Farewell to Virginia
Among the more interesting and eventful assignments I've had was the time I was hired by a retirement community to photograph several of their residents. The reason for the group portrait was that all of these folks had local schools named after them. Needless to say, they don't put your name on a school unless you grew up when the world was still in black and white.
I was running behind schedule, feeling frantic and hoping that no one would fall, or succumb to the heat and humidity, or have a stroke. Especially me.
Meanwhile, an elderly woman nearby was peppering me with questions:
"What are you doing?"
"Who are you photographing?"
"Are these photographs going to be in the newspaper?"
"How long are you going to be here?"
"Are you photographing everyone who lives here?"
I was trying to maintain my composure and be polite, but I was really preoccupied, stressed out and beginning to think she might have a screw loose.
"Will you take my picture?" she asked.
"Well...I have to photograph this group, and then I have to break down all this equipment and haul it inside and set it all up again to do a headshot, so...if you're still here when I'm finished (realizing as the words came out of my mouth that the phrase "if you're still here" might have have a different connotation to someone who can see the light at the end of the tunnel) then I'll be happy to take your picture."
"I'll meet you back here at 3:30" she said...making it clear that I better not be tardy.
The cumulative age of the group was somewhere close to 500 years. Seriously. 6 x 80 something = High Potential for Disaster. I held my breath as my subjects arrived with the assistance of canes, walkers, oxygen tanks and orderlies. As they crossed the lawn, I prayed that no one would trip and fall and break a hip or have to be hauled off in an ambulance. Or worse.
To my extreme relief, we completed the shot without any injuries or fatalities, and as we packed up the gear to move inside for the second shot, I noticed that the woman who had interrogated me earlier was still there, giving me the eye to let me know she meant business. By the time we dragged all of our gear back outside, my crew was exhausted, especially since we had shot another assignment earlier in the day.
And then we saw her.
"Hello" she said, having freshly coiffed her hair, changed into an elegant outfit, and sporting a multi-colored walking cane.
"Hi", I replied, shooting a sideways glance at my assistants, who had begun loading the gear into my truck.
"I've picked out three of my favorite spots" she said.
"Is that right?"
I realized that this tenacious little old lady wasn't kidding, and that I had bitten off way more than I could chew.
"My name's John, by the way" I said, extending my hand.
"I'm Virginia Walker" she responded, gripping my hand firmly. "Let's get started over here at the gazebo."
By now the absurdity of this situation was making me wonder when the Cosmic Candid Camera crew was going to step out from behind a bush and say "Gotcha!" She had very definite ideas about how she wanted to pose, where I should position my camera, and completely disregarded any suggestions I made. My assistants were chuckling, so I decided to give in and just let her boss us around.
We gave her the V.I.P. treatment, using studio lighting to photograph her at the gazebo, and near a flower bed, and sitting on the edge of a fountain. As nearly an hour passed, my three assistants, whom I was now paying over time, grinned at me to let me know they were really getting a kick out of this quirky character.
As we chatted, I learned that Virginia was 92 years old, had three children, was extremely well-read and well-traveled, and not only was extremely sharp and savvy, but was also a funny, charming, dignified, and sophisticated lady.
As things were drawing to a close, I asked "So...Virginia. Are you single?"
"I'm a widow" she replied..."My late husband was a Texas Supreme Court Justice."
"So...are you seeing anyone?" I continued.
"No...not at the moment." She smiled coyly.
"If I asked you out on a date, would you go with me?"
After a long pause, she answered. "Yes...I suppose I would" in a tone that let me know that would be a big step down for her. And I don't mean age-wise.
"What are you doing Saturday night?" I asked, grinning from ear to ear.
Virigina and I had several dates over the ensuing months. Once we went on a double date with one of her daughters and her "boy"friend...who were in their 60's. Another time we scandalized the retirement community when she invited me to dinner and led me from table to table introducing me to all her friends. On another occasion we sat together in her apartment as she showed me 80 years worth of Christmas cards, each one a painting or drawing that she had created every year since she was a teenager.
I grew very fond of Virginia, and every time we got together, we laughed ourselves silly, and invariably I got a little teary-eyed at something particularly poignant or touching or insightful she would say.
Virginia was always very concerned about my spiritual well-being. She insisted on buying me a subscription to a booklet of daily devotions called Daily Word. After carefully jotting down my mailing address, she sent off the subscription card, and called me repeatedly to ask if the publication had arrived in the mail yet.
After about a month of this, she took down all of my information again, sent in another subscription card, and began asking me again whether I had received my first issue. I thought about lying to her so she would stop pestering me, but because I knew she received Guideposts herself, I was afraid there might be a quiz! When I told her I had not, she got on the phone with customer service and registered her dissatisfaction. I wonder how many complaints they get at Daily Word magazine.
One night we went out to dinner and as the waiter approached our table he asked "Can I get you anything to drink?"
"I'll have a frozen margarita with salt!" Virginia said, as if she drank tequila for breakfast. She couldn't have weighed 100 lbs., and if you've ever sampled the margaritas at Fonda San Miguel, you'll understand my concern about the possible side effects on a diminutive little old lady. As she sipped her drink, dabbing the salt from her lips with her napkin, I said "Hey Virginia, let's make a pact."
"O.K....what sort of pact?"
"Whichever one of us goes first...and I'm not suggesting it's going to be you...let's agree that if there's something on the other side of this, something after this life...let's agree that we'll make every attempt to get a message back to the one who's left behind."
"Oh, there's definitely life after death," she said. "You've got a deal!"
We shook on it, and as I walked her to her door and hugged her tiny frame goodnight, I thought how fortunate I was to have a friend like her. I've been on a fair number of dates during my 30 plus years as a bachelor, and I can say with complete honesty that I've never had more fun, more of a feeling of connection or more belly laughs and tears of utter delight than I did with Virginia.
A few weeks later my phone rang, and Virginia's name came up on my caller I.D. Always happy to hear from her, I grabbed the receiver and cheerfully said "Hi Virgina! How are you?" There was a long pause on the other end, and then I heard a woman's voice saying that Virginia was gone.
A few days later her son called from San Francisco to ask if the family could use one of my photos for Virginia's obituary. I told him I'd be honored.
A reminder popped up on my computer screen that it was Virginia's 94th birthday. I went to lunch at a Mexican restaurant and could have sworn I saw her sitting at a nearby table sipping a margarita.
And then, a month to the day after she died, I opened my mailbox to find my first issue of Daily Word.
Thanks Virginia. I'll miss you.