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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Graduation day: When everything, including motherhood, was possible

On June 7, 1974, I sat with my fellow journalism graduates in the middle of the football field at San Jose State’s Spartan Stadium, baking in our caps and gowns. Everything was changing that month. After 16 years of school, I would finally be free of classes, homework, finals and term papers. I could pursue my blossoming career in newspapers, and in two weeks, I was getting married.

I don’t remember who spoke at the ceremony. I have vague memories of people passing marijuana cigarettes and tossing a ball around. My classes done, I was obsessing over clothes. A sewing maniac in those days, I had made the blue and white seersucker mini-dress that I wore under my robe. I was making my wedding dress, one of the bridesmaid’s gowns and new outfits for the honeymoon. I was dealing with flowers, photographers, and last-minute bridal showers. I was setting up our new apartment, which I had no doubt would be only a temporary home until we bought a house. Soon I would be having babies and writing books, living the life I had always expected to live.

I was so very young, 22 going on 12. Look up “naïve” in the dictionary, and you’ll find a picture of me. Webster defines it as “deficient in worldly wisdom or informed judgment.” That pretty much nails it. Raised in an extremely restrictive home, I hadn’t had my first date until my first year of college. By the middle of my second year, I was engaged. I had had three actual boyfriends in those 18 months or so before I hooked up with Jim.

Hooking up didn’t mean what it means now. I was a virgin until three months after I started dating Jim. And I probably would have stayed a virgin a bit longer if he hadn’t pressured me so hard to have sex, and if I hadn’t gotten drunk and let him because I knew he’d dump me if I didn’t. Ladies, how many of us have given in simply because we were afraid to lose the guy? Anyway, coming from this strict Catholic background with minimal knowledge of the world, I assumed that since we were having sex, we were getting married. And since he was getting pressured by his parents to find a wife, he said, yeah, sure, we’ll get married. No ring, no down-on-his-knees proposal, and oh by the way, let’s not tell anybody yet. Anybody hear warning bells? I heard them, too, but I thought I had made this commitment and had to stick with it.

As for having kids, I had no idea he wouldn’t want them. He was great with other people’s children, and I just assumed he’d be great with ours. Did we talk about it? Nope. He did escort me to the college health clinic to get birth control pills. He did have a supply of condoms on hand. After we were married, his theme song was “not yet.” Turns out he wasn’t big on employment, monogamy or sobriety either, but lest you think he was just a big shit, I loved the guy with all my heart. We had a wonderful time together. The sex was amazing, and we could talk for hours. I thought we’d be married forever.

I thought I’d be a mom, and our parents would be fabulous grandparents. I’d also have the career of my dreams. Like I said, naïve. As the marriage died, we agreed that we could have had a fantastic affair but should never have gotten married.

If I had just said no to sex with Jim or enjoyed the sex but realized I didn’t have to marry him, my life might have been completely different. He would have dumped me, and I might have married someone with a good job, someone who wanted the house and kids, maybe even someone who’d go to church with me. But no. I thought this was it. It didn’t have to be “it.”

I haven’t talked to Jim in over 30 years. I have heard that he remarried two more times and never had any children of his own. I don’t think much about him or our six-year marriage. Fred, who came later, was my real husband. I didn’t have babies with him either, but the love we had was worth it. And we did talk about it.

On that hot day in San Jose when I graduated from San Jose State, I had no idea what was coming. What would I have done if I’d known? Should a person get married two weeks after graduation? I don’t recommend it. Live a bit first. And take time to make sure you have the right partner. Life is not like “The Bachelorette,” where you have to make a decision in 10 weeks. Be sure. And if you’re not sure, don’t do it.

Does this stir any thoughts or memories? I’d love to hear your comments.