25 February 1995
Memoir by Michael S. Usey
John, in the next to last chapter of the last book of our Bible, has a vision of the new Jerusalem, a symbol of our life with God after our death. Two aspects of this passage struck me as appropriate for this service in memory of Virginia. First, the writer notes that, when the new Jerusalem comes, "God will wipe away every tear, and there will no longer be any mourning or death or crying or pain." As you know, Virginia faced her death bravely; she knew even before the doctors did that she had cancer, and she was not afraid to die. In fact, she was ready to die. She told me several times during the last months that so many people that were dear to her that had already died and she was anxious to see them again: her mother, Emily, and her father, John, Leroy her husband of 39 years who died in 1968, and of course her sisters. Virginia was the sixth of eight sisters, but she was the last one alive. Someone has to be last, but there is great loneliness in being so.
The other thing that struck me about this passage are the colors that John mentions. John, trying to describe the indescribable, paints the New Jerusalem with the most vivid colors of his time. He saw the gates of the heavenly city made of pearl, and the streets of transparent gold, and the foundations of the city of jasper, sapphire, and emerald. It's a colorful image of God's coming kingdom, one that dazzles the mind's eye with its marvelous palate.
Colors: that is what I first associated with Virginia, and that is probably how I will always remember her. What I remember most vividly about first meeting Virginia was the bright color that she wore. On one of my first Sundays here I met this older woman with a classic smile in a sunflower yellow suit tastefully cut. And I found it easy to remember because in the next weeks she wore clothes with pizzazz--snappy dresses in teal and salmon and vivid royal blue. But I immediately sensed that her wearing bright colors was more than just a fashion statement; rather the bright colors seemed like an expression of some inner part of who she was and how she saw life.
Of course, it was not only that she wore bright colors when she came to church, but the fact that she came at all. There were plenty of members of College Park several years younger, but that didn't come because of various aches and pains. But not Virginia--even at 87; she was not one to let the setbacks of older age get her down. She came to church to worship even when I knew she felt bad, because she thought it was important to be here, and because she loved the people of this church. And Virginia came because she was faithful; she continued to come to College Park even when her favorite pastor, Randall Lolley, came to First Baptist here in Greensboro. That I found amazing and very telling about her definition of church. And the colors that she wore where an indication of her attitude: I never heard her complain or bemoan her declining health; she would only joke about it. The only time one church member had heard her complain about was when she became too old to help in the church nursery; she was lamenting that she could no longer help with the children, whom she dearly loved.
I think that it is fitting today that Virginia is remembered by an individual like me, who only knew her a short time--seven months, as well as by someone like Peggy Haymes, who knew her several decades. What is remarkable about our 2 recollections of Virginia is that there is a great consistency between the two. She didn't lose her basic essence, her best qualities, even her feistiness, as she aged. To know Virginia is know that there was little or no pretense about her--and there never was from what I am told. She told it as she saw it, and there was nothing superficial or artificial about her. She was a colorful person.
Who else but a colorful person like Virginia would have taught herself to play the dulcimer? She attended dulcimer workshops and some of the people that she met there became her friends for the rest of her life, and a few are here today. Isn't that vintage Virginia? She meets someone for a few days, and they feel so connected to her that they become friends for the rest of her life. She played Amazing Grace on the dulcimer for a worship service here about 4 1/2 years ago. She played "Simple Gifts," the church's theme song this past Advent, for the Steelmans when they came to visit her recently; the lyrics were framed on her dining room wall. When she was attending one dulcimer workshop, she saw people carrying these long bags. She thought they were golf bags, but when she discovered they were carrying cases for dulcimers, she made herself one but--can you guess--it was a lovely colorful version of the typical funcional but dull ones!
There was much in Virginia that was beautiful and praiseworthy. Virginia was adventurous: she loved to travel, and she and Leroy did--all over the country with their Airstream trailer. In fact, she and her husband would take the back roads; Leroy hated to drive on the main roads, but would say to Virginia, "Let's see what's down that road," and off they would go. She continued to travel some even after his death, as when she went to the Florida Keys by herself. She was resourceful and creative: she designed their house in Winston-Salem. She was talented, an artist--she painted, and there were stories to go with every colorful painting. Obviously, Virginia had a eye for beauty; she loved Early American furniture and pictures. Over her bed she had a picture of a New England house, and another of a Mississippi plantation, much like the area where she was born in Meridian, Miss., in 1907. The side-by-side pictures one churchmember found symbolic of the woman herself--her different facets--for, although her roots were from Miss., she loved New England. She was also extremely friendly; she related to all people--never met a stranger. She was courageous; she moved to Greensboro after living in Winston Salem since 1929. Instead of crying about moving or pineing over lost friends, she jumped right in, joined a church, and made close friends here. She was tough: when she fell and broke her hip, she dragged herself to the door and was there for some time before help came. She use to joke about it by saying with a twinkle in her eye that she was that woman in the commercial who said, "Help; I've fallen and I can't get up."
The color wasn't the only thing that she loved about birds, but it was certainly one attraction they had to this colorful woman. She fed a bevy of birds outside her apartment window. There was something about their beauty and grace that called to her. When I visited her in late January, she was deeply troubled about what would happen to "her birds," as she called them. At the time, the Masonic Home was refurbishing the exterior to her apartment, and the contractors had torn out most of the plants. She was vexed that "her birds" were losing their winter homes and food supply. So let me make this suggestion: if you wish to honor Virginia's memory, let each of us build or buy a new bird house or bird feeder, however modest, and hang it outside of our house or apartment, and somewhere on it, let's put the words, "In memory of Virginia, and her love for birds." I have already done this and will think of her each time I enjoy birds near it. What more fitting memorial could we create?
The night that Virginia died I stopped over at the Bass Care Unit. She was resting uneasily, her color was ashen, and her breathing was labored and difficult. She was dressed in a plain white gown, unlike the colorful clothes that she liked to wear. I prayed over her briefly, and my prayer was the same that it had been for the last two weeks: that she be allowed to die quickly and painlessly--a good death, which she desired. And she died at 3:50 Wednesday morning. When they called me at 4 am--I had requested to be notified sooner rather than later--I breathed a prayer of thanksgiving that our prayers had been answered. And that the woman who I didn't recognize as Virginia had already passed on to other fields. Fields which, like the wildflowers and birds in them, blazed of color and verve. She was back to herself, I believe.
I'm not sure what you would like said at your funeral, but what has been said today of Virginia would be quite enough for me. Here is a person that loved beauty in nature and art and music; here is one who loved people, loved her church, loved life, and most importantly of all, loved God. She added color to all our lives, as she does now to her friends and family who walk with her in the New Jerusalem.