Oma Belle Jeffries Twitchel Wagner

by Dody Gibson (May 2005)

Oma Belle Jeffries entered this world on July 9, 1915. She was the oldest of five surviving children born to Asalee Pleasant Edwards and Alexander Toliver Jeffries. She said her mother got her name from a magazine and many years later we discovered that it meant ‘grandma’ in German.

Living in rural Missouri at the beginning of the last century was a daily challenge. She remembered a flu epidemic in which at least one person in every family died. Her mother taught all eight grades in a small one-room country school. After completing those grades yourself, you took and passed a test that allowed you to teach. She took in sewing, cutting her own patterns from a picture provided and was also a midwife on call.

When Oma was fifteen years old, her mother died in childbirth. It was two weeks before Christmas. She was left to care for four younger siblings. Irma was thirteen, Billy was ten, Arlie, a handicapped child, was eight and Eula was five.

At the age of seventeen, just less than a month from being eighteen, she married George Raymond Twitchel, the third youngest from a family of twelve children. June 24, 1933 was in the midst of the Great Depression and thinking they could find a job in Kansas City, they moved there. George worked for the WPA building highways for a dollar a day and also in the construction of Fort Leonard Wood.

Their first of three daughters was born on their third anniversary, June 24, 1936, in Kansas City, Kansas. She was named Dora in honor of the lady who had been so kind to them in their need. The hospital bill was $44. That summer was a record breaking year for heat and still referenced occasionally. Jobs were non-existent and it was decided to return back to the Ozarks. All of their possessions were put in a 1926 Model T Ford and the journey took all day. I can remember in my early years riding in the middle of the front seat. The speedometer was just in front of me and it went all the way to 35 MPH.

The Twitchel family made their first home in a little two-room log cabin. George farmed the land and raised pigs and chickens. There was a milk cow and a pair of mules.

Bonilee came along in a year, July 25, 1937. Her name was spelled to resemble that of her grandmother, Asalee, at her grandfather’s suggestion. Early memories there included our trip to the chicken house to gather eggs and being startled by a groundhog.

We attended a little one-room congregation of the church of Christ. Of course there were oil lanterns and a pot-bellied stove for warmth. There was the traditional outhouse and the graveyard. The little one-room schoolhouse was on the same property.

In the summer of 1941, George decided to move his family again to the Kansas City area. He thought the schools would be better there and Dora Sue was to enter Kindergarten that Fall. Oma was not happy about the move remembering their last experience. I recall her crying as my Dad sold the livestock, but in those days, the man made all the decisions.

The move was a good one. George found work on the Union Pacific Railroad. Oma worked at the North American Bomber Plant. Yes, she was Rosy, the Riveter, assembling planes during the war. The old Model T Ford was soon replaced with a 1941 Plymouth.

In 1943, July 12, a third daughter came to bless our family. Linda Kay had it pretty good as the ‘big girls’ did most of the work. Of course they were only 6 and 7 but were always ‘bigger.’

Oma saved her salary for a year and they were able to buy half interest in a grocery store. They shared this with another Christian couple by the name of Baldoch. Charles and Marie had no children of their own and we spent a lot of time with them. Of course Charles was away in the war when we began this relationship and it was a great day when he walked in the front door of the B & T Market. That’s the way it happened in those days.

Eventually, the Twitchel’s bought the other half interest in the store and sold it in 1946 to purchase another one. They were there for many years. George was not in the best of health and Oma took the advantage of attending beauty school to obtain her license. She added on to the house they owned up the street and opened her own beauty shop. My memories there on Sunday mornings would be my mother rising early, baking pies, putting a pot roast in the oven, setting the big table in the dining room, not knowing who would come home with us after worship services. Perhaps a visiting family, old friends or part of our large family that also attended there, would share our table.

There was a large basement in that house and it was filled many times with people who needed somewhere to live for a time, just passing through or in-between homes.

Oma spent a lot of time sewing, quilting and crocheting, giving most of it away to welcome receivers. Anyone who knew her had hot pads, doilies, placemats or quilts. Yes, she was a lot like her mother.

All three daughters were married by this time. George walked each one down the aisle, wearing the same suit. He called it his ‘marrying suit.’

The store was sold as George retired. He lived to see five of his six grandchildren, Jeff and Tim Holeman, and Becky, Barry and Kelly Gibson. Alex Rose was born later. He passed away in 1974 and was buried in his ‘marrying suit.’ It was another hard time for Oma. She had cared for him four years past a severe heart attack. Now, she was alone, but busied herself in the Beauty Shop and going to Weight Watchers, losing 65 pounds.

Eight years went by and in May 29, 1982 she married O. H. Wagner. Everyone called him Wag. She sold her home in Kansas City and moved to Wichita, Kansas. I believe this was the happiest time of her life.

On April 26, 1991, tragedy again struck her life. At about 6:15 in the evening the tornado take-cover alarm was sounded and Oma grabbed her purse, a radio, her Bible and a flashlight and they headed to the fruit cellar as they had so many times before. This was located in the back yard under a ground level door with steps leading to a second vertical door.

Inside were many shelves filled with all the canned fruit and vegetables preserved from the 3 ½ acres they farmed. There were apple, pear, peach and nut trees. A variety of watermelon, cantaloupe and squash, peppers, tomatoes, beans, corn, onions as well as peanuts and honey was gathered in season and shared with many friends and family.

It was an F-5 tornado with winds in excess of 261 mph. It took the life of 17 people along its 45-mile path. It is notable and I saw reference to it in a trivia question just lately. Neighbors came to remove the debris from the recessed area leading to the storm cellar. The sight that met their eyes as Oma and Wag came up the steps was nothing they were prepared to see. A small piece of their camper was in what used to be the dining room. Only the outer shell of the roofless house was left. They lost their home and possessions, a camper, their car, a truck and a boat. The cyclone fencing set in a concrete base was gone from the dog pen and four dogs were running around. Bees were swarming everywhere.

This tornado was another disaster chapter in Oma’s life. They had good insurance but that never covers the family treasures, pictures and memories lost forever. Wag was not in the best of health, having had open-heart surgery shortly before this event and with Alzheimer’s, it was a big setback from which he never overcame. So for the second time in Oma’s life, she was caring for a husband in his declining years. He died the day before their thirteenth anniversary.

Oma was alone again. She had many friends in Wichita but after back surgery and needing to be closer to family, it was decided to move her back to the Kansas City area to be closer to her daughter, Bonnie.

She has moved three times since arriving in Missouri and now lives in Plattsburg in a full care facility. She had the general problems with ageing and also struggles with memory loss but if you were to visit her she would find something to give you. And she is still very proud of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. We owe a big thank you to Bonnie who has stood by her daily and seeing that she has everything she needs so unselfishly.

Only recently she suffered a fall and a severe hip fracture which will most probably prevent her walking ever again as she is unable to take directions for rehab.

I believe ‘Overcoming Disaster’ would be the best-fit title to affix to her life. Losing her mother in her mid-teens, all of her younger brothers and sisters, two husbands, the Great Depression and a total wipeout in the tornado of 1991, is only a part of the list. Just this century she has lost a grandson, Tim Holeman and her granddaughter’s husband, Jim Beasley to the most tragic circumstances. Oma is a Christian and always puts the Lord first in her life, attending worship services and reading her Bible regularly when she was still able. This is the strength she maintained which allowed her to keep going.

I know that I speak for my sisters when I say that she has always been our strength and example and our hero.

Addendum (August 1, 2010)

My mother passed from this life into the next at 9PM. We will miss her presence, but her memory will live forever. There is joy and pain in love. You can’t have one without the other. That is the way God planned it. May His will be done always.