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WESTERN MONTANA LIVES - Virginia Johnson made most of life with food, friends
WESTERN MONTANA LIVES - Virginia Johnson made most of life with food, friends

Virginia Marie Johnson was, in many ways, a woman of modern tastes.

But for music, food, religion and family, she looked to the jazz age, the jitterbug and her Lebanese roots, relishing only traditional Mediterranean fare, the Roman Catholic Church and big, fat rollicking get-togethers.

Growing up in Missoula, in one of the very first houses built on the smooth, rolling hillsides of Linda Vista, Virginia's five children recall how those family gatherings frequently revolved around a warm, bustling kitchen, steeped in aromas of cumin, grape leaves and cabbage rolls. They remember a large, extended family of olive-skinned aunts, uncles and cousins, with the elder children teaching the younger to curse in Arabic or Lebanese.

"Everything was about bringing people together," said daughter Elaine Johnson. "To her, you got together. That was just what you did. And cooking was like love. When you ate her food, you loved her."

Mostly, the children remember an adoring, attentive mother who showered them with praises and fussed over their mischievousness ways.

"She was a very Catholic, Mediterranean mother, with the guilt and the anxiety, but then all the pampering," said Elaine. "She couldn't swim, but she made all of us learn so we wouldn't drown."

"Even when she was sick, you would never have known it," said Mark, one of the twins. "Instead of worrying about herself and her pain, she was always worrying about everybody else. She cared about everybody and she was kind of last on the list."

When fondue parties became in vogue in the 1960s, Virginia and her girlfriends founded the "Fun-Due Club," with heavy emphasis on having their due fun, and very little focus on melted swiss cheese or earthenware pots.

"I think I went one time and I was embarrassed because all they did was poke at you," said Virginia's eldest son, Greg. "I thought: 'Forget the fondue club, I'm going fishing.' "

Greg still fishes today, and has fond memories of his family's annual weeklong camping trips on Rock Creek, where he would catch and clean a mess of fish for his mom to prepare, which she did with perfect flair.

Despite her predilection for tradition, Virginia stayed up-to-date on the latest clothing fashions, and had a weakness for donning fine garments. So it's no surprise that in the days before her death, she asked Elaine if they might go shopping at Herberger's, her favorite store, where all the clerks knew Virginia and attended to her on bended knee. They even offered her a job once, but Virginia's lungs had already begun to give her trouble, and she chose a volunteer position instead.

"I mean, she wore me out," Elaine said. "She just always wanted to be on the go n seeing people, calling friends n until the day she died. And she always wanted to go shopping."

On the day of her final shopping spree, Virginia rode in a wheelchair with her oxygen tank, a little old lady with sharp features who might as well have been royalty, as the clerks scrambled to find blouses that matched this vest or that pair of shoes.

Like many Mediterranean women, Virginia had a hooked, raptorial kind of beauty, and one day in the old neighborhood she easily caught the eye of her future husband, Nestor. Virginia was on leave from the Civil Service in California, where she worked during World War II, while Nestor was home from the Navy, and his mother lived next door to Virginia's childhood home.

She was washing the car in the alley, and Nestor walked over and introduced himself.

"She was 30 and he was 27, so she kind of robbed the cradle," says Greg.

A stay-at-home mom, Virginia raised all five children in Missoula, where she was a lifelong member of St. Anthony Parish and volunteered with the Altar Society. When her children were grown, she sold Avon supplies and later worked at the Jack and Jill Nursery as the secretary and office manager.

As her health became more unpredictable, Virginia welcomed help from her children and her niece, Diane. Elaine and Diane helped Virginia with her finances and reconciled her checkbooks.

"She would write these little notes in her check register that said 'I love you,' " Elaine said. "Before she passed, she wrote a note at the top of one page that said 'I love life every day.' I mean, she was dying. Her heart was going out, her lungs were failing. And yet she kept this positive, lovely attitude."

She loved babies, loved to laugh and loved her girlfriends, a strong and uncommon attribute for women raising families in the 1950s. But Virginia would get the girls together and head to the rodeo to laugh and drink beer.

"She would come home giggling like crazy," says Elaine. "She just had so much fun in life."

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