Sbohem bohem! We’ll miss you, Gramma…


At the request of many of you in attendance on Tuesday at St. Mary’s in Hallettsville, my eulogy for Gramma:

Father John had already begun the faith and family parts when I got in touch with him. He asked that I provide some color, so that’s what I shot for. Oddly, he told me before the service the salesman part was a bit long, but he loved the rest. He wound up sharing the salesman part and not much else. So here’s what I came up with, color and all, in my uncut, original version:

Sweet. Salt of the earth. Pretty. Unique. Generous. Hardworking. Protective. Kind. Caring. Dependable. Beautiful. Special. Loving. Proud…

Those are just some of the words that a few of YOU used to describe Viola, my gramma, as I shared the news of her passing last weekend on Facebook.

I never thought I’d ever use those two words used in the same sentence—Grandma and Facebook, that is—unless the words “said she never heard of” came in between them. Technology was never one of her strong suits. I was all sorts of impressed, a few years back, to find the rotary dial phone no longer hanging on the wall. Of course, there’s no telling how many calls I probably missed waiting on the old party-line double-ring we always had.

Truth is, she was all those words and many more.

I had the pleasure of witnessing her demonstrate many of those words with my own eyes, many times over through the years. Long before Nike, she’d been a “just do it” kind of person for decades already. She was someone who acted and saw those actions through, for better or worse, simply because it needed to be done. Standing about mulling something over or discussing it never was her forte.

As you might imagine, such decisiveness wasn’t always to everyone’s liking. And for all the nice words folks have used about her over the last few days, I came to know a few that weren’t always so nice, spending as much time around them as I did growing up. Put the two of us at odds more than once.

Of course, I could be every bit as ornery, bullheaded and stubborn myself. Probably why we held such a deep respect for one another.

And while she could be sweetest person on the planet, she could also be the flat scariest, too. I remember when I was a boy, this oil slicked salesman showing up in the yard while we were working in the garden. Gramma just leaned on the hoe she was using, sizing the ol’ boy up as he pulled up in the yard. I was working few rows over, so I basically had the best seat in the house for what was about to happen. He steps out looking like a televangelist or late-night talk show host, wearing cuts and colors of a suit you didn’t typically see, especially out picking green beans on the farm.

Mind you, it’s hot and muddy out, so we’re dressed in probably the worst clothes we owned—pant legs hacked at the knees, all the colors pastel memories of themselves from years of too many washings. Gramma had a scarf on her head, a headful of curlers beneath it, as she was prone to do on weekends so her hair would set nice when we all went to church later.

Most of my clothes were a size too small—last year’s school clothes that I shredded beyond hope (I was hell on clothes as a kid)—but just fine for the farm. Besides, nobody can see what I’m wearing. Knowing me, I was half coated in mud myself, and trying to figure a way to get the other half coated before I was done without being too obvious about it.

Whether he knew or not, our salesman made his first mistake flicking his cigarette out into the dry corn stalks that had gone brown weeks ago. We would cut the tops off for the cattle in  a week or two, then pick it, when we got all the equipment ready. If, that is, it didn’t burn down first.

I watched as Gramma followed his still-smoking butt with her eyes to see where it landed. She didn’t say anything, but those creases popping out on forehead said everything I needed to hear.

Still, she held her tongue and continued leaning on that hoe. She even raised a hand in a lazy salute to shade the sun from her eyes. Guess she wanted a better view of that plastic grin wore, or maybe, she too had never seen an awful purple suit like the one he had on.

His truly fatal flaw, though, was trying to schmooze up to her. I thought what he said was kinda funny, but it had a far opposite effect on Gramma. He took a few steps toward us, nodded at me, and dabbing his head with a handkerchief, says to me, “It shore is hot out today, ain’t it?”

I nod back but say nothing. Gramma is watching and not happy.

Then he turns to her, and using the same grown man talking to a little kid voice he’d used on me, he speaks to Gramma: “Excuse me little girl, is your mommy or daddy home?”

I giggled. I wasn’t but seven or so. I thought maybe he didn’t see all that good.

But Gramma was wise to it. Like many young women back then, Gramma’s first job was waitressing at Frank’s Restaurant in Schulenberg. I’ve seen pictures of her from around then, too. I’m betting she probably heard every tired one-liner out there at least one time or another.

Before he could try out another, Gramma came up off that hoe and hissed at him. “Did we invite you here?” she said, advancing fast, how in hand.

It was either that odd little cock to his head or that strange look of befuddlement that suddenly washed over him—I can’t remember which—but something clued me in that he’d never seen such a response before. Not even close, in fact.
It wasn’t one I expected either, to be quite honest. Of course, I was only seven. There were lots of things I hadn’t seen yet.

Gramma repeated her words, louder, quickly closing the gap between them. And judging from how she held that hoe—down low and two-handed, like a spear or a rifle, its well-worn blade forward—she wasn’t coming to shake hands.

That thought finally seemed to dawn on Mr. Suit, too. Right up until then, he’d acted like he still might smooth-talk his way through this and perhaps even sell whatever it was he was hawking.

He was just that good, you know. Had that swagger to him.

Didn’t take long for him to go looking a bit confused to flat scared, though. You see that light flicker on right about the time he started sprinting back to his car, his neck nearly spun all the way round and his body ran the other way. Had his car in reverse before he even closed his door good.

Gramma jabbed that hoe a couple times at the departing car, growled you get on out of he-ah, the same way I’d seen her do it dozens of times before on those wild barn cats that were forever trying to sneak inside whenever the door came open on the house.

Her last words were probably lost on their intended, however. He didn’t stop backing up until he hit highway, which was no easy feat. Gramma lived a fairly good ways off the road, you may recall. Then she mumbled something in Czech as she returned to work. “We got work to do,” I heard her say, as if offering an explanation for what took place. And on the off chance she hadn’t got it all out of her system yet, I had my head back in those beans, lickity split.

That’s a side few people ever saw of her, but it worked like a charm. She almost never had any irritating sales calls or Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on her door. Plus, I probably set a speed record on getting those beans in that day.

Work was a serious thing for Gramma, though, and over the course of 90 years, she had more than her fair share of it.

Still, she was incredibly good at it, too. My mother used to tell me she was plum driven in the fields, picking cotton or corn. I was around for the corn, never the cotton. Doesn’t surprise me, though. Even in more recent years, I’m sure she could still out-work most men, and knowing her, probably still find time in there someplace to make them one heck of a meal, too.

Gramma was all about making sure nobody left her place hungry. I remember growing up, there was always something going in her kitchen, be it making kolaches by the dozens for church picnics, strudels at Christmastime, noodles in late winter, pies and cakes when the berries got ripe, and canning everything imaginable from that huge garden they kept every year.

Not only that, but she always had a job, too. In fact, I think she told me once that she put in enough time at three of them to actually retire from all three. I may not remember that entirely right, but I could’ve sworn that’s what I’d heard her say before. Even so, I doubt any employer would’ve minded in the least, Gramma working like she did. Marty told me she ran across one of her former coworkers from the nursing home recently. “It was always a gonna a good day at work if you were working with Viola,” she said.

It was while she worked at that nursing home that one of her favorite stories to tell also occurred. Well, part of it anyway.

I know I heard the first part of it enough times, anyway. At some point in the early 1980s, the nursing home gave a second part, though. She’d already worked there for some time already, but at some point, the mandate came down that everyone who worked with patients had to pass a test to do so. Gramma, afraid she might not be able to pass, went to talk to her boss about maybe staying on as a janitor or something.

You see, Gramma never had more than a fifth-grade education. Way she told it, her Daddy dragged her out of school one day—“I cried for three full days straight,” she’d say—because she was needed more at home, helping take care of the babies and work the fields, than she was at the school house.

Like I said, I must’ve heard that story a million times, anytime anyone grumbled about school or doing something unpleasant.

“At least you can go to school,” she’d say, then share the rest. Such a thing would probably end in criminal charges today. Somebody standing around in handcuffs, at very least.

Still, Gramma never spoke one foul word about her father or the experience of staying home to help her family on the farm. She learned from it, she always said.

You couldn’t hear that story without her experience sucking all the air out of whatever gripe you might’ve had, though. I’m sure many of you might’ve heard that same bit yourselves. It seemed to take hold for generations of us.

Lillie, Viola’s eldest daughter (and my mom), went off to become one of the first people in the family to get college degree before she spent her life teaching. Aunt Irene, Viola’s youngest, did the same. They were good at what they did, too. Together, they logged more than 70 years of teaching experience, between them. That’s a lot of students when you think about it.

Plus, Irene and Lillie’s sons—Viola’s grandsons: Kirk, Craig and me, Bobby—all  three of us holds a degree, one that I’m sure Gramma urged each of them to get as well. All three of us have a fair amount of postgraduate work to their credit as well.

Having worked myself in education, that’s not a typical story when a family’s matriarchal figure had nothing but a fifth-grade education. Especially one as powerfully willed as she was. It’s nearly unheard of from someone whose first language was something other than English. (Viola, like most people in her generation  from in and around Lavaca County, Czech was only language many ever spoke).

But the best of the story, I always thought, came at the hands of that boss she had at Stevens, who refused to let her trade working with patients for a broom handle. She insisted Viola take that test anyway. And when all was said and done, Gramma passed that test,  all by answering those nursing questions with what she did anyway.

That, too, wasn’t something you’d expect to hear about someone with a fifth-grade education. I’ve often wondered what Gramma could’ve accomplished if she had even half the education she helped inspire others to get.

I’d be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention her fondness for taking in strays. Not flea-bitten critters, like most might think, hearing those words. But people, often those who wouldn’t have stood a chance without someone like her. I should know. By all rights, I probably never should’ve even known a lady like Viola. I was just lucky, I guess.

I was adopted into this family, you see, a fact caused me incredible amounts of grief growing up. Not for anything anyone did to call attention to it. It was more of a personal complex, I suppose. A feeling of not quite belonging always dogging me, always lurking at the edge of the shadows.

That’s something I had to come to terms with on my own.

But part of my doing so came in realizing just how selfless she could be with so many others as well. She took care of my Uncle Leon for more years than I’ve been alive. Still. Still. Even after her husband, Victor (Leon’s brother), passed away in 2001, Viola continued to do her all to take care of him.
(For those of you reading this wondering why she cared for her husband’s brother until his own death, in his late sixties, my Uncle Leon had the mind of a child, as my mom used to put it. He was what most folks back then simply called mentally retarded. I never knew of any other more politically correct way to put. I was never privy to his actual medical diagnosis, if you will. All I know is that he needed someone to take care of him, because he couldn’t do it himself. And Gramma was his main caretaker, from at least his twenties, when his own parents became to infirmed and elderly to do so themselves, until the day we laid him to rest beside his brother, Victor. As with Gramma, I was one of his pallbearers.)

Not long after they relocated to the original Konvicka homestead, she and Grampa chose to rent their old place to a hardworking farm family who’d fallen on some hard times, allowing them use of their old farmhouse (the same place where Gramma and Grampa raised their own daughters), along with every chicken house, barn, pen, work shed, garden—the works—all for a handful of dollars. It wasn’t enough to fill a gas tank, for most of my lifetime. It was more than enough for Gramma, though. And I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard Marty, my dad’s bride, tell me how she was welcomed into the fold, when by all rights, Gramma had no reason to do so. Sure, my dad may have called her “Mom” longer than he did his own mother, but Marty was stunned—and grateful beyond words—when Gramma insisted she do the same.

That’s just the way she was, though, and sadly, I’m afraid they broke the mold when they made her.

So, Gramma, I wish you the very best as you begin a new journey. I know we all do. Tell Mom, Grampa and Uncle Leon hi for me, if you don’t mind. Let them know they are missed and thought of often, as I know you will be.

Sbohem, běž s Bohem! A díky moc. Milujeme vás, a budete chybět…

(Translation from the formal Czech: Farewell, go with God! And thank you so much. We love you, and you will be missed…)

The family obituary:

Viola Konvicka

Viola Konvicka, 90, of Hallettsville passed away Sept. 7, 2018. She was born on Aug. 4, 1928 to Anton J. and Angelina Berckenhoff Koncaba in Moulton. She married Victor F. Konvicka on Sept. 24, 1947, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Moulton.

Viola was a lifelong farmer and rancher, as well as working for Weingarten’s and Steven’s Nursing and Rehab Center in Hallettsville before retiring from Kaspar Wire Works in Shiner in the late 1990s to care for her husband Victor and his brother, Leon Konvicka, who lived with them most of his life.

Viola is survived by daughter, Irene Remlinger and husband Chuck of Katy; son-in-law Jim Horecka and wife Marty of Yoakum; sister, Patsy Faltisek of Rosenberg, three grandsons, Bobby Horecka and wife Jennifer of Victoria, Kirk Remlinger and wife Asli of Katy, and Craig Remlinger and wife Mary of Katy; 10 great-grandchildren, Bradley Horecka, Aryn Horecka and Cheyanne Mathis of Terrell; Preston Remlinger, Jake Remlinger, Claire Remlinger, Pierce Remlinger, Wade Remlinger, Parker Remlinger and Jonathan Remlinger, all of Katy.

She was preceded in death by her parents; husband Victor; daughter Lillie; six brothers, George Sr., Isadore, Adolph Sr., Oscar and Willie Koncaba and Edwin Kent; three sisters, Emma Pohler, Agnes Fojtik and Delores Dreitner.

Visitation and rosary were held Monday, Sept. 10, at Kubena Funeral Home in Hallettsville. The Most Rev. John Peters led the funeral mass on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Hallettsville, with graveside services following at St. Augustine Catholic Cemetery in Worthing.

Memorials may be made to St. Mary’s Catholic Church or Sacred Heart Catholic School in Hallettsville, or donor’s choice.