Every child needs a hero. Mine was Great Aunt Virgie - a larger than life presence who stood barely five feet tall, wore an apron, tied her hair in a bun, and could make even a small child feel important by the way she tilted her head, listened ever so carefully, and smiled readily with approval.
Her house sat high on a ridge overlooking an aging industrial city in upstate Pennsylvania , but to me it sat in the heart of Never-Never Land. Not as in never grow up, but as in never turn down a challenge, never give up, and never, never let anyone say a girl isn’t good enough.
In a time when women wore skirts and kept house, Aunt Virgie wore waders to go trout fishing, bagged bear and tracked deer. For us kids, visiting her house was like going on safari. Stuffed deer trophies with fearsome antlers crowded the walls, and a slightly ratty moose head tried to look regal. On the bookcase, a squirrel stood bolt upright; and sprawled on the living room floor were a pair of very large, very black and very scary bear rugs, heads intact, mouths opened in roar.
All were trophies of time Aunt Virgie and Uncle Ira spent hunting and fishing at their camp in Potter County, up north on the Pennsylvania-New York border. Back then, Potter County, much like Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, seemed to have more deer than people, more hunting camps than houses. Wildlife roamed the woodlands, and streams ran with trout. It was a place of dreams and legend.
Although I didn’t know it then, the Potter County camp was Aunt Virgie’s best gift to my sisters and me. In a time when horizons for girls were limited, Aunt Virgie showed us something else by her example. She gave us large footprints to step into and opened wide our sense of wonder. She challenged us to dream big and inspired us to go after our dreams.
About the time summer vacation drew to a close each year and we kids prepared to head home, early apples hung red and tempting on Aunt Virgie’s front yard tree. "You can have the apples that have fallen to the ground," she would tell us, "or pick the ones that are easy to reach." But the best apples, the tastiest ones, she challenged us, "are the ones you need to climb high for. The ones that make you reach.”
Aunt Virgie never wrote a book or inspired a movement. Her name can't be found on any list of famous women. But if we’ve been very fortunate, there’s a woman - a mother, aunt or teacher - who, like Great Aunt Virgie, touched our lives. Someone who shared their eyes so we could see the world in a different way. Who encouraged us, who listened. Someone seemingly small who was in fact much larger than life.