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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Pondering sons, aunts, and untold stories

How are you? I’m struggling a bit. So I offer a few random thoughts today.

1) Last week we were talking about workplace conflicts between moms and employees without children. (Why is it never about dads?) You might be interested in this article, “Four Things Your Childless Co-Workers Think About You as a Working Mom.”  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

2) Two of the three readings for this Sunday’s Mass in the Catholic Church are about widows whose apparently dead sons have been brought back to life, one by Elijah and one by Jesus. Religious considerations aside, in those days, when the husband died, the sons were expected to step in and take care of the widowed mothers for the rest of their lives. In fact, before Jesus died, he asked one of his friends to take care of Mary. I don’t have a son. My stepsons have stepped far, far away. While I’m a full-fledged adult and far from helpless, there are sure times when the idea that I could have had a son who cared about me and was available to help me just makes me want to sob because I’ll never have that. Know what I mean?

3) I’m an aunt, but I live far from my niece and nephew and don’t feel included in their lives. I don’t even know my late husband’s nieces and nephews. He didn’t know them either. We read a lot about how being an aunt can be almost as good as being a parent. Maybe in some families, but not in mine. Sure, we saw them at family gatherings and got presents from them. We were friendly enough, but extended hanging out or confiding in them? It didn’t happen. Are you close to your aunts? Or uncles? To your nieces and nephews?

4) I have just published new editions of one of my older books, Stories Grandma Never Told. The print version has a new cover, and the book is now available as a Kindle e-book for the first time. Read more about it at my Unleashed in Oregon blog. Working on this book again made me think about those stories Grandma never told. The book is oral history, with lots of Portuguese American women talking about immigration, education, work, family, ethnic traditions, and more. I never heard these stories from my own grandmother. She died before it occurred to me to ask. I frequently preach that we should not let our family stories die, that we should ask our elders to tell us what it was like when they were young because when they’re gone, who will be left to ask? I’m always coming up with questions I wish I could ask my mother, but she passed away 14 years ago. I grill my dad regularly.

But here’s the thing. For those of us who never have children, who will never be grandmas, who will we tell our stories to? Being a writer, I can share everything in my books, essays and poems, but what about people who are not writers? Where will their memories go? Suggestions? Maybe we could make a list of possible ways to leave something behind.

5) Enough depressing thoughts. Have any of you had trouble commenting here? What happens when you click “comment?” Are there too many steps to take to get in? Please me know. Sometimes I get emails (sufalick@gmail.com) from people who have trouble with the comment function, and I don’t know whether the problem is them or the settings. I don’t want anything to get in the way of our conversations. If you can’t get in, email me.

Keep reading and commenting. I’m so glad you’re here.