The Eulogy for Virginia Ellen Belasco
(August 15, 1923 – May 7, 2016)
I did not know Virginia well. I knew her as the feisty, slightly grumpy but funny and basically warm hearted receptionist at Jean’s chiropractic office. When you arrive as a patient, you have to sign in, and early on in my visits Virginia, forever the school teacher, called me out for the sloppiness of my handwriting. From then on I made a point of calling forth my best penmanship.
Later I visited with her when she was in the nursing home, a place she made it quite clear she did not want to be. Her mind was fading, and when I asked her questions about her life, much of her life seemed hidden from her behind a veil. The one thing she felt confident recalling were her teaching days, of which she rightfully took great pride.
I didn’t know her well, and I suspect most of us here today did not know her well either. She had outlived most of her contemporaries. She was so fiercely self-reliant, so determined not to be the object of pity.
But when I sat down with Jean, Tom and Deon and listened to the outline of her life story, I found myself in awe of Virginia. Of what she had endured. Of how she had persevered.
Her life started out well.
Virginia Ellen Belasco was born on August 15, 1923 in Irvington and grew up in Livingston. Her parents, Edith and Norman Butts were proper Brits, having immigrated to the United States from England. Virginia had an older sister named Margaret with whom she seems to have gotten on well.
It was a happy childhood. Virginia always spoke warmly of her mother. Her mother had a large garden in their yard, and loved to spend time there. She would can fruit and vegetables. Her mother made clothes for Virginia and was also a wonderful baker.
Virginia’s father was an engineer and was able to fix most anything that needed fixing in the house.
An out of the ordinary memory that stood out for Virginia from her childhood was a literally shocking tale. One time at about the age of eight an electrical storm passed through town. Virginia was inside her house in close proximity to the telephone when lightening struck the house, racing through the phone line, smacking her with a jolt of current that literally ran through her body, knocking her across the room. Although she survived the experience intact, it was certainly traumatic, and it left her with an unusual ability for the rest of her life to perceive when another electrical storm was brewing. Unfortunately for Virginia the indication of a coming storm registered in her body as a severe headache. Her headaches were better predictors than the weathermen of the coming of storms.
From early in her childhood Virginia had known she wanted to be a teacher. After High School she attended New Jersey State Teacher College in Newark, graduating in 1945 with a certificate to teach first through eighth grades, and began teaching in the Livingston School system. Three years later she received a permanent certification which entitled her to also serve as a principal, which she did during part of her 47 year teaching career.
A year after graduating college Virginia married her husband Frank on June 23rd, 1946 in Sacred heart Roman Catholic Church in Newark. Frank’s Italian parents were hoping he would find himself a nice Italian girl, so apparently they were not very pleased with her son’s choice of a bride.
But Virginia’s parents seemed to have been pleased with Frank. Frank was studying to be a funeral director and had plans to open a funeral home in Lake Hiawatha. When Frank and Virginia moved into their home in Lake Hiawatha, Virginia’s father built a chimney and a fireplace in celebration of Frank’s completion of his studies.
Virginia gave birth to her first child, Jeff on March 12, 1949. Two years later on March 7th, 1951, she gave birth to a daughter, Nancy.
It was soon after Nancy’s birth that the generally happy life Virginia had led began to encounter an extraordinary amount of grief and heartache.
Seven months after Nancy’s birth, Virginia’s beloved father died suddenly of a heart attack. At some point Virginia’s heartbroken mother came to live with her, giving Virginia help in raising the children.
Tragically though, at the age of 18 months Virginia’s daughter Nancy died suddenly when a rapid spreading infection overtook her before her parents could get her to the hospital in time. This is the kind of heart break that can simply overwhelm a person.
But the onslaught was not done.
At some point after Nancy’s death Virginia’s son Jeff was diagnosed with a slow growing brain tumor that would leave him mentally disabled for the rest of his life, and incapable of independent living.
And then to top all this heartache off, in 1956 Virginia’s husband Frank suddenly died of a heart attack, leaving Virginia a 33 year old widow and single mother of a disabled child.
Virginia was a woman of honor and integrity. Her husband had incurred significant debts from his education and business start up plans, and in the years that followed Virginia made certain that all of Frank’s debts were paid.
Through the years that followed Virginia taught full time, took on jobs on the side as tutor, and spent her summers teaching summer school. She was an extraordinary teacher, who later in her life taught students at Seton Hall University who aspired to be teachers. Virginia was strict, but her students recognized that there was love behind her discipline. She had an ability to gauge the potential in a student – whether that student be a child or an adult — lowering or raising her expectations accordingly. When a student was not living up to their potential, she would call them out with failing grades.
Years later, it was deeply gratifying to Virginia when she would receive cards at Christmas time from students she had taught years back in which they expressed their appreciation for the profound influence Virginia had had upon their lives both with her profound insight to their abilities and her dogged insistence that they reach their full potential.
She literally gave her soul and body to teaching. Once Virginia received a kick in her calf from a student so severe it left her with a vascular problem in her leg for the rest of her life. But it did not deter her from her passion for teaching.
Apart from her teaching, Virginia’s life revolved around her son Jeff, to whom she was totally devoted. She never took vacations, or even away for a weekend, because in her mind the needs of Jeff precluded such pleasures for herself.
When her son showed an interest in trains, Virginia took him to train shows, and had an elaborate model train track set up in the basement where Jeff would spend hours on end in contented play. Virginia hired somebody to come in and build a beautiful miniature village through which the trains could travel.
For the sake of Jeff Virginia would make a big deal of holidays, inviting friends over to the house for barbecues or dinners, so that Jeff could feel a sense of connection in a web of friendship.
Jeff lived to the age of 50, dying in 1999. Having retired from teaching a few years back, with Jeff’s death it seemed to Virginia as though she had lost her reason for living. She went from making a big deal of holidays to pretending that holidays simply did not exist. Holidays in her mind were all about Jeff, and with him gone, their celebration was just too painful.
Virginia’s one enduring joy was her lifelong love of animals, which she had shared with Jeff, who over the years had brought home several stray cats or dogs from his wandering about Lake Hiawatha. There were always multiple cats and dogs living in Virginia’s house, rescue animals everyone.
Virginia was friends with Jean’s parents. Like Virginia’s parents, Jean’s mom was from England, so they shared that connection. Virginia was a customer at Jean’s father’s drug store, and later a patient at his chiropractic practice. Sometimes Virginia would turn to Jean’s father when a man’s firm direction was needed with Jeff.
When Jean’s mother died in 1987, Virginia offered herself to Jean for comfort and advice for which Jean was grateful. Virginia took Jean under her wing and was always there for her. She loved Jean like a daughter, which as all you mothers and daughters out there know, always involves a tension between deep affection and aggravation.
Jean’s niece Deon found a surrogate grandmother in Virginia. She remembers being taught to read as a child by Virginia. Deon moved in to live with Virginia for the last four years of her life, doing what she could to help keep Virginia in her house, out of which Virginia was determined not to be taken.
Virginia was famous for her grumpiness, but there were a couple of things that could reliably cut through the grumpiness. One was Tom, whom she adored, and in whom she saw something of her own father. She seemed to like it when he wouldn’t give in to her grumpy pouting. On the morning of Tom and Jean’s wedding, Virginia announced she wasn’t coming. “I’m too tired,” she said, “I can’t get out of bed.” “Oh yes you are!” said Tom. Expletive, expletive. “Even if I have to carry you there myself you’re coming.” Tom spent the last couple of hours right up until it was time to put on his wedding suit building a ramp upon which Virginia could be wheeled to the reception. “Steel shell and a heart of marshmallow,” is how Tom described her.
Dogs could also do the trick. Towards the end of her life, with her health and mind deteriorating the sight of her beloved dog Petey, or the new puppy Deon had waiting for her when she came home from the nursing home, would take the grouchy away, soften her heart, and even bring tears of joy to her eyes.
The third thing that could cut through Virginia’s grumpiness was Kathryn. Virginia was slow to warm to the idea of Jean adopting a child, but when Kathryn arrived, she truly gave her heart to the child, gladly embracing the role of grandmother — “G G” as she was called. She adored Kathryn. In her bedroom where she spent the majority of her time during the last stretch of her life, Virginia had a couple of big, framed photos of her beloved grandchild placed directly in front of her, so she could find comfort in gazing upon her beautiful face.
Throughout Virginia’s life, beneath her crusty exterior was a warm heart willing to help wherever she could. She was so very giving and generous. If somebody needed something, Virginia would go without herself in order to help the person in need.
She was fiercely independent and self-reliant, finding it extraordinarily difficult to ask for help. In spite of her distaste for needing help, with the love and support of Deon, Jean, Tom and Kathryn, and of a series of home health aides, Virginia endured, ambivalent about whether she wanted to live or die. A part of her longed to leave this world with body so weakened and full of pain, but her instinctual response to life was to hold on tight and not let go.
As she neared the end of her life, Virginia would often hold conversations with her mother, the great nurturer of her life. She was in that realm between this world and the next. And now she has made the transition to that place where there are no more tears, or pain or death, just eternal love and life. And she loves you still.