These Childless Sisters Lived Full Lives

Virginia SilveiraVirginia Silveira died last week. She was 101. Virginia was my great-aunt Edna’s half sister, one of those people who are not technically family, but they really are.

I’m sad about her loss, although I rarely saw her in recent years. When my dad gave me the news, I wished there was someone to whom I could send a sympathy card. But there’s no one. She never married or had children. She outlived her sister and her friends.

Virginia was an odd duck. Tall and gawky, perpetually argumentative, she was not exactly warm and fuzzy. Everyone loved Edna, who, although married to my Uncle Tony Sousa, never had children either. Attractive, gregarious and cheerful, she was fun to be around. But Virginia, not so much.

Edna was my mother’s favorite aunt and often served as a substitute mother, more upbeat and worldly than her own mother. My mother’s death of cancer caused Edna great pain. I still remember how she held me and we cried together. “Oh, Susan,” she sobbed. The memory makes me cry.

But Virginia was her own person. She didn’t let anyone get too close.

The two sisters lived on Monroe Street in San Jose, each in a large house that would sell for over a million dollars now in San Jose’s overpriced market. After Edna’s husband died of cancer, the two sisters continued to live separately, each tending her own rose garden. They went to St. Martin’s church together every Sunday, always sitting in the front row on the right. When I went to church with my father, he insisted on sitting in the back, but I would go up to say hello to the sisters, Virginia so tall, Edna’s hair so white and fluffy. Both dressed to the nines. They would smile and clutch my hands in their frail old hands.

In an age when most women became housewives, Edna and Virginia worked, Edna in the office at Pratt-Lowe Cannery, Virginia as Accounting Officer at San Jose State University. I’d see her there sometimes when I was a student trying to work through the endless fees and paperwork of college life. She was always friendly at the college, much more herself than among the family, I think. Sometimes our families are the ones who know the least about who we really are.

In their retirement years, a long time considering Edna lived to 100 and Virginia to 101, the sisters traveled together, visiting 49 different countries by plane, train and boat. Virginia planned the trips, doing lots of research, learning a bit of the language. The sisters grew up with Portuguese-speaking parents, so they were good with the Latin languages and made several trips to the old country.

I interviewed them together for my book Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California. We met in Edna’s kitchen, me with my green steno pad and tape recorder. They were among the first people I interviewed, and they gave me a lot of wonderful information. Every time Edna got started on a subject, Virginia would interrupt. She was opinionated and quotable. There’s a lot of her in my book. I think she was pleased with it. I hope she was.

Virginia did not want to be pigeonholed as Portuguese. “They’d have to tar and feather me before I’d speak the language outside the house,” she said. Edna, on the other hand, had no problem bouncing between the two languages.

Edna moved from her home to a senior residence after she had a stroke. She had some difficulties but continued to thrive. For her 100th birthday, a crowd jammed Harry’s Hofbrau’s banquet room. Virginia’s 100th was a much quieter affair.

Virginia had serious health problems in her later years, including breaking her neck in a fall and needing to be tube fed for about a year. But she was tough. She recovered. She always made it back to her house and her independent life.

I feel bad and a little frightened when I realize Virginia has no immediate family to celebrate her life. What if this happens to me? What if no one is left when I die?

Someone made funeral arrangements. Her wake is tonight, her funeral is scheduled for tomorrow at St. Martin’s, followed by entombment at the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery where Edna is buried. I suspect Virginia figured all that out a long time ago, and so will I.

My last memory of Virginia is at a dinner at a younger aunt’s house. The guests were my father, elderly cousin Francis, Virginia and I. We ate split pea soup, I remember. Virginia was wearing a neck brace. She complained about all the foods she could not eat. She seemed to contradict or interrupt everything my father said. Her head shook. I think her hands did, too. But her mind was sharp and her memories clear.

One might argue that Virginia failed at life by not having a husband and children. But no, Virginia lived Virginia’s life. We all have to live our own lives, whether they follow the usual paths or not.

Virginia’s obituary offers a few surprises for me. I didn’t know she had two degrees from SJSU or that her colleagues established a scholarship in her honor for undergraduates at the SJSU School of Business. I didn’t know she was a cancer survivor. Instead of listing children and grandchildren, her obituary notes that she leaves many cousins and friends throughout the world. That’s not a bad legacy.

I sent Virginia a Christmas card every year. She’d sent one back, thanking me for thinking of her. I prayed for her every morning. This morning I got to where I usually insert her name and sighed. I changed my prayer. God, please take good care of Virginia now that she’s with you. If she tries to tell you how to run heaven, be patient. She means well.

Virginia and Edna are taking the most exciting trip of all.


11 thoughts on “These Childless Sisters Lived Full Lives

  1. What a beautiful tribute to a woman who sounds like she, in her own way, had it all figured out. Good for her! She lived her life as she chose to and she lived it well. Each of us contribute to life in our own ways. Each of us leave our mark, whether we have children or not. This story made me cry because if I am so lucky, I will live a life like Virginia’s and if I am so lucky, someone will remember me the way you remember her.


  2. I think that might be the luck of our good blood. I’ve noticed our Portugee relatives do tend to live longer than the average person, more so than other nationalities in my families. At least that’s what I’ve noticed about my own bloodline from studying my genealogy. I wouldn’t doubt it if you and I are related, having ancestors from Faial and ending up in the Bay Area.

    Anyhow, my own relative, and I’ll type out this mouthful, is Violet Wade (Rodrigues). She is my grandma’s mother’s father’s oldest sister’s daughter. Or my great great grandpa Percy’s niece 🙂 Vi’s brother is Ignatius (Nish). Both lived to be 107 and 102, respectively. Vi just died, August 1 of this year. It affected me in several ways. Let me explain how, and I’m sorry if this is not well put together. Vi represented to me everyone that I grew up hearing stories about. My great-grandmother, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all of whom are gone now, because she was the last of those that knew of the old country. And not that she was born there, but her Papa was. When I had the opportunity to hug her, it flooded me with the sensation as though I was hugging all those ancestors. She knew them all. She touched them, spoke with them, passed on their stories and in a sense, to me, she embodied them. Her stories were unlike most elderly people’s. They were detailed and never repetitive. It made her even more special to me. She is now buried at Holy Sepulcher.

    Anyway, both Nish and Vi were known as San Leandro historians. They’d be interviewed by the paper or other periodicals occasionally and would always attribute their old age to NOT HAVING BIOLOGICAL children. And I make that distinction in all caps because Vi and her husband Thurman fostered several family members’ children over the years.

    Effect 1: Vi outlived everyone. She very well could have outlived her bio children even if she had them, who’s to say. I guess it’s always hypothetical. But my grandmother mentioned it was the least attended funeral for a relative yet. And that is because she outlived all her similar aged friends, all family except us younger generations (silent generation to distant millennials). I didn’t know it would be that way at her funeral because I don’t attend them very often and just assumed since she was so respected in the community a lot of people would be there. But I made the nine-hour drive from San Diego to Union City for the funeral in Hayward out of mere respect for her. I felt it was important to go and get up during the eulogy to tell a story on her behalf, a story she had told to me and to mention how I’d always think of her on Jan 17th, our shared birthday 70 years apart. Her foster daughter was there, but didn’t get up and say anything. I can only hope that when I die at a mind-capable age of 112-116 (like I’ve felt about myself since as long as I can remember), SOMEONE will get up and say something personal on my behalf because I’m surely going to die alone due to outliving everyone.

    Effect 2: Did Vi and Nish really live so long because they didn’t have biological children? I WANT to live that long. But I would also LOVE to have a biological child. I’m open to fostering partly because of her. It’s like a double-edged sword.

    Have bio child = die at an average age? Don’t have bio children = Win at the game of life?

    Still both questionable. Everything is questionable.

    Violanta C. Rodrigues-Wade WON at the game of life. I sent her flowers every year the past 7 years since reconnecting with her, for our birthdays. Vi was born, using my great great grandma Faria as the midwife, in the same house she lived in her whole entire life (even though the house itself moved once to make room for the San Leandro Village), one of the historical stories I’ll never forget. 2018 forward, I’ll have my nana go put them on her grave for me instead. Gosh, I wasn’t close to her but I knew of her well and her passing strangely hit me, but I am satisfied knowing why and glad that I was here for her.

    Now I have the pleasure of learning more about her by what she left behind in her basement of artifacts.

    I wanted to insert her obit:

    Boy, did she love her whiskey 7-ups, large parties, and she was certainly a firecracker her whole life.

    I’m sorry that was so rambley. I felt it too coincidental not to respond, even though I’m having a hard time making sense because I’m Ill. Not to mention, I may have Asperger’s.


    • Mary, thank you for sharing this story with us. I don’t think there’s any proven connection between being childless and living longer, but it’s interesting to think about. Some folks think all the Bay Area Portuguese must be cousins. It’s possible.


  3. What a wonderful post this was. Both your beautiful original words and the lovely sentiments others expressed about their loved ones.


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