The bright sounds of trumpet floated through the air calling children toward the station wagon parked in the middle of the village. Young children, and sometimes their parents, would gather around to hear Bible stories taught using exciting flannelgraph figures.
The ministry was thriving. Each of the three churches they started matured into and took on a life of their own. One in particular, Hamadera Bible Church, still exists to this day.
The Oestreichs added another daughter to their family, Jeannette—whom George named after his mother. Then another, Kathryn, whom George named after his aunt.
During their first furlough, when they family learned they would be adding a fourth child to the family, George promised his sister, Marion that she could name it if it turned out to be a girl. Unfortunately, he was traveling on deputation when Frances gave birth. She attempted to call her sister-in-law when their fourth daughter was born, but could only reach her mother-in-law. Mrs. Oestreich said she knew that Marion had planned to name the baby girl Marcia, so Marcia it was.
Unfortunately, she was mistaken; Marion wasn’t planning to name the baby Marcia. But it was too late.
The fifth child was a boy, George Washington Oestreich, named after his dad. And the sixth was named Lois, but her siblings called her “Penny.”
Not many women have six children and don’t get to name any of them. But, perhaps it goes without saying…Frances was a special kind of wife and mom.
The kids grew up going to a combination of Japanese public school, home school, American boarding school, commuting to American schools in Japan, and attending school in the US during occasional furloughs. This meant that they had pretty much lived their lives being considered “Gaijin” (which means “foreigner” or “outside person.”). Life was always changing.
One afternoon, Frances watched out the window as two boys followed young Jeannette down the street taunting her by yelling “Dom goodie me,” “Dom goodie me” (meaning “acorn eyes”) with every step. She did her best to ignore them the entire way home; but once she reached the safety of her gate, she whirled around and yelled “Ki tfu me!” (which meant “fox eyes” or “slanty eyes”) and then darted inside.
But perhaps it was for the best that they would never fully “fit in.” Home was not a town in Pennsylvania or in Japan…which meant that home was never a long, long boat ride away. Home was where a close family became closer still.
During the summers, the Oestreichs would try to spend a few weeks with the chattering monkeys at Lake Biwa, a beautiful place near Kyoto. One summer, a friend gave them a boat that had only one small problem—a hole in the bottom. George did his best to fix it and it worked—unless, of course, you count the time that it sprung a leak in the middle of the lake carrying a load of extremely proper church ladies.
Frances and her friends were none too pleased with the impromptu baptisms, but Frances shouldn’t have been too surprised. From the day at the altar, life with George had never ceased to be an adventure. Whether he was raising pigeons or dreaming up ways to make ice cream in a land with little refined sugar or dairy, George was always up to something.
Years flew by and one by one the kids left for college in the US. Their oldest child, Christine, and her husband came back to Japan as missionaries. Also, George, Jr, or “Gwo,” as he was called, returned to Japan for the summer of 1979 and spent time working alongside his parents. He was strongly considering returning to Japan as a missionary himself upon graduation from college. His best friend, Shuji, had been saved at Hamadera and was also considering full time ministry.
At the close of the summer, Gwo returned to Bob Jones and George and Frances began school themselves—teaching English and living for Jesus. They looked forward to being together again their kids the following summer during a well-deserved furlough.
Just weeks before their terms came to a close, the couple received devastating news. Gwo had been in a terrible car accident and died at the scene.
It was a blow to the whole family, but especially to his parents, who were not able to make it back in time for the service and burial.
Like most parents, they never expected to retrace the final steps of one of their children; especially their only son. He had been effectively forced off the road by a speeding driver. George even found the hood ornament from his son’s car in the tree that took his life.
They recognized the sovereignty of God through the pain, but it still seemed that his “homegoing” was premature. It was so easy to focus on the way that he had been robbed of life. He was never able to graduate from college, get married, make the ministry his own, or have a son to pass on the family name. It didn’t seem quite fair.
But George was no longer a “Gaijin.” He wasn’t just close to home; he was home.
Perhaps it was then George and Frances decided that their work in Japan was done. It was time to make their home in the US, closer to their daughters.
Over their thirty three years of ministry, the Oestreichs had seen Japan transition from a war-torn nation into an industrious and modern society. It went from broken and bleeding to self-sufficient and proud. Despite the Emperors’ having admitted to the county that he was not, in fact, “god,” Shintoism remained firmly rooted in the society. And while many of the young people begin to reject the traditions and chains of this dead religion, they often turned to Buddhism or to nothing at all. While the need was still great, the door that had been wide open to the gospel was gently closing.
Still, they weren’t quite ready for “retirement” if that meant sitting around a house all day. For that matter, they had never owned a house. They rented a trailer and took jobs managing the trailer park— George in maintence and Frances in bookkeeping. The thrifty ways continued and so did ministry.
And their years in Japan continued to bear fruit. Although they were few, the Christians were faithful. George’s friend Shuji attended seminary at Grace Community and returned back to Japan to serve as senior pastor.
And, of course, they continued to use every opportunity to win souls to Christ. George listened to kids quote Bible verses in Awana clubs, he led Bible studies for inmates in a nearby prison, and he and Frances both wrote cards and letters to an ever-increasing number of grandchildren…who were spread all over the world.
One week a year he would go visit grandchildren in California, and during the summers they would make the trip back to Lake Shehawken. George would ride his bike, swim, and take peaceful rides in the canoe his father had bought him when he was twelve. Lake Shehawken was a peaceful, unchanging haven in a crazy, fast paced world. In the evening, soft strains of trumpet would drift across the lake. “Trust and Obey,” “Living for Jesus,” and other hymns and choruses were never far from George Oestreich…whether coming by trumpet, booming baritone, or a happy whistle.
When George was 80, the Oestreichs moved again; this time to Penny Retirement Community near Jacksonville, FL. This was officially “retirement” although the only thing that stopped was the paycheck. It was okay; they had always been prudent with their money. They were used to having a little income…and living on a little less.
They stayed active; George rode his bike, swam, gardened, played tennis and trumpet, did landscape work, and taught Sunday School and Bible Studies. As the 80s rolled into 90s, he complained that the folks in his Bible study were getting old and didn’t focus very well. But he stuck with it, noting some of the residents in the memory ward could often sang hymns from memory even when they seemed to have no other recall.
Grandma faithfully cooked and cleaned and managed the finances in addition to her own volunteering activities—sewing, arranging flowers, serving meals, and more. She kept up with the names and birthdays of the five daughters, sons-in-law, nineteen grands, grands-in-law, and non-stop great-grands (28 I think…at last count).
If their family had one complaint, it was that George and Frances were too far away. They took turns trying to convince the Oestreichs to move closer to family. But they seemed content to live their simple, slowing life in Florida where they prayed together every morning and played Dominoes every night.
They held out until the end of 2016. He was 99. She was nearly 98.
And here is where I step into the story. Because I was there to help them with their final move.
It was not difficult because Grandma had reduced their lives to two rooms and, even then, did not seem attached to the few things they had left. They did not want to do long goodbyes. They did not want to do goodbyes at all.
I felt bad for them…although we wanted them closer and believed this move was for the best, I hated the thought of them leaving their friends. Of them having to start over at life. Of having to adjust to a million little changes from where the toothbrush would be kept to what meals would be like. Change can be difficult no matter what the age; I couldn’t really put myself in their shoes and understand what it would be like for two dear saints in their late 90s.
But when I asked Grandma if she was sad to leave, she said, “Wherever you go, you’ll have friends…if you’re friendly.” After years of being a “Gaijin,” she was no stranger to making friends. Again.
But I knew underneath her resolve, there was a realization that it would be hard to make friends this time. She was nearly blind, on oxygen, and she had outlived all of the folks who could identify closely with her life experiences.
As we pulled out of Penny Farms, I turned around to see my grandparents in the seats behind me embracing this new adventure the same way they had done all of the others…holding hands.
I smiled. She would not be lonely. Grandma’s most important friends were coming with her.
(Stay tuned for the fourth and final part – “Celebration of a Life Well Lived” coming soon.)