It has been ten years since my oldest sister Virginia died. Dying alone has to be one of the most awful things that could happen to anyone… and that is exactly what happened. No answer to the phone calls, no answer to the repeated knocks; just no answer. The silence confirmed my worst fear. Death had paid a visit. My husband Bernie and I found her. Breaking a window to gain access to the inside of the apartment I was filled with many emotions. There she lay, looking as though asleep. Peace overcame the days of turmoil and despair. An internal hemorrhage had claimed her life. That’s what the autopsy report stated – internal hemorrhage due to carcinoma of the uterus. Who knew?
Growing up in the 50’s and being the first-born of six children, Virginia had a lot going for her. She was pretty and smart and idolized by all the family relatives. She could have her pick of many of the young men who came knocking at the door. I would watch her getting ready for a date, and experiment with her clothes and make-up when she left. Somehow she always knew I was into her things.
Sometimes older sisters can be bossy, and Virginia was no exception. I remember her wanting to pay me ten cents to go to the local store and buy the latest True Romance Magazine for her. She would also have first choice of what we would watch on television. She always seemed to get her way. After all, she was the oldest, and working, and helping to contribute to the upkeep of the house.
I became a teenager when Virginia moved out on her own. She moved to California to be with the man she loved and to get married. “Jobs were better out West,” so they said. Talk about upheaval in the home. My parents weren’t too happy about the situation. It was the early Sixties and good Catholic girls had church weddings, and being that we lived in the East you didn’t chase any guy across the United States. But she was in her twenties, headstrong and in love.
The years sped by and the summer after my mother’s death in 1968, I went to visit Virginia and her husband in Los Angeles. It was my very first plane ride. I was free and independent and I loved it. We visited all the tourist spots and even took a side trip to Mexico. Life was good.
The following June, 1969, on Father’s Day, was the last contact any of us had with Virginia. She called to speak with our dad and she never let on that anything was wrong. Then the phone calls stopped, letters came back, disconnected phone – all added up to something seriously wrong.
Trying to solve a mystery 3,000 miles away was almost impossible. Call it divine intervention, but somehow I traced the owner of the Mobile Home Park where Virginia was living and was able to get some answers. It seemed her husband had moved out on her and she had moved too. The landlord had given me addresses and phone numbers of a few Mobile Home Parks in the area. Fortunately I found out where Virginia was now living. The owners of the Park thought it would be a good idea if family could come and talk to her. Her world had crashed in on her. So, my younger brother John, eighteen at the time, and myself, then twenty-one, headed off to California.
Landing in L.A. was not like the vacation I remembered from the past. I was filled with anxiety and trepidation. I had made reservations for us to stay at a motel across the road from the Mobile Home Park on advice of the landlord. After hailing a taxi, we arrived at the Park, checked into our motel, and headed directly to see Virginia. We knocked on the door, no answer. Called her name several times – no answer. By now it was dusk and we were tired. We decided to go to the owners for advice. These were wonderful people. They made us something to eat and tried to fill us in on what the situation appeared to be. They were very helpful and to this day, I owe them my thanks and gratitude. We made plans to go and see Virginia in the morning. Somehow we all knew she was inside the trailer.
The California sun shone bright the next morning as we made our way to the trailer. We knew Virginia was inside. There was now a sign on the mailbox and also on the door that said “Not from Pittsburgh.” It was all so frustrating. We continued to knock, calling out her name, and telling her who we were and that we loved her and wanted to help her.
We were about ready to give up when a pick-up truck pulled in the driveway. Who was it, but the man she had married, but now didn’t belong to her anymore. He was bringing her groceries. He had a key and nonchalantly opened the door. Nothing prepared me for what was to come. My once beautiful sister came at me in a rage. I could tell that she was in a very bad state, disheveled and wild. I think she would have killed me, thinking I was someone else. Her words still ring clear in my mind. “If you’re my sister, you’ll prove it by blood,” she screamed as she ran into the kitchen area. On those words I tore out of the trailer with my brother right behind me; across the highway, into our motel room with chairs up against the door. I cried my heart and soul out. We were both shaken to the core. Whatever happened between her and her husband had now become our nightmare. She desperately needed help. What were we to do? We didn’t know another person in the entire city and state.
A knock at the door, I peeked out. It was her husband who had followed us across the road. I let him in and he tried to explain that their marriage was over, he was with someone else, and that Virginia couldn’t accept it. I was angry with him for not telling us sooner. How could he be with someone else and still be seeing her? He promised to come by the next day and we would look into getting her the help she needed. I don’t think my brother, nor I, got any sleep that night.
The next morning, John and I, took a bus into downtown Los Angeles. When I think back, I just shake my head. We had no idea where we were going or what we were going to do. We found a free Legal Aid Society. Take a number and someone will be with you shortly. After a few hours, which seemed an eternity, we spoke to a lawyer. We explained everything, and he informed us that her husband, they were not yet divorced, and better yet, had they ever been married, was responsible for her. They had been together over 20 years so common law came into play. Her husband did show up later that day. We told him about the counsel we had received, and the next day Virginia began treatment at a mental hospital.
Meanwhile, back on the home front, my grandmother passed away, my father’s mother. Do you ever wonder why when it rains it pours? I am a firm believer that it makes you a stronger, better person.
Running out of time and money, my brother and I returned home. We are eternally grateful to the owners of the Mobile Trailer Park who kept in touch with us and let us know when Virginia returned. We never heard from her husband again. Virginia was doing much better and working again. We gave her space and time to contact us.
Months went by and one day the phone rang and Virginia was asking my father if she could move back home. He never hesitated with “Yes!” We all anticipated her arrival and were at the airport to bring her home. She arrived with just the clothes on her back. Deep down inside of me my fears were mounting. Would she remember what had transpired between her and me in California? She didn’t waste any time getting a job. I never mentioned anything to her. I guess I still harbored fears and didn’t want to bring those memories back.
She had changed drastically. It was as though all the joy was taken out of her life. She kept to herself, keeping her nose to the grindstone with her job. She lived a lonely life refusing to renew acquaintances with old friends. Family was around her but she wouldn’t let anyone of us get too close. She lived with my father until his death and then by herself.
I kept in touch with her a couple of days a week; phoning, making some of her favorite meals, financially, and just being there. It was sad at the holidays. She wanted to spend them by herself. She was always welcomed at our homes. “Next time, I’ll come,” she’d say. I would cook an entire Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner the day ahead so that I could visit her and she would have everything we had for the holiday. I guess maybe she was content with that. This went on for 25 years until the day she died. I truly think Virginia would have become a homeless person had we not found her when we did.
We had a memorial service for Virginia. Not ever having dealt with cremation, I had a hard time accepting it; but under the circumstances, advisable. I wrote an obituary which was listed in the paper for one day.
My other sister, Mary, and I cleaned out the apartment. I thought we would find something to explain the life Virginia led. Disappointment turned into dismay – there was nothing to be found. Once again, my siblings and I leaned on each other for support.
You may think this is the end of the story. Two weeks later after the memorial service, on the day before Easter, Holy Saturday, the phone rang. What was I really hearing? Someone calling from Salt Lake City, Utah; someone named Andrea. What was she saying to me?
Andrea had been searching for her birth mother for years but to no avail. As we put the puzzle pieces together, it turned out Virginia was her mother. The part that keeps me awestruck is the fact that the way I wrote the obituary led to the connection. Andrea was adopted through a private adoption when she was one-day-old. Virginia left the hospital and never signed the adoption papers. This led me to believe that she had no choice but to put Andrea up for adoption. There was no way in the condition she was in that she could have taken care of this baby. There still are a lot of things we don’t know. Andrea’s birth father, if it indeed it was my sister’s husband, died in a plane crash. So both biological parents took the unanswered questions to the grave.
A bond immediately formed with my new found niece. I love her with all my heart and soul. Everyone involved is content with what has been uncovered; Andrea, finding us and knowing her history, and we having this wonderful person in our lives… although she lives too far away. Her adoptive parents are supportive and so are the rest of the people connected to her. She even has two daughters and now I have two great-nieces. People tell us we look alike and even have some of the same mannerisms and personality traits.
After that first phone call, I went outside to my garden. All the spring flowers were in bloom. There were so many beautiful colored tulips. In the center of them was one white tulip. I have never had a white tulip before, nor planted one, or ever had one again. I have to believe it was a spiritual message; a soul had found its way home.
Yes, Virginia died penniless, but she left something… something great that money can’t buy. She left us a life, her legacy… Andrea.
©Copyright August 7, 2004 by Janet Rattay