Remembering Mom

Jay Oyster's picture

My mother died last Wednesday, November 9th, 2011. She was 80 years old and the matriarch of our family, in the classic sense. These are the comments I made at her funeral on Saturday.

Those of you who know me know that I do not like to take the stage, to be the center of any focus, but there was such an upswelling of need in me to express myself about my Mom, that I had to say something today.

It wasn't often obvious, but my mother was an extraordinary woman. She was a woman of strength and determination; a woman ahead of her time. Many of you know her life story, but I 'd like to mention a couple of points about that life and suggest, perhaps just how extraordinary she was. Genevieve Ismejn Oyster, who was born Ismejn Genoveva Varkonda, was only seven when her father took her and her family away from their comfortable home in what was then Czechoslovakia, to sail on a steamer across the wide Atlantic to a strange land. When she got here, her family found hard work and little compassion from her wayward grandfather, who sponsored them and used them as laborers on his farm.

But Mom grew up learning to do what was necessary. As a child, among other tasks, she took care of the chickens.  . . to this day, mention a chicken and she would near-on curse under her breathe about the little pecking monsters. How she hated chickens. She wouldn't let Dad have any on our farm because she refused to have them anywhere around. But back on her grandfather's farm, and then later on her Father's farm north of Alliance, she and her brothers and sisters, Anna, George Jr., Elizabeth, and John, took care of things, worked hard, and did what was necessary. When her parents retired from the farm, she went with them, lived with them as a grown child, and took care of them for several years, especially helping them deal with the English-speaking world that they never quite understood.

She always loved to organize things, particularly columns of numbers. As a young woman, still unencumbered by children and household responsibilities, she worked in a bank. And although she never said it explicitly, I think that that was where she truly found herself. She found lifelong friends there, but she also gained a profession in those banks. She loved adding up numbers, you see, and making it all balance out. To almost her very last days, she served as bookkeeper for several organizations, including the Grange and her homeowners' association. But more than even these things, I'm sure she loved serving bank customers. I think she truly liked being a bank teller, helping people with their money, taking deposits, cashing checks . . . In a different time, say 20 years later, she would have gone on to be a bank manager, or perhaps even higher. Given the state of banking these days, I'm fairly certain that banks would have been much better off if they had more people like my mother running things.

When she  married James Oyster in 1965, took on the care of a husband, an adopted daughter, a whole dairy farm, and eventually two more children, she still did whatever she could to help out her own parents for as long as they lived. I still remember going with Mom to Baba and Jeje's house in Salem on Sundays, to see Baba making noodles, and Jeje working in his little garage shop, or picking plums from the trees in the back yard.

As for being a mother and a farm wife, Mom was good at it. She and Dad just made things work. We kids have always said that those two were wonderful partners. Partners in a way that you didn't see much in those days, or frankly even today. Usually, one spouse, often the husband, is the dominant one, and the wife is expected to do what he says. But Mom and Dad, they seemed ahead of their time, a bit. Dad was not threatened by a capable and strong woman, and Mom was willing to do all of the jobs necessary to run a farm, including the bookkeeping, keeping the house, gardening, milking cows on occasion, and of course, raising us kids. But in the big decisions of running the business, they talked things over. They decided what to do and did it together.  Only much later did I come to realize how rare it is to see a couple who could so ably balance the requirements of a family and a business the way that they did.

The things that made Mom such a great woman were ones that are not, in themselves, terribly flashy. But when combined together into the indomitable personality that was my mother, they became a steady force of nature, like the prevailing West winds, or the changing of the seasons. She was the rock on which many lives were anchored. I know personally that during the turbulent days of my own youth, I never truly feared losing my way, because you see, there was a solid piece of bedrock to which my life was forever anchored. I know that Holly has had similar trials and tribulations that Mom gently guided her through. And when Patti suffered her car accident and faced life threatening injuries and months and years of rehabilitation, Mom's strength was the major force in getting Patti back on her feet. Patti was brave and strong through that time, but she will tell you that she was brave and strong mostly because Mom and Dad provided the example . . . .never give up, don't dwell on the negative, and keep your head high.

The admirable traits of my mother aren't the flashy ones most people mention in memorials, but I think they are the most valuable. They are the ones that hold society together. She was solid and dependable, when she said she'd take care of something, it got taken care of. She was Just. She had the judgement and fair-mindedness of a Judge. She was Positive. She always looked to the better . . .to the better angels of our natures, to the better future ahead. She would never dwell on the negative . . .something that I very much depended on throughout my life since my instinct always seemed to be the opposite.  

Mom was fearlessly independent. Back in her banking days, she and two girlfriends had taken a vacation . . . to Hawaii. In 1959, young women didn't do that, not on their own. Certainly not a trip to Hawaii, which was practically on the other side of the planet in those days. Then, much later, when Dad died, Mom lived on at the farm house for 15 more years, taking care of things as needed. But the cares of the farm weren't really what she wanted to deal with in retirement. So at the age of 74, she bought a new condo in Sebring and moved herself over there. And boy did she like getting rid of the worries of the farm, all of the accumulated stuff stored at the farm house, and more than anything, the drag on her independence that all that land symbolized.

In the last few years, in her little house in Sebring, Mom has continued to be all of those things, but the biggest trait of her personality was slowly moving to the fore, out of necessity. Mom was Strong. Mom's strength was that of an oak tree in a gale force wind. The wind first started out as a relatively light blow, back in 1993, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. But her roots were strong then, and she had all of that lifetime's accumulation of inward strength and determination to call on. She beat that breast cancer to a pulp.

But time wears on, and all things have their day. The big old tree in front of the farmhouse, Holly and her family live there now, finally succumbed to old age and disease last year. I've taken it as a bad omen ever since it happened. That tree was so linked to the farm and our family that I couldn't shake the feeling after it came down. When the cancer came back, in another form, Mom fought . . . long and hard. In fact, she fought so hard that she fooled all of us into thinking the tree might weather yet one more storm. But this storm was a full on gale, the winds of November come early. Her strength, right to the very end, allowed her to always keep her dignity, the bones of a giant oak unyielding.

Maybe that's the best trait I learned and admire about my Mom . . .dignity in hard times. Or as Earnest Hemingway would call it, 'Grace under pressure.' Genevieve was the soul of grace under pressure. And when the roots gave way early Wednesday morning, the grief we felt was overpowering, but we were thankful for the Grace. We knew then, and know forevermore, that Mom ended in Grace. She was herself, her own, Solid, Just, Positive, Independent, Dignified self, right through that final storm. And now, after years of fighting the winds, she finally rests in peace . . .in the quiet grace she knew so well.

Gevenieve I. Oyster (née Varkonda) - January 3, 1931 (Velke Kapusany, CZ) to November 9, 2011 (Cleveland, Ohio)