June 27, 2021
In the almost four decades that I have been in and around mi companera’s family, there seemed to always be this well-loved, but mysterious woman showing up from time to time in a yellow S-10 pickup at reunions and family dinners. She might have been five-feet tall, but I wouldn’t swear to it, and if she ever hit one-hundred pounds, she must have been carrying something. I don’t think I ever saw her not wearing a pair of jeans and sneakers. She was wiry with a smile as wide-open as the West. After 98 years, friends and family gathered around for her wake almost six months after her passing in California in – very appropriately – Duggan’s Pub only blocks from the Arkansas River.
It took a while for me to piece it all together, but I learned early that she was one of mi companera’s mother’s best friends. I had been around early enough that I knew Marianna as well, at least well enough to pass the test with her and Grover, but Ellen was a constant presence in the 46 years since she had passed. I probably met her at Marianna’s funeral. I’m not sure, but I have a hundred other memories of Ellen. She was one of those special, unique, one-of-a-kind people that you didn’t pass up an opportunity to catch on the side and hear her latest adventure or one of her old stories, no matter how many times you might have hear it before.
Listening to her daughter, Sue, and various bunches of somehow-cousins, friends from Girl Scouts, once upon a time neighbors, and others, Ellen stories didn’t stop for hours then or for days whenever people ran into someone who knew her. Everyone claimed she was a regular at Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. I don’t know how she did it, because she had made several of ours in New Orleans over the years as well. There were stories of her days as a rodeo trick rider and performer after she left genteel, white-gloved Little Rock for New York City, initially as a secretary until she found her true path. She and her running buddy, Jug, a former child movie star, and later Hollywood animal trainer, worked everywhere from time to time. She liked Tom Hanks, even though he wasn’t much of a rider, and Patrick Swayze, as well, who was, partly because they listened to what she told them to do. She worked on “Dancing with the Wolves,” “Forrest Gump”, and who knows where else, training and working with horses, mules, elephants, and giraffes. She said zebras were the worst. One of her last big jobs had her in New Zealand for six months with “Lord of the Rings.”
For years she and I mainly talked about Phillips and then Westinghouse where she made a career in their factory making light bulbs on Asher Avenue until they shut it down. She knew I had built a union, so we talked about her union, including the fight she had to get a higher paid position driving a lift-truck, when they didn’t think a slip of a woman could do that job. When they struck, she went on the line. The Butlers all remember when she would pull shifts then at the liquor store or nightclub, they parents owned during some of those times. When she stayed with us, I made her coffee early and stood with her on the porch or patio when she regularly snuck out for a cigarette.
The stories were well-worn and wonderful. Her preference for busses over planes or trains. Endless road trips, where she wouldn’t stop and had a one-meal-in-one-state policy. The time she tried to drive the walking-only Freedom Trail in Boston and do it backwards. The sacrifices she made as a single-mother for her daughter. Her endless project to build a house next to her trailer out in the country. The silver nuggets she would give as birthday presents. The way she was a mentor to young women and encouraged them to find their own special path, just as she had done.
All of these people somehow thought perhaps they had adopted Ellen, but the more they talked, whether at the bar or graveside, the clearer it became, in the observation of mi companera, that she had adopted them, rather than the other way around. Ellen Holloway was truly a woman that won’t just be missed, but has a special place in the lives of so many that, like me, were lucky enough to know her for a little or a long time, that she will always have a place in their hearts and, equally wonderful, in their dreams and imagination.