by Jo-Ellen Fisher
Oldtown Tale for Ash Wed.
Solomon Hollowell was an enigma, a paradox. He was a man who had everything and yet, had nothing. Solomon, “Sol” for short, had been born 53 years ago and raised in Oldtown. He came from a family where there was a shortage of love but an abundance of money. Even in his earlier years, Sol had figured out that he was unwanted and pretty much unloved and had learned to compensate and fill the holes in his soul with material goods. Most of the folks of Oldtown saw the Hollowells as people of substance who were “well off” with a young son who would go to the best college and always be well provided for. Most Oldtowners did not see the sadness of the little boy.
Despite a clearly cold and calculated childhood, Sol actually had two areas of somewhat pleasant memories. One area involved First Congregational Church, affectionately known simply as “Oldtown”. When he was six years old, Sol had been dropped off at Oldtown one Sunday morning by the family’s driver who was under orders to “get the boy ro a church because that’s what upstanding citizens do.” "The boy" Sol, attended Sunday School and worship off and on for the next 7 years, never with any other family members accompanying him. Sol attended Oldtown until he was 131/2 years old when his father suddenly decided that that was “enough of all that nonsense!”
Sol missed the warn people of Oldtown and the other children who were closer to being friends than anyone else in his life. Sol missed something else about church that he could not quite put his finger on, but these feelings gradually faded as Sol’s business and “proper” social training took precedence over all else. That boy would be a real showpiece for the Hollowells, living proof of what a “proper” upbringing could produce.
Besides church, the other area of pleasant childhood memories for Solomon Hollowell involved his beloved cat, Spotty. Spotty had come from a litter of gorgeously marked black and white kittens born to the Mama cat of someone in the Oldtown congregation. These kittens, brought to church and given away one Sunday after worship, had the most unusual markings including one with a wide black mark under his nose who was promptly named Groucho, another with a black heart shape on her white chest who was named Valentine (Val for short) and finally Sol’s beloved Spotty who had a black X right between his eyes.
When Sol had first seen this 8-week ball of black and white fur, he gazed at the mark between the kitten’s eyes and thought, “X marks the spot” - hence, the name, “Spotty”. There was no problem bringing Spotty home because Sol, even at 6 years old, could have just about anything he demanded, as long as it didn’t involve parental love or attention. Sol had loved Spotty, the way the cat nuzzled him awake on his jaw and neck when Sol was trying to sleep, the way Spotty’s purring became louder and louder when Spotty was trying to make a point and the way Spotty used his paw to pat Sol's cheek. Sol loved Spotty and Spotty loved Sol, fully and unconditionally. Spotty had died during Sol’s second year away at college. Sol had received a telegram informing him of Spotty’s death.
Except for the brief respites provided by Oldtown Church and Spotty the cat, Solomon Hollowell was raised primarily in a cold, calculating, callused atmosphere of money, materialism and manipulation. He was taught early on that love is weak and wealth is strong, that separation from people lends a good perspective, that accumulation of money and power is what really counts in this world, that “forgive and forget” are what weak people do and that any hurt, injustice, prejudice or cruelty is justifiable as long as it gets you what you want. Sol had learned all these lessons and more, very well by the time he graduated from college and had been established in a “business” of his own.
When Sol was 22, he met a beautiful, bored and unhappy young woman named Sherri. They did not love each other but married because it was convenient, they were monetarily compatible and Sol needed someone to coordinate his business' social events. Within two years, Sherri and Sol had their only child, a daughter named Hope, a sweet little girl who in her adult years would choose to reject her mother and father’s way of life and values and actually prevent her children from having any contact with their grandfather.
Sol was an absentee husband and father. Oh, he provided for his family very well, giving them all the money and things they could ever need or want, but he offered very little love, affection or emotional support. Sol’s divorce from Sherri 10 years after their marriage, when Sol was 33 was a formalizing of something that had always been true- Sol was separate and disconnected from all other people, and he liked his aloneness, his alienation.
Sol’s sense of separation was actually an asset in his line of work. For 30 years now, Sol had been in the business of buying prime land by whatsoever means necessary for the lowest price possible. He victimized people when they were weak and most vulnerable, by preying on the elderly, those in poor physical or mental health, those in desperate financial situations or those who had recently lost a family member to death, and were confused about family land holdings and values. If Sol had felt any human connection, he might have felt some guilt, some remorse about his actions, and that might interfere in his business, his accumulation of worldly goods. No, separation was good; it allowed Sol to cheat, exploit, lie and pollute and not care one iota about the suffering of others. Who cares about those “old fools” anyway, Sol would mumble to himself at least a dozen times a day. In fact, Sol actually reveled in the fact that he had the distinction of being the most disliked individual in all of Oldtown. He knew that all the while he had been acquiring land, wealth, and power, he was also acquiring disrespect, anger and hatred.
Solomon Hollowell’s faith in his material acquisitions and unquestionable power began to tremble just a bit when Sol turned 53. Shadows of “what-ifs” began to shade the glitter of opulence, and seeds of doubt seemed to take root in his previous weed-free garden of sureness and self-satisfaction. Maybe it was aging, or alcohol or loneliness, but a sense of dis-ease began to eat away at the certainty and security that had been personal trademarks of Sol’s adult life.
One night, in February, while traveling from his office building in Providence to his condo his Boston, Sol suddenly decided to spend the night at his colonial in his upscale development in the Oldtown area. Whipping off route 95 he soon found himself traveling the familiar Oldtown road in his Jaguar, driving way too fast. Just before midnight on Valentine’s day, Solomon Hollowell hit a huge patch of black ice and Sol’s little world turned upside down, literally. The jag landed on its roof down a steep incline in a field, out of view from anyone driving by. Sol, himself, not having been wearing a seatbelt, had been thrown partially from the vehicle with his legs trapped under the car’s wreckage and his body lying twisted on the grass. It was very cold in that icy, snowy field, the air temperature a chilling 19 degrees with a light wind.
About 15 minutes after the accident, Solomon Hollowell began to regain consciousness. What woke him was an insistent nuzzling on his neck, a purring that became louder and louder as if some feline had a very important point to make, and a gentle paw tapping on his cheek. Sol opened his frosted eyes and looked right into the worried face of a sweet little white cat with a black cross on her forehead, and then the beautiful creature disappeared into the dark. Sol’s glimpse of the cat shook him deeply, and he wondered if this was a sign that he was going to die. He tried to sit up a little, and just before he passed out from the excruciating pain in his legs, he thought, “It would serve me right if I died like this: cold and alone.”
Meanwhile, Chrissy the cat had made her way home to the farmhouse at the top of the small field where lived Steward Gray, an elderly widower who was sound asleep dreaming of his younger days with his wife and his children. Stew woke quickly from his sleep when he heard kitty claws on his bedroom window screen. Stew was not al all angry or disturbed but only relieved that little Chrissy had finally made her way home. This was a nightly ritual. Opening the window and the screen, Stew let Chrissy in and then closed everything up tightly. “Cold night, little girl. ‘Bout time you got home!”
As he spoke to her, Stew saw that Chrissy was not about to come to bed but was purring loudly and standing in the doorway. “Oh, you can’t be hungry at this time of night.” Stew mockingly scolded but oblingingly slipped on his shoes and robe and followed Chrissy to the kitchen. Much to his surprise, Chrissy did not go to the refrigerator, but to the back door. Puzzled, Stew walked to the back door and looked out into the beautiful, cold, dark night. It was then that Stew saw something unusual down in the field but wasn’t sure what it was. He threw on his coat, grabbed the cell phone and flashlight and headed down through the little field with Chrissy following him.
When he reached the wreck, he recognized the Jag and the victim and stood there unmoved and unmoving. Now, Steward Gray was the one person in Oldtown who had good reason to hate Solomon Hollowell the most. Sol had appeared one day 10 years before and through a whole series of what Stew later found out were twistings of truth and some outright lies, convinced Stew to sell off his 70 acres of farm land near Route 1 for a pittance,,. Sol’s argument was that if Stew did this then Stew would have something to leave to his children. Sol told Stew that the land was virtually worthless. The truth was that Sol had received inside information that the land was part of what would be bought up by some New York investors for a mega-mall. Sol made millions and millions on the deal. When Stew discovered the truth and tried to talk with Sol, Hollowell laughed in his face and called Stew and “old fool”.
Steward Gray stood in the little field that was the last of his land in the bitter cold looking at the wrecked gold Jaguar and the twisted body of the man who had cheated and disgraced him. Stew stood there for five full minutes before he dialed 911 to get help for Solomon Hollowell.
Solomon Hollowell spent the next 3 weeks in the hospital, the first few days in a drug-induced coma to help the healing process, the next few days in a haze of pain and pain-relievers and the next 2 ½ weeks witnessing miracles and healing. His first visitor had been Pastor Grace from the Oldtown Church who had heard lots of stories about Solomon Hollowell but had never met him until the hospital visit. He did not strike her as the monster she had expected but as a broken man who needed help. After she revealed her findings to Sol’s daughter, Hope, a faithful member of the church, and to the rest of the congregation, get-well cards started arriving at the hospital , some from people he had hurt and cheated and insulted over the years. The one that made him cry the most was the card from Hope, the daughter he hadn’t seen in 14 years, with a picture of his 3 grandchildren whom he had never met.
The visit that stunned him was the one from Steward Gray, the man whose life he had almost destroyed and who had ended up saving his life. After some awkward talk, attempts at apologizing and crying on both men’s parts, Sol haltingly told Stew about the vision of the cat that had come to him the night of the accident. “That wasn’t a vision, Sol. That was my little cat, Chrissy. She has a black cross right in the middle of her forehead. Don’t you remember years ago at Oldtown, I had given you one of her ancestors?” Sol had forgotten that Steward Gray was the parishioner who had given him his beloved Spotty when Sol was a little boy, and he began to weep. Later, when an elderly woman from the church brought him the altar flowers as a gift, Sol just hung his head in shame and pretended he was sleeping.
By the time Pastor Grace paid her second visit, Solomon Hallowell was overwhelmed by a confusion of grief and relief, depression and fear. Pastor Grace talked with him a while, prayed and then invited Sol to the Ash Wednesday service at Oldtown. “You’ll be out of the hospital by then, Sol. Please feel free to attend worship. It’s a quiet service of repentance and introspection. You may find it very meaningful.”
One week later, on Ash Wednesday evening, Solomon Hollowell found himself standing, with the help of crutches, outside the closed back door to the Oldtown Sanctuary. It was 7:02 and the service had just stated. He could hear the organ playing softly. What would happen if Sol entered the sanctuary? No, what would happen when Sol entered the sanctuary? He had separated himself from people and from God for so many years. Could God fix him, save him? Would God help him? Why would God want to do that? And what would God’s people do? Inside that sanctuary were people he had hurt, including his own daughter. Could they, would they forgive him?
Solomon Hollowell grabbed the Ash Wednesday bulletin from the tall wooden desk. When he opened the bulletin, he glanced at the service and saw a piece of music to be sung at the end. It was called “Jesus, Remember Me.”
Would Jesus remember him, remember Solomon Hollowell? Would Jesus recognize this broken, weeping, old sinner as the lonely little boy who had years ago played with the swinging pew doors, marveled at the dancing rainbows and listened to the stories of God’s love? Solomon Hollowell pulled the back door open and limped into the sanctuary.