More Memories of Viola Matilda McGhee

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Guest post by Kerry Reitman: I just read your history of my grandmother. Thought you might be Kerry Reitmaninterested in my memories of her:

“Because we moved to Oregon when I was only two, I always thought I missed out on knowing the relatives from Kansas as well as my older brothers and sisters. But I was blessed to know my Grandma McGhee rather well for only a short time. . .better, perhaps than I realized and partially because I was anxious to drink in all I could of a “Grandma”, because she was also the only one I was to ever know personally. My mother’s mother and my father’s father were both gone before I was born.

I think my first knowledge of Grandma was probably through the beautiful “round Robin” letter that Daddy’s family circulated. Each family member placed a letter in a communal envelope as they received it from another brother or sister, or Grandma, removing their own from the last trip around. (Wish they had all saved those!) Through these letters, I came to know my aunts and uncles and also Grandma. I came to know them as people I adored. . . With commonalities that made them such a wonderful family!

Each letter always was full of humor, faith in their God, and stories of the land and growing things. Every letter from each of them told of what they were growing and how it was doing and what they had learned in growing it. From Uncle Loren who was hybridizing lilies, to Uncle Lealon who grew tomatoes on his patio in southern California, to Uncle Clarence who was building a pond and planting trees, to the garden I shared with my dad.

Everyone always had a story of growing things amongst the stories of raising the families they loved. A heritage that is probably why my life has found its way to raising wheat in Eastern Oregon with my farmer husband.

One of the earliest photos that we have of Viola Matilda McGhee

One of the earliest photos that we have of Viola Matilda McGhee

The second way that I grew to know Grandma was through my father’s love for her and my mother’s fond stories of her mother-in-law. My dad wrote to his mother regularly, spoke of her often, and missed her when she was far away. My mother told stories of Grandma McGhee living with them in early marriage and the strength and life lessons and household skills she learned from her as a very young bride. She told me of Grandma’s continued longing and loss of her husband; of the stories Grandma had told her of losing him to an oilfield accident; of the polio epidemic that struck both my father and his brother, Elmer.

The message from all of these stories was that of a strong woman of faith and character who met life with resilience and courage. Someone much admired by my own mother, who had learned and grown under the kind wisdom and tutelage of an older woman she had trusted and grown to love. My dad told the story of a mother who packed up her own belongings, rented her home and moved with him to college to clean and cook for him and several other boys. The images they placed in my head and heart made me love a lady I really had never met. . .

Until she came to live with us for six months when I was about nine or ten. We lived in Cave Junction,

Neita and Austin McGhee with daughters, Dana and Kerry at the Martin farm in Kansas in 1967.

Neita and Austin McGhee with daughters, Dana and Kerry at the Martin farm in Kansas in 1967.

Oregon at the time. I remember a sweet, tiny, little woman with a calm reassuring voice with a (new to me) mid-western accent. Her hair had thinned, so that the bun she had worn for a lifetime on the top of her head had diminished to become one tiny pin curl on the top of her head. Her face was warm and kind and so familiar as she evoked every shape and expression, so much a part of my life that I already knew in my beloved father’s face. Her hands, smaller and more slender also looked like that of her son’s and were always busy, as she had taught his to be, with creative work that provided for and made a home a healthy, good place to be.

I have images in my head of her canning tomatoes with Aunt Ethel, who also visited briefly at the time. I still don’t know really HOW you peel a tomato, as they did for canning or to slice fresh for the table!

She finished my quilt and Dana’s while she was in our home. . . She made one for every grandchild and when you have nine children the number of grandchildren is immense!! Mine was probably the last. . .as I am the youngest of the youngest son. She worked on other quilts, taught my sister, Dana, to crochet. . . My sister Cheryl to knit. She collected old fabric and made braided rugs and made other quilts while in our home. I remember her worrying that her eyes were troubling her and she wasn’t quilting fast enough. . . My dad said “Mom, what’s the hurry? You know when you finish that one, you will just start another!” She was a warm, comfortable presence in our home. She left a hole when she left.

Bertha McGhee and her mother, Viola Matilda McGhee

Bertha McGhee and her mother, Viola Matilda McGhee.

When she left, it was to go to Alaska to stay with my Aunt Bertha. We continued to have wonderful stories of what were to be the last year of her life through letters, and extended phone calls with my dad. She traveled the Inside Passage by ferry to Alaska; saw beauty that astounded her and the wonders of a spouting whale and glacial ice. My Aunt Bertha worked in The Jesse Lee Home, a Methodist orphanage. I am sure my grandma enjoyed the children there as she had embraced us. She experienced the 1964 earthquake that destroyed the orphanage in Seward and forced them to move to Fairbanks.

She fell and broke her hip in the fall sometime telling my father, who always walked with a cane from his polio: ” I did just what I’ve always told you not to. . .I stepped back without looking and tripped on one of my own braided rugs!” She never recovered completely and died near Christmas. She was sent home to Kansas for burial. . . I watched with aching heart my father’s tears when as a struggling minister’s family we had insufficient funds to go and attend her service.

My father’s office was in our home at the time. All of us knew never to bother him when he was writing his sermon. Often you knew you could peek in when you heard him whistling which meant he was done and the sermon complete to his satisfaction. He also usually wrote to his mother at this time. It is a picture I will never forget. . . The day a few months later when he stood in his office door in tears, my mother holding him, because he had started his letter; forgetting that she was no longer here.

I learned from my Grandma that the value and love of who you are is a powerful thing. It can be shared through those you have touched; and given and passed on to those who you have never or only briefly known; in ways that make them also able to share some of those values and gifts of the Holy Spirit that enriched your life. God’s ever encircling blessing.”

Kerry Rietmann

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