Florence Wheeling faced her last day like any other she woke at 5 a.m. to go to work. Hunched over, she slipped on a pair of galoshes and shuffled from her brick house to the chicken coop. She was found about an hour later, having collapsed in the February cold, apparently from a heart attack. She would have turned 90 next Fourth of July.
In Varina, where she lived on a 28-acre farm, almost everyone knew of Mrs. Wheeling, or "Flossie," as a fiercely independent woman who carried on the farming tradition after nearly everyone she knew her mother and father, her sisters and husband had long since died. And while development crept closer a car dealership here, a condominium there Wheeling stood her ground.
Whatever the weather or the pain, be it from shingles or arthritis or the knowledge that she was the last of a dying breed, she kept farming. The sign on her fence advertised her offerings: sometimes vegetables like beets and squash, other times milk, butter and eggs. That sign, and word of mouth, lured more than a few city folk to her door. At a time when global warming reports abound, a visitor couldn't help but be intrigued by this self-described "country girl" who only shopped for staples such as flour, sugar and, occasionally, meat.
But would Mrs. Wheeling ever up and leave and, oh, retire to Florida? In the eight years I knew her, I once made the mistake of asking her. "No, ma'am," she replied, fast and sharp. "I'm gonna have to pass out, and they'll have to move me out that way."
Wheeling had no children, and at her funeral last Wednesday, the only other family who showed up was a niece. But there was no lack of mourners. About 75 people packed the small room, where, in the absence of enough chairs, they stood for nearly an hour in hushed silence, waiting for the service to begin. The casket lay open, flanked by large bouquets of flowers, a show of ostentation that Mrs. Wheeling would surely have had a thing or two to say about.
"If she'd have had her way, we'd have put her in a pine box and thrown her out in the pasture," says Mark Deane, a friend of 13 years. But Wheeling's other good friend, Bill Goodale, to whom she bequeathed the farm, spared no expense. "This is one thing, she don't have no say-so now," said Goodale, placing a white teddy bear in her casket a gift he had planned to give her for Valentine's Day.
Mrs. Wheeling didn't much care for big ideas; what she knew best was work. "As long as you can do, you do; as long as you can crawl, you crawl," she would say. And so, perhaps it was only fitting that on the day she died, Feb. 4, she had already completed a morning chore: raking out the chicken coop and gathering up the eggs. She placed the basket of eggs on the ground then walked a few more steps until she fell, finally, on what she liked to call "the garden spot of the world." S