Happy Birthday, Viola Sylvesta
For today’s guest post in my Women’s History Month series, Nest-Making, I’m very happy to join Shannon in honoring her grandmother, Viola Sylvesta, whose 100th birthday is this week.
She was born in the Spring of 1912. To a family with brother and sisters and a father whose dreams kept them destitute in a way that we, two and three generations on, only read about in Steinbeck novels. She grew up with dill pickle barrels on general store porches. With horses that were tools first. With gold mines gotten to too late and dust storms that blew away suppers. She grew up in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and in places north, east and west of them.
Somehow she got herself educated. She went to university in San Francisco, a city even then to a family-loving farm girl. Somehow, in 1920’s America she became an ordained Pentecostal minister. An ordained woman minister. It boggles my mind even though it’s a fact I’ve known all my life.
She married late, for her generation, finding her life mate in another devoted minister at summer revival tent meetings. Their courtship was conducted mostly in letters – hers questioning; his cryptic. The next summer, at those same tent meetings, they eloped. And suddenly, she had a new family to consider.
My dad was her firstborn – joining the family at his grandmother’s house in Idaho. Granpa worked in the mountains then – preaching being a side calling for a man who worked magic in wood and had a family to feed. My everlasting memory of my grandfather is the faint smell of fresh sawdust. A second son followed, and then four girls, in that little town in those cold Idaho mountains.
And then came a call from God – move the family to Canada. Six kids from six months to nine years loaded into a camperized school bus and transported from Idaho’s coal country to Canada’s Cariboo country. They lived in that bus for a winter. And she cooked on a fire in the snow, and over a woodstove in the bus when possible. But they were there at God’s calling, in the place where they knew they needed to be. And it is where she lives to this day.
I don’t know a lot about the in between – between 1950 when they arrived in Quesnel, and 1968 when I was born there. My first clear memories are of Grandpa building the lake house when I was four – their retirement house that was bigger than anything they’d owned while their six children were at home. Big enough that my aunts and uncles and cousins returning from the mission fields of Africa would always have a place they could land. Big enough that we could have Christmas dinner for 20 plus and all be at one long crooked table. Big enough that it was the only house I knew that had a library room built in under the stairs. Oh how I loved the smell and quiet of that closet of books.
It’s a cliché to name your Grandmother as the woman who inspires you, but my Grandma was and is so many things, that I couldn’t think of anyone else. My Grandmother taught me to relish words – consuming and using them. She is a woman of words – like me, sometimes too many words. Hers come out straighter than mine, sometimes with unintended reverberations. I think of her well-meaning ‘I could help you with those eyebrows’ every morning when I tidy those hairy caterpillars, though at 13 I was startled by the thought. I will admit that I took it personally when she pointed out to me that I might be ‘book smart, but other people have other kinds of intelligence that are more useful.’ But it was the perfect lesson for a cocky teenager who had a very limited ability to see the struggles of people around her, even in her own family.
Grandma put her constantly growing family second only to her faith – she happily put aside her education and career to be a wife and mother. She never learned to drive a car; never had her name on the bank account until Grandpa died. They had the kind of traditional marriage that makes us squirm as women today, and when he died some part of her never really lit up again. She’s been a widow for 24 years and she still misses him.
And yet, she is the woman who taught me to stand strong, to create, to be myself, and to never let my strengths be more important than someone else’s weakness. A month after I left my husband, while my sons played in the sunshine in the park, she said “You’ve picked a hard row to hoe, my girl. But I know you can do it.” Then she patted my arm and we went to find ice cream.
I remember it often. I started graduate school a month later, and her words became my mantra. I moved cities three years later, and they echoed off the streets of this unknown town. I entered and exited relationships – some person-building, some shockingly devastating – and always those words reverberated her faith in me. My sons have stumbled and struggled and she’s always been there, with her love and faith in me.
We celebrate her centennial birthday next week. The entire family – or at least an amazing percentage of it – making the pilgrimage to Quesnel to honour our matriarch: her surviving five children and six children-in-law; sixteen grandchildren and their partners; nineteen great-grandchildren, and a sweet weeks old great-great grandson that so many of us have yet to meet. We are only a smidgen of her legacy of faith and love.
The last seven years have been hard on her health: a stroke at 93, breast cancer at 97, burying her golden haired youngest daughter, and the unrelenting march of time have all left her memory wobbly. With all those people and the hullabaloo of a party, she’s unlikely to remember me clearly. She certainly won’t understand who my partner is, and why it’s such a miracle for me to be there with him, happy, and safe, and loved at last. But I go not for recognition, but to recognize.
My grandmother is my inspiration. She is my living, learning, growing model of what a powerful woman is and does. She did not conform; she chose. From the dust bowl of Oklahoma to a senior’s residence in Canada, she has lived her life full of colour and love, with an unprecedented integrity. And I am reminded, once again, of the great gift of my Grandma’s faith in me. And her faith in her God.
Shannon is a mom, a lover, a writer, a bleeding-heart, an adventurer, and committed to her own and others’ growth. Constantly over-coming her small-town childhood, she uses her wits and words to create the world she always wished when she was sitting by a river in the nook of a cottonwood tree.