One of my most vivid memories of childhood holiday dinners is my Aunt Virginia’s congealed-orange-carrot-celery salad. Served on individual glass plates—an extravagance in itself—atop a single leaf of lettuce with a dollop of mayonnaise, those perfectly cut little squares represented the thought and care that had gone into every step of the family feast. Even the way in which the carrots and celery were chopped in the tiniest of pieces made one aware that a labor of love had taken place.
Aunt Virginia seemed always to keep multiple plates spinning at the same time. Not a birthday would pass without a sweet card and a carefully written check from her account at the First National Bank of Bradenton, her place of employment for years and years. She had a brass nameplate on her desk that read Virginia R. Barco, Vice-President. For a long time I thought she was THE vice-president until one day she humbly told me, “Oh Sheila, there are countless vice-presidents; I’m just one of many.” Aunt Virginia worked away from her home before it was the norm for women to do so. Choosing to leave an abusive marriage in the early 1960s, in spite of the social stigma that was divorce in that time, Aunt Virginia provided for her two children through hard work and commitment, and always had time for others regardless of fatigue or discouragement. Prior to our first son’s birth, she mailed us a blanket she’d stitched by hand, simple, soft, and perfect for cuddling. It arrived in Papua New Guinea a few days before sweet Isaac’s death and we chose to wrap him in it when we laid him to rest. Knowing her blanket surrounded my precious son brought me comfort and hope in one of my darkest times.
The Roberts’ women have always carried a load of worry on their backs like a badge of honor, and my Aunt Virginia took worrying to the next level. She worried about everything but mostly about others. High cholesterol plagued her for years and she was incredibly consistent in watching her fat grams. One day while eating yet another meal at her table (one always ate when visiting Aunt Virginia), she gently chided me for the large slab of butter I smeared on one of her homemade biscuits. “Sheila, that’s going to catch up with you, you need to take more care.” (Of course, she was right; it has caught up with me big time.) I still remember the day I told her we were moving to Kenya with her precious great-nephew Sam, who was 18 months old at the time. Her eyes filled with tears as she lamented, “Oh Sheila, it’s so far away and he’s so little” but even with her misgivings she sent us off with prayers and hope. A year later, she and her daughter took the long flight to Kenya even though her idea of a grand adventure was a Sunday school trip to the Lake Wales Passion Play. I have no doubt that her longing to reassure herself that her Sam was safe and sound gave her the courage to board the plane. (The story describing her lack of sleep due to drums in the distant night will have to wait until another time; it’s a tale worthy of its own entry.)
Aunt Virginia may have been a worrier but she was also a prayer. She loved Charles Stanley from First Baptist Church of Atlanta and faithfully listened to his sermons on cassette tape, drawing strength and hope from his words. Bob Franklin, one of her pastors at Samoset Baptist Church, a church in which her parents – my grandparents – were charter members, challenged her to have a time of daily quiet, a practice she embraced and practiced for years. Her faith kept her free from bitterness and discontent, allowing her to live life graciously.
My precious Daddy loves Sister, the only name I have ever heard him use when referring to his older sibling. Sister, not Virginia. “How was Sister doing today?” he asked me recently after I had been to visit her. Their love for one another was, and is, true and authentic, a love forged through growing up in the Great Depression in Samoset, from being there for each other, whether through “Sister’s” divorce or my daddy’s loss of his first wife and his son. Together they cared for their father, my Grandaddy Jim, in a way that allowed him to die at home, surrounded by loved ones. Daddy would head to her house after a long day of work and together they would gently bathe their father, feed him dinner, and love him in practical ways. Theirs was a partnership known by the fortunate few.
There is so much more to say about Virginia Ruth Roberts Barco. Her pound cake was hands down the best pound cake ever, even when she adapted the recipe with egg white and non-fat margarine. When she “blessed” someone’s heart it wasn’t always meant in the kindest of ways; “She never was a smart girl, bless her heart.” She loved pretty dresses, especially when they were on sale at Belk Lindseys or Maas Brothers. She loved those around her well—her children found her devoted, her nieces and nephews found her available, and her friends found her faithful.
Today is Aunt Virginia’s 93rd birthday, 93 years of a life well lived. In most ways, the woman described above is no longer with us. Her health has declined greatly over the past few months and when I visited her just a few days ago, I am not sure she recognized me. My hope is she did. I long to know what she’s thinking but, even more, I long for her to know that she is, and always will be, a fundamental part of the woman I have become. If there is any good in me, part of the credit goes to her.
Happy Birthday, Aunt Virginia. You, dearest one, are beloved.