Fireflies, fall, family and faith. Aunt Virginia is all of these things to me and she remains as strong, as fervent a presence in my memory and mind as ever she did. Virginia Varner, my Aunt, my dad’s sister who was such a huge presence and part of my life, died suddenly on November 7. She was 91.
As a journalist, I feel compelled to write that she was born on January 1, 1924–15 years to the day before my dad. They were born on the same day, 15 years apart–a fact that I found endlessly fascinating and held onto as an important part of my family lore. There are infinite of these facts that I can recite and often do–for my daughter, for my friends. My Aunt Virginia was a third-grade teacher and a lover of education and of children. She was passionate about teaching, about kids–and about traditional values that taught kids the importance of courtesy, grace, honesty, love and integrity.
During the summer months at the height of her teaching career, Aunt Virginia would take classes, seminars and attend institutes to learn more for herself and for her kids. One summer, she took a seminar in geology and brought rock samples to our house in Pennsylvania for me to wonder and marvel at. I did so dutifully and without obligation–I loved my Aunt and knew instinctively that what she did for me, she did because she loved me.
Paragraph after paragraph could roll out of my keyboard as I extol the simple and fascinating virtues that made my Aunt one of the greatest people I’ve ever known. I could write volumes on her husband, my Uncle Karl who preceded her in death by 16 years. I could write volumes more about how, after my family moved to California, I looked forward every summer to their visit and couldn’t wait to sit and talk with both of them, share meals with them and indulge myself in my Aunt and Uncle’s compassionate kindness, delightful wit, thoughtful conversation and wicked sense of humor.
With a sardonic smile, my Aunt would never feign surprise. She was a woman of the world, a career woman with goals and interest in what she was doing. She understood people as far as they wanted to be understood, as Fitzgerald wrote about The Great Gatsby, and she believed in them as they believed in themselves. She read and she wrote letters to friends and family. Even in the past couple of years, a letter from Aunt Virginia was never word processed–it was never sent by computer.
She was simultaneously a wife and mother, a helpmate and Pastor’s wife to my Uncle Karl. One of my earliest memories is arriving to Aunt Virginia’s house for Christmas a couple of days before her Christmas break. She would come home from work, lock herself in her office, my cousin Marilyn’s converted bedroom, and plan lessons, grade papers and prepare. Then and only then would she come out and spend the evening with us. When she did, she listened patiently to Uncle Karl’s concerns and conversation about the church he lead and offered help where she could. It might take the shape of calling parishioners or even running errands, but she did it with the kind of dedication that only love inspires.
I never heard her raise her voice in anger, though I did indeed see her angry. I never heard unkind words, though I’m positive she said them. My Aunt was not world-wary nor world-weary, but she knew what could happen. Hardship was not a stranger. She battled cancer twice and survived. She lost her husband at Christmas-time, just after they’d shared the family Christmas-eve meal and my Uncle told her he felt it was the best Christmas they’d ever had. She knew sadness, she knew pain and heartache, disease and injury.
But she played tennis well into her 80’s and walked daily while she could. She slowed down the past few years, but only in her legs. Her wit, her mind–and the rest of her body, stayed fit and focused. The night before she died, she was doing exercises preparing for the next day.
Of all the things I’ve ever been happy about, at the top of the list is that I spent time with my aunt in these past few years. I brought my daughter to Baltimore, where she lived, and we spent a week with her–traveling to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Amish country together. When Shannon was younger, Aunt Virginia was the one to teach her basic third grade math and helped her with reading. In 2012, I took Shannon to Baltimore and taught her to catch fireflies in Aunt Virginia’s backyard, the same backyard I caught them in when I was a boy.
My parents divorced in the 1980’s and after a time, my dad remarried. But my Aunt and Uncle never gave up on my mom. They remained great friends and wrote, called and even visited fairly often. I always felt that something like that would take a kind of dedication, a commitment to what one believed was right–but that’s not why they did it. They did it because they loved my mom and while they understood how things fall apart, they weren’t willing to simply walk away from a relationship they spent time cultivating. All of that, they did while fully accepting my dad’s wife and making her part of the family.
My dad remained Aunt Virginia’s baby brother. She raised my dad, acted as a kind of defacto mother to him and that continued even into her later years. They shared a bond that extended beyond blood-they were friends and they looked after one another. It was dad who insisted that Aunt Virginia no longer live alone in a tri-level house in which she had trouble moving around. It was dad who visited her every year, more than once if he could, flying across the country and spending time just to be together and it was dad who flew her here to give her a chance to get away, to travel and see new sights.
Her passing leaves her three children, David, Craig and Marilyn and their families behind. They are all so important to me and since we visited in 2012, my and my family’s bond with Marilyn and her husband has strengthened and will now, we hope, supplant the one that Aunt Virginia shared with us.
As I write, I am disappointed in myself for my lack of poetry–but I have a feeling poetry will come. My Aunt Virginia was a giant, a woman whose place in my heart is more secure than nearly any person outside of my immediate family I can imagine. More than anything, what I carry in my heart about Aunt Virginia is that love conquers all–that it travels across the world, across borders and past hardship, separation and pain–and it sits comfortably, like a fireplace on a cold evening, a place of warmth welcoming to all who would come and sit a spell.