"Virginia, you must not sing. Do not ever sing." That was her stepmother, the piano teacher. The little girl looked down at her ragged shoes, looked up, and when it was clear there was no more to be heard, turned and walked quietly away.
She didn't sing. But when her daughter was old enough for band, somehow the family came up with a clarinet. There wasn't a lot to do in that little Montana town, so the daughter got good enough on that clarinet to get some college scholarship money.
She could sing, too. That, went the story, came from her dad, but that conclusion was reached in the absence of what she might have gained, both genetically and experientially, from her mother.
Her son, two years junior, sought the trumpet. Those were the guys who got to stand up and play solos, after all. What's not to like about trumpet? But through a couple of strange twists, he ended up lugging an old, silver, dented Eb upright tuba home.
Practice sounds in that small house couldn't have been anything close to enjoyable.
He, too, excelled on his instrument. No solos, but plenty of encouragement at home. And eventually at one college, after auditioning, heard, "I'll match any scholarship you get offered anywhere else." He landed at a different school for other reasons, where the tuba contributed four years of scholarship money.
The third child, somewhat later, is a singer like her sister, and took to the guitar, mostly as self accompaniment. She, too, would talk of the encouragement.
Virginia was proud of her kids, but never prouder than they were of her when, as a widow who had scarcely ever had a job, she went to business school, graduated at the head of her class, and took a position as a medical secretary. She eventually retired from that office.
Things looked good. She had purchased a house on her own and her three children were grown and gone and making their way in the world.
"You have two choices, Virginia," the doctor said. "Either stay here in Montana and die or go to Seattle and take a course of experimental treatment. Aplastic anemia is fatal."
She opted for the experiment. That was 1981. In the course of the treatment she was getting one or two blood transfusions a week. When that series was completed, she moved near her son. No one knew how long she'd live...a few days? a month? six weeks? six months? It's the stuff you don't talk about. When the subject comes up, you look down at your shoes, look back up, and walk away.
She lived to get to know and love her five grandchildren and four greatgranchildren. Plus two stepgrandchildren and three greatgrandchildren from them.
All these kids are growing up knowing the power of encouragement that she modeled. All will know her story, of conquering a fatal disease and living not days, not weeks, but 27 more years.
Virginia Barker died October 14, 2008 at age 90. She was preceded in death by her husband, Brentwood Barker, in 1968. She is survived by her daughters, Bernie and Cathy, and her son, Lee.