Before we had a tourism commission in the Northern Neck, before we had welcoming centers informing visitors and passing out literature, and before we had what one might call a “promoter” heralding the advantages of living here, we had Iva Benson. Ironically, Iva was a Come-here, a native of Ypsilanti, Michigan, who came to the Northern Neck through her marriage to Raymond Benson.
Iva’s world centered on Route 200 from her meticulously kept home on East Church Street, to the Kilmarnock United Methodist Church farther into town, to the old Safeway store on Irvington Road. For three decades she worked as a clerk at the Safeway, first in the Quonset hut building that was built in the 1950s, now the site of the Tri-Star parking lot, and then in the new store, the present Tri-Star, on the site of the former Kilmarnock Locker Plant. Prior to the Quonset hut building, Safeway had operated from a store on Main Street.
In those days the entrance to the new store was near the office, and Iva manned the register closest to the door. The store did not have computers at the checkouts, but rather old-time cash registers, meaning that Iva and her colleagues had to enter each purchase by hand. She was quite efficient, but her work was also a large part of her social life.
She made friends with everyone who passed through her line, and the ensuing friendships were not casual. She told the management of the store that she would forego taking the customary coffee breaks in order to compensate for her chatting with patrons. She greeted everyone, asked for news, and learned about each person. In subsequent visits to the store, she would carry on where she had left off in the previous conversations.
For newcomers to the area, Iva soon became their source for recommendations: what doctor or dentist to see, what church options existed, who was who in the local community. None of her discussion was gossip, but rather an effort on her part to have people be at home.
From the other perspective, the Come-heres came to know her and her family from their chats with her. Each year she would spend her leave time back in Michigan visiting her mother, her aunt, and other family members. The mother and the aunt were twins, and their increasing longevity was a constant topic in Iva’s conversations. They lived to be 99, and when they died, they were among the oldest surviving twins in America. I never met either of them, but I came to know them through Iva.
Iva’s world underwent a radical transformation with the death of her husband, Raymond, in 1976. Thereafter, each day at her lunchtime, she would drive down to White Stone to visit his grave. Her customers shared her sorrow with her, which gave her great comfort. She appreciated peoples’ sympathy and empathy, but she always was cheerful and positive in speaking of herself or of others.
Newcomers must have been perplexed at seeing the longer lines at Iva’s counter, compared with other shorter ones. I recall my mother’s willingness to wait in Iva’s line in order to be able to say hello and chat with her, even if briefly. Many others were of a similar bent.
After 30 years at the stand, in 1987 Iva retired, allowing her to spend more time visiting her mother who died in 1995, and then in 2002 she decided to sell her home and move back to Michigan to be near the family members who still lived there. Her departure brought sorrow to all who had come to know her and to enjoy the experience of her ebullient personality.
During her time in the Northern Neck, Iva was a one-person welcoming committee, a bridge between locals and come-heres, a significant contributor to the wonderful quality of life we enjoy in what the late historian, C. Jackson Simmons, termed “our moated Eden.”
Iva Marie Watling Benson, December 30, 1924 – January 18, 2022. R.I.P.