Saturday, March 6, 2010

Reba Helen Byers 1922-1994

Who to honor?It's like you don't want to leave anything out and it's all so important you never get around to starting because your afraid you won't do them justice.But they live for as long as we say their names so says the Mexican tradition.
My moms sister,my Aunt Helen. Reba Helen Byers, born April 22, 1922 in Arkansas, died December 24,1994 in Stockton CA. She was the oldest child of 9 who lived.And if anyone in my moms family could be said to try to forge them into a family it was her.I think she and I may have shared that hunger to find connections,to make family out of people who wanted to forget.In a family that was never really close she was the link between the siblings.She knew all the children and grandchildren names and who was expecting a new baby.She called and wrote and tried to keep everyone informed about the whereabouts and changes. The kids got out of my Grandfathers house as soon as they could.Aunt Helen got married I believe around 16 and had a baby girl,this was back in Oklahoma were the family lived.
A few years before she died I remember a conversation we had were I was asking her about the family and her early life.I remember the look of determination on her face when she told me about leaving Oklahoma and her teenage marriage."I was not going to live in a dirt floor shack eating beans for the rest of my life.I picked up my baby girl and hitchhiked to California." I can only imagine the courage it took for a poorly educated,raised in a rural area, woman of that time and place to make a decision like that and do it.This was during WW2 and she went to Oakland for awhile working in the war industry there and coffee shops .
My Aunt Helen spent her life working hard as a waitress like my Momma.She owned her own house eventually in Stockton on Ash St.,that was a point of stability in the family that came west to visit or stay. She would remodel and add onto that house herself with only a little help,this long before the days of Home Depot classes for woman home owners! It included putting in a indoor bathroom sometime in the late 60's.I remember the walk in the dark on a wooden walk way to the outhouse when I was a little girl and being afraid I was going to fall in! Few of the kids in my moms family had much education,my mother maybe a 3rd grade one,but I can recall many times Aunt Helen talking about the importance of going to school,of getting a education.Two of her 3 daughters would go to college and I remember how very proud she was of her children and grandchildren getting a education. She liked to garden and grow cactus.I still have some plants that come from starts she gave me.There was a Christmas cactus in her little green house she built out back that she had for over 20 years,it must have been 2 feet across at one point.There was a huge old fig tree in her back yard that we sat under when it was hot.The smell of a fig tree in the California valley heat is like no other,it always takes me back there.I remember playing in the yard with my cousins when I was small. Clowns,I remember Aunt Helen loved clowns and had a collection of them. When my mother had a breakdown when my brothers where still small,Aunt Helen took her sister in and cared for her until she was well enough to return to her children.My dad told me my mom had done the same for her in the past.They were close in their own way that we did not always understand I think.
Helen died on Christmas eve.My mom would not go to the funeral,which upset my cousins very much.She rarely left the house by this point unless it was essential and would not go out otherwise.I think in a way she felt if she did not go it was not real.Her sister was still over there in Stockton-alive.That's the way mom dealt with unpleasant things the last years of her own life.
I did attend her funeral mass.In a small old wooden church in a rough,working class neighborhood her children,grandchildren and friends said their goodbyes.Her faith was a important part of my aunties life and she was at peace with her god when she passed.
My Aunt Helen was cremated and my cousins took her ashes back to Oklahoma to put with her parents.
I still miss her being over there.
She was a rock in our family sea of instability.

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