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.

 

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Without children, we are free to help others in need


Once again the news is full of smashed buildings, dead children and adults, workers searching through rubble, and families left homeless. This time it’s a tornado in Oklahoma. I can’t believe this keeps happening. Must we have a disaster every month? It’s not just here in the United States. They’re happening all over the world. Some, like the Boston bombings, are man-made. Others, like the tornado and Hurricane Sandy, are deemed by the insurance companies as acts of God. One religious Facebook friend suggested these are signs that the end of the world is coming. Maybe, maybe not.
If you believe in praying, please offer prayers for those suffering from the tornado and other disasters. Come to think of it, that’s what nuns and priests do. These Catholic women and men who give up marriage and children to devote their lives to God use their parenting energy to pray and to offer practical help wherever it’s needed. We don’t have to be nuns or priests to do the same. 
And here’s where I make this relate to being childless. In situations where children are dying, we can be selfishly grateful that none of them are ours, that we will never know the heartbreak of losing a child to whom we gave birth. Beyond that, because we don’t have children of our own to care for, we are free to help others who do. We can be that extra set of hands so needed by parents overwhelmed by big disasters or the little challenges of daily life.We can pray, we can babysit, we can send money to Red Cross, we can bandage wounds or help dig through the rubble.
It’s easy to feel sorry for ourselves because we don’t have children. We can waste our days blaming our partners or God for how things turned out. Or we can appreciate the children of the world as mothers and fathers at large, and when we see a need, we can step forward and ask, “Can I help?”
Do you agree?