is how it treats its oldest citizens. If so, Texana Hollis was both a sad statement about America and an inspiring story about human decency.

Evicted from her beloved home because her son used it to take out a reverse mortgage – then failed to make payments on that plus the taxes – Hollis was out on the curb, her front door chained shut, her belongings stacked high behind her. It was evening, it was dark, and she was crying in her wheelchair. The image made news stories around the world.

This was in 2011. I wrote about it, then got involved to purchase the house back for her. It took months to work through the bank and government paperwork, to convince them this was more than a structure, this was a home and a life and a human being with no alternatives.

Eventually, my charity, S.A.Y. Detroit, was able to clear the title, refurbish the place and give it back.

Thankfully, Texana outlived the bureaucracy.

A teacher and her student

I remember that day vividly. I had the honor of pushing Texana’s wheelchair from the van to her front door. I held her hand, which was trembling. Such a small and frail thing she was, her face still smooth in many places around the leathered wrinkles, her voice shaky but strong and high-pitched. I remember thinking “this is an American century sitting in this chair.” It felt like pushing history.

“Oh, Lord, have mercy,” she sobbed again and again that day. “Oh, God is good. I thank each and every one of you. I have my house back. Lord, have mercy.”

Many Detroit volunteers helped clean her rooms, paint them, refurnish them. A few months after she was handed her keys, some of them gathered to see Texana celebrate her 102nd birthday in her own kitchen. I remember her giggling that she told someone she was 200 years old, because, “I thought when you got to 100 you just go to 200, then 300, then 400.”

She laughed, a delightful laugh. She made you feel good about helping her, this longtime religious schoolteacher, who was looked after in her final years by one of her former Sunday school students, Pollian Cheeks, herself now a senior citizen.

Cherish, don’t forget

I was lucky enough to visit Texana at different times, just to see how she was doing. Although limited to a wheelchair and her vision nearly gone – living, at that point, with Cheeks – Texana always was upbeat and grateful for the time she could spend in her home.

Just before Christmas 2012, we brought her to the Somerset Collection for a holiday shopping trip. A group of people was on hand and applauded her.

“From the bottom of my heart,” she said, that day, “I want to thank each and every one of you for coming to my rescue.”

That’s how it feels getting old in this country, doesn’t it? You need someone to come to your rescue. If not, you are left to go broke from doctor bills, or be tossed from your home, or to die alone, unattended. There are many older people in similar situations to Hollis. Sometimes confused, or lacking funds, or taken advantage of by agents, salespeople or even family members.

It’s sad. Our seniors should be our most cherished assets. Why not be more like cultures where the elders are the wisest, the most revered and the most tended to?

Instead, we worship youth. We are so impressed when people do something splashy at 20, but so disinterested in what happens when they’re 80.

Texana Hollis died on New Year’s Eve, just hours from seeing 105 calendar years. She will be buried Saturday, with a funeral at her longtime church, St. Philip’s Lutheran on East Grand Boulevard.

She was a gift to us all, and a cautionary tale about our biggest obligation to our oldest and most precious citizens – not to rescue them, but to protect them.


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