The third woman in the Amazing Women Series is Virginia. Her resilience is inspiring to me.
Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold. This little jingle from my girl scout days ran through my head as I sat at a round table in the front window of a little diner in my sister’s new hometown in Michigan. Seated around the table were her au courant friends and there was a whole lot of silver going on. Each woman was at least into her seventies and fully engaged in life and their hometown. They gathered here each week following their Thursday morning volunteer work sorting and shelving books at the local library. They come often enough that the waitress called one of the women “raisin toast extra dark”, her weekly order. That woman is Virginia. She sorts the children’s books.
Virginia grew up in Virginia and in 1956 she entered the same small women’s college that her grandmother attended, eventually making the decision to transfer to University of Virginia. She described the university at that point in time as “a bastion of male superiority”, having only about 60 women on campus. She graduated from the University with a degree in English and History and went in search of her future.
With her new degree in hand and feeling adventurous, Virginia knew she wanted to leave her home state. The 1950s and 60s were the height of prosperity in Flint, Michigan. The school district had partnered with C. S. Mott Foundation and the result was a first-class school system and it was seeking teachers. Virginia applied and was immediately hired. She considered teaching in this energetic environment a privilege, but that did not mean it wasn’t demanding. By Friday night, she and her fellow teachers were ready to meet up at The Civic Park Bar and let their hair down. One fateful Friday night, a favorite teaching friend of Virginia showed up with a boyhood friend. Virginia was drawn to this man’s intelligence and willingness to discuss (argue) politics with her.
They married in 1965 and built a rich and fulfilling life together until he passed away in 2016, two months shy of their 51st anniversary. During their marriage, they had two children and politics continued to be a popular topic in their home. Over the years they traveled extensively, both domestically and internationally. Virginia particularly treasures her memories of their bike trips in Europe, driving trips in England, and visiting their daughter who was living in Mexico. They also traveled to Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
Sometime around 2004, Virginia began to notice subtle changes in her husband which became more pronounced, finally resulting in a diagnosis of Parkinson’s in 2006. His mother had suffered the same disease, spending seven years in a nursing home, so Virginia was aware of her future challenges. They made one last trip to Europe, but as he declined, they reached the point where it became necessary for him to stay home. No more dinners out, no more beloved concerts, no theater, no trips. Over time, he was able to do less and less for himself. Virginia was fortunate enough to have help come in and assist with bathing and dressing. Two weeks before his birthday in 2016, a bed opened up for him in a local assisted living facility for a two week stay. Virginia would have a bit of respite from the constant care and regroup. Sadly, he never came home, dying on his birthday.
Although rationally every committed couple realizes that one of them will go first, that still doesn’t prepare the heart. Virginia acknowledges that she is a strong southern woman who is fairly self-sufficient, spending hours reading and attending events. Yet there are times she misses having someone to share moments in her life and the person so much a part of her memories.
I haven’t spent a lot of time with Virginia, but I’ve had drinks at her house, been to the diner with her, and seen her working at the library. She is engaging, funny and whip smart. I asked her how after being married for a lifetime, she adjusted to not having the other person there and how she got on with living her life. For Virginia, it was friends. Too much time alone at home can hang heavy, so you just have to reach out and find something to do. Call a friend to have a cup of coffee. No one available? Take your magazine, go to the coffee shop, and look for friendly connections. She admits it is not always easy, but her loyal friends have carried her through. Those friends include many she has had for years plus some newer ones. When married couples no longer asked her to do things with them, she discovered a brand-new pal to attend concerts with.
As I approach the third act of my life, I question whether the girl scout ditty is quite accurate. Virginia’s new friend she attends concerts with is every bit as important to her as those in her book group that she has known for years. The person she sees on a regular basis on her daily walk and gives a smile and a wave to is often a priceless gift in her day. Silver-haired friends, old and new, can be pure gold and enrich our lives beyond measure. As we grow older, we realize happiness lies not in our bank account, but in our confidants, our sidekicks, and companions. They are our treasures.
In the words of Ms. Virginia,
“There is a part of me that lives with the grief but a part that is still able to sit by the fire, listen to winter music, read beautiful poetry and know that in many ways, I’m blessed.”
C’est la vie.