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By River Stillwood
It’s Thursday evening, 8:33, and I’m sitting in a cramped seat on a nonstop flight from St. Louis to Washington, DC. It’s an unexpected trip. I arrived back from San Diego and Phoenix only two days ago after a terrific visit with my mom, brothers, and relatives. I hadn’t even laundered my travel clothes or put away my suitcase. But I’m traveling again anyway. The whole family is. We have to.
The plane is only half-full and my seat is in the very back. There is no-one else sharing my aisle. Only the flight attendants are further back. It’s an old plane, too. So old that the windows are frosted with microscopic scratches. Even with the clear sky and full moon, the world below appears bathed in fog. The roar of the engines fills the cabin and everything trembles and vibrates and creaks and whirrs. It’s the perfect camouflage. No-one can hear me crying.
Two years ago today, I made a similar trip. I was going to see my grandmother, Virginia Morsey Wheeler Talley, on the occasion of her 90th birthday. A hundred family members and friends gathered to celebrate her and her longevity. This time, her family and closest friends are gathering to say good-bye. After contracting an aggressive form of pneumonia and a brief hospitalization, she is dying. Tomorrow morning, on her 92nd birthday, the doctor will remove the breathing apparatus keeping her alive.
How is it possible that Virginia, a woman I love so much, a woman so invincible, can be leaving us? How can her indomitable spirit be conquered? Until last week, she seemed immortal. Or, if not immortal, surely destined to be a centenarian. To be felled by illness? To die in a hospital? The universe has turned cruel.
It is Friday afternoon now and my grandmother is gone. Stunning. Unbelievable. Surreal. Her presence is still so strong, so vital, as though at any moment she will appear, spread wide her arms, and invite me near for a warm embrace. Or telephone, saying in her gentle, joyful voice, “Hello, Dear. It’s Virginia, How are you?” I miss her already. So very much.
Fortunately, the universe reasserted its grace and Virginia died peacefully, surrounded by love. Nine family members and one of her dearest friends were gathered at her bedside. Before she left, we held her hand, kissed her forehead, patted her arm. We leaned close, whispered private messages to her. We held cell phones to her ear while distant friends and relatives said their good-byes. We stood and talked and included her in the conversation. We sang “Happy Birthday” to her, starting out softly and then louder, moving from a sorrowful sound to a joyful one. We reminisced and laughed and cried. And when the time came and the respirator was removed, we stood, each with a hand touching her, as she breathed her final breaths.
She died at 10:10 this morning, seven minutes after the respirator was removed.
It’s Monday now. Most of the family has returned home. The plans to wrap up her life, disperse her belongings are underway. Her body will be cremated, the ashes interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Her things will be divided between the new Museum of the Native Americans and other Smithsonian institutions, family and friends.
I’m in Virginia’s apartment, trying to write with her computer. The computer is fine, though the screen print is huge and the cursor is a black, blinking block that is awkward to place where I try to put it. There is a way to reduce the print and cursor size, but it just doesn’t seem right to change Virginia’s settings. Not yet. It’s too soon. Besides, my brain hasn’t fully accepted that Virginia is gone. Although I know it won’t happen, I’m still waiting for her to come through the door.
Meantime, her absence is profound. A force of generosity, of kindness, of acceptance, thoughtfulness, understanding, wisdom… a force of goodness in the world is gone. There’s a hole in the universe.
I wanted to share with you what an amazing woman my grandmother was, but her death is too close and I can’t get my thoughts together. Instead, here is her obituary. When you read it, imbue it with love, with joy, with an inexorable lust for life and adventure, and you’ll understand why she was – is – cherished by so many.
Virginia Morsey Wheeler Talley
February 18, 1919 – February 18, 2011
Virginia Morsey Wheeler Talley died after a very brief illness on February 18, 2011, exactly 92 years to the day she was born. She was surrounded by family members and friends who celebrated her birth and held her in love as she passed.
Virginia was a remarkable human being, a true emissary of Light, who graced the world with her calm and fearless presence. Her academic and professional accomplishments were extraordinary, but her fondest memories were of her two wonderful marriages and family.
Virginia was born in Miami, Oklahoma, to the late Clyde and Susannah Morsey. She graduated valedictorian from the local high school at the age of 16 without missing one day of school. She attended Lindenwood College in St. Charles, MO, for two years before moving to St. Louis in 1939. There she lived with her beloved Uncle Edgar and Aunt Florence Polster, and her best friend and cousin, Philip Polster, and completed her undergraduate degree at Washington University.
Virginia entered law school in 1940, at the age of 21. She was the only woman in her law class and even though she worked many hours to pay her way through school, she graduated Valedictorian, Phi Beta Kappa, and was a member of the Order of the Coif. Significantly, she was voted the Editor of the Washington University Law Review. She would continue to attain that level of respect and adoration throughout her professional career.
In 1941, Virginia became an attorney for the Rural Electrification Administration, a New Deal agency bringing power to rural areas throughout the country. She moved to Washington, D.C. in 1946 with the REA and she shared a townhouse at 1902 R St, NW, with other professional women with whom she formed life-long, loving relationships. Lucy Fusco, Savannah Walker, Virginia Anthes, Frances Kenner, Sue McCall-Liggett, Dorothy Gregory, Dorothy Marlin and Virginia comprised the “R Street Gang.”
In 1947, she began working at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (later known as the World Bank) and the International Finance Corporation. While working for the World Bank, Virginia met Lt. General Raymond A. (“Speck”) Wheeler, a widower, who after retiring as Chief, Army Corps of Engineers, founded the Engineering Department of the bank. They married in 1959. Virginia left her position at the bank and, with Speck, formed an engineering-legal team, serving as consultants to the World Bank and the United Nations.
They enjoyed 15 exciting years together, traveling on frequent assignments usually related to international problems. Their assignments over the years had them traveling to the Congo, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, India, Pakistan, Southeast Asia, China, Japan and Australia. Speck died unexpectedly in 1974 at the age of 89. Virginia was 55 years old.
After Speck’s death, an old friend of his, Brigadier General Benjamin Branche (“BB”) Talley, whose wife had recently passed away, contacted Virginia to commiserate their losses. They fell in love and married in 1975. Together, they shared a very full 25 years traveling between their homes in Alaska and Washington, D.C. Virginia loved their life in Alaska, where they had a small home on 40 acres on the Kenai Peninsula, grew vegetables, fished, smoked and canned. She once caught a 54-pound salmon with a 20-pound test line from the shore. It seemed that there was nothing at which she did not excel.
Virginia and BB gave generously of themselves in Alaska: They worked tirelessly to move the state’s capitol to a more central location (which did not come to pass); produced a documentary, “Alaska at War,” describing the Japanese invasion of the U.S. Aleutian Islands in WWII. (It can often be seen on the History Channel); financed the building of a Senior Center in Anchor Point; and performed pro bono work for The Old Believers, a religious sect that fled Russia during the Stalin regime. They also established the Benjamin B. Talley Scholarship Endowment Fund for the education of engineers.
They had many wonderful friends in Alaska. After a long illness, BB died in 1998. Virginia stayed in Anchor Point, participating in a writing group, volunteering at the Visitor and Senior Centers, and traveling to far-flung locales once or twice a year with her dear friend, Jane Little.
In 2004, at the age of 85, Virginia bought an apartment at Knollwood (originally the Army Distaff Hall), a military retirement community in Washington, D.C., which she helped found in the 1960s. She returned to Alaska for the next two years. Eventually, she donated her Alaskan property to the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust and moved permanently to Washington, D.C.
Virginia had been a founding member of the District of Columbia Chapter AD of the P.E.O. (Philanthropic Educational Organization). In her last seven years, she became active in the chapter once again, wrote a book about her second husband’s extraordinary life, and regularly volunteered for assignments at Knollwood. Her last trip abroad was a three-week sojourn to Italy with her granddaughter, Keitheley Wilkinson. Over the course of her life, Virginia traveled to 46% of the world.
Virginia was a loving, generous soul. She inherited children and grandchildren through both her marriages and she encouraged us in all of our endeavors. She financially supported some throughout their higher education, some in illness, and some during life-changes. Her greatest gifts, however, were her deep sense of peace within herself, the equanimity with which she viewed all peoples, her fearlessness and her compassion. Virginia’s was truly a life well-lived.
We will miss her kindness, guidance and presence more than anyone can imagine.
Virginia leaves to treasure her memory her granddaughters by her first marriage, Keitheley Wilkinson, and Laurie Vogt and her husband, John, and their 3 children; her son and grandchildren by her second marriage, Robert and Holly Ann Talley, Kay Talley, Quinn Talley, River Stillwood, Krist and Mary Talley, Branch Talley, Mark and Barbara Talley, and Steve and Judy Talley.
There will be a memorial service to honor Virginia’s memory at Knollwood at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, February 26, 2011, and another, as yet unscheduled, at Arlington National Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to the Virginia M. Talley Endowed Scholarship Fund in the Washington University School of Law, St. Louis, Missouri.