Are LeBron, Meryl & Mick heroes? Nope, but MissVirginia Bullock was.
Miss Virginia C. Bullock (1910–84) was fussy, cranky, and anxious. But she kept her family in one piece during trying times.
(This article, under the title “The Piecing of Her Past,” first appeared in The New York Times on October 26, 1997.)
SHE handed me the shopping list. This is how it read the first week and, with few exceptions, for hundreds of weeks after that.
2 qts. milk (latest date)
2 sticks Fleischmann’s Margarine (light)
2 bananas, not terribly ripe
Del Monte ‘’French’’ cut string beans
Scott’s Liquid Gold (sale size)
3 thin-skinned lemons
1 box Kleenex (pop-up only)
3 cans Canada Dry ginger ale
Whole roasted chicken — UNCUT!
Exactitude was the province of Miss Virginia C. Bullock. I did her grocery shopping for 10 years until she died in 1994 at the age of 84, and I learned early that there was no room for substitutions. The third week, with the deli sold out of ginger ale, I showed up with Sprite. It nearly derailed our evening, which, after marketing, included a light supper and 30 minutes of TV.
‘’Dear,’’ she said, placing the cans back in the bag for me to take home. She rarely used my first name, and she had a deep, glassy voice that sounded as if it were coming through an old black rotary phone. ‘’Dear, I wish you’d have consulted me about this first.’’
From then on, I always did. I once heard her remark, in a long conversation about Oreos to an elderly friend down the hall, ‘’And now Nabisco has complicated my life with the Double Stuffs!’’
For Virginia, such fussiness was more than a right of old age. And it was more than just her knack for precision, evidenced by her 40-year career as a bookkeeper. Obsessing over the details of her existence was how Virginia had retained her sanity during the four decades when her family — lashed by physical maladies, mental illness and exceptional neediness — came undone before her eyes.
We met at a class for new members at a Presbyterian church in Morningside Heights. I was a 24-year-old graduate student from Michigan; she was a born and bred New Yorker who considered the Bronx the edge of the universe and Presbyterianism a little below her. But her arthritic knees now forbade her to mount the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where her family had been ‘’personally acquainted with the clergy going back to Bishop Manning.’’
Her bad knees also had made shopping increasingly difficult, and one day after church, to my surprise, she flagged me down with her trusty red-handled cane and invited me to her apartment on 113th Street and Broadway, where she had lived for 25 years.
As we sipped our tea, Virginia floated the idea of my assisting her with shopping. She hastened to add: ‘’Of course, if you carry those heavy bags, I’ll have to insist that you take supper with me.’’
Being a grad student, I could see the benefit of adopting an aunt who gave me a hot meal every week. Moreover, an evening with Virginia, who read a steady diet of Victoria Holt novels, seemed like the perfect antidote to seminars at Columbia, where my beloved Melville was being deconstructed.
Virginia was about 5 foot 2, with a solid build, soft skin, tidy gray hair and cat-eye glasses. She always ordered dresses from Lane Bryant and, winter or summer, wore a beret outdoors. Her apartment was as modest as her clothing, a tasteful layout of sturdy chairs, coffee tables, mirrors and worn but cherished rugs. At the end of her day bed stood a neat stack of The Ladies’ Home Journal and 1001 Decorating Ideas, and solicitations from dozens of charities to which she gave a few dollars.
Our evenings were laced with talk about the blossoms in Riverside Park, her disgust over loosening morals and the fact that she saw nothing funny in David Letterman.
She spoke occasionally about her family, though tribulations were skirted with a delicacy she no doubt learned from her mother, Virginia, a Southern belle from a prominent North Carolina family, the Lambs.
Her mustachioed father, Frederick Bullock, was a descendant of John Alden, who came over on the Mayflower and married Priscilla Mullens, the daughter of one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact. Mr. Bullock had been a salesman for the Burns Brothers Coal Company, which, Virginia liked to remind me, had offices at 500 Fifth Avenue.
There had been six Bullock children, though by the time I met Virginia, she had outlived them all. Fred, the eldest, had managed the stills department at the Fox Film Corporation in New York. Wilson, a garment salesman with boyish eyes, developed schizophrenia in his late 40’s. Caroline was a star student whose battle with myasthenia gravis, a disease that weakens the muscles, ended her plans to go to medical school. Frankie had died before his seventh birthday in the influenza epidemic of 1919. And John was a Columbia graduate whom Virginia described as a ‘’brilliant teacher, but very impractical, very impractical.’’
Virginia and I were family in the best sense of the word. She never complained when I missed a week. She hesitated to ask me to do other favors, and considered me heroic when I changed a light bulb. She slipped me pocket money and she made tasty little suppers. On holidays, I dropped in for a few hours, and she ordered in turkey dinners. Our arrangement lasted long beyond graduate school.
The longer I knew Virginia, the more the Bullock family intrigued me. What had happened to this family to make Virginia the lone survivor? Why did only two of the six children get married, and why were there no children? I probed gently for information, usually over tea after supper, but my attempts were met with a deft change of subject or simply a request to pass the sugar dots.
Virginia didn’t want to talk much about her own life, either, though she did confess that she once passed up a serious marriage proposal from ‘’a very responsible gentleman in the framing business.’’
But, she added matter-of-factly, as if she had only for a millisecond entertained the thought of leaving her family, ‘’I told him ‘No,’ dear, and I never looked back.’’
Hot Tea and Sugar And a Bold Request
I met Virginia when I was single, and as I added a wife and children to my nest, Virginia greeted the arrival of each with gritted teeth. She attended my wedding and never forgot the birthdays of my children, but the end of my bachelorhood was a bit of a blow for her. It did not curtail my visits so much as introduce into our relationship an element of uncertainty. She knew better than most people how family life could pull one away from friends, and she seemed to be waiting for bad news that would end our arrangement, like an order from my wife that we move to the suburbs.
My wife was pregnant with our first child when the two of us stayed with Virginia for several days to help her through an illness. Since my wife had not begun to show, I didn’t tell Virginia, figuring that bulletin was the last thing she wanted to hear.
Several months later, when I made the announcement, Virginia said coolly: ‘’Oh, that? I knew that, dear. I could tell when Gina stayed here.’’ She dropped a few sugar cubes in her tea and looked up at me, light glinting off her glasses. ‘’I wasn’t born yesterday, you know.’’
I had all but given up hope of knowing more about the Bullocks when one evening, as I was putting on my coat, she mentioned some letters. There were boxes full of them, she said, ‘’all our family’s correspondence through the years.’’
A gold mine, I thought. Surely these would reveal more about the anatomy of the family. On my next visit, I told her I would like to see the letters. She said she would retrieve them when she had the energy, a day I knew would never arrive.
Two years before she died, however, opportunity knocked. We were eating dessert when she mentioned that she had retained a lawyer to make out her will. Before I could swallow my Del Monte peach, I heard myself asking her to leave me the letters.
Her face got still and heavy as wet sand. She looked down into the waves of cream in her teacup. The fluorescent light above us buzzed. I was sure I had crossed a line, that she would inform me that this would be our last supper.
Instead, she looked up, her blue eyes blazing with unusual brightness, and said: ‘’Well, dear, that would be lovely. I’ll instruct the attorney.’’ Only later could I identify the expression that crossed her face when I made my request: terror, then relief.
Postcards and Telegrams and Other Small Treasures
Virginia had made me executor of her estate, and after she died I went through the apartment like an archeologist let loose in an ancient tomb.
There were hundreds of letters. The Bullocks, when they left the family home for business or pleasure or, in Caroline’s case, to take refuge in a convalescent home for women in Westchester County when life grew too stormy, wrote home several times a week: letters, postcards and, in Wilson’s case, telegrams from cities where his Buick roadster took him. For all their prodigious writing, the Bullocks were always discreet. Still, their correspondence, the belongings of their everyday lives and the financial records that Virginia had carefully filed away, began to unveil the family saga.
Inside one closet I found two dozen Speak-O-Phone disks the Bullocks recorded of themselves in a Times Square studio in the early 1930’s, when they lived on Riverside Drive and photos show them in their happiest moments. The disks are filled with kibitizing and giggling. Mrs. Bullock was not recorded, but playing the small silver records on an old turntable at 78 r.p.m., I could hear Mr. Bullock, Caroline, Wilson, Fred, John and Virginia, bantering on New Year’s Eve, reciting poems, and performing ‘’Neapolitan Nights,’’ with Virginia on piano.
Then there was a small book, its soft leather face cracked by years of steam heat, that logged the coal sales of Virginia’s father during 1937, three years before he died at the age of 69. Finances must have been tight by then. Rent receipts showed that the Bullocks had to take a smaller apartment in Morningside Heights, and their Steinway piano went into storage, never to be retrieved.
Under a bed I found a box containing hundreds of Fox Film movie stills, no doubt from Fred. Like Virginia, he helped keep the family afloat, though as a bachelor living in his own New York apartment, he was able to distance himself from the family’s troubles. He removed himself a step further when, at 50, he married.
I made Wilson’s acquaintance in a musty closet in the second bedroom; he lived with the family when he wasn’t on the road. When he went home ill for the last time, he arrived with several cases of fabric samples. I found those, along with a box of his favorite show tune 78’s, a silk tuxedo, a cache of letters chronicling a war he had waged with the Internal Revenue Service and a few bottles of Thorazine.
Caroline, in the photos I found of her, looked like the heroine of a Thomas Hardy novel: pale, delicate, lovely, with eyes brooding over a fiance who had died of a brain tumor a few months before the wedding. (It took countless cups of tea before Virginia told me this story.) When she felt well enough, Caroline managed the menu and her mother’s health. In her spare time, she embroidered handkerchiefs. I discovered dozens of them, all of the best linen, neatly laid out in Virginia’s dresser. There were also tiny envelopes, many of them dated, containing Caroline’s hair, which Virginia had cut, as Caroline went from blonde to bronze to rosy gray.
There was a series of photos of Frankie’s flower-laden casket. And there was John: ‘’Impractical’’ was Virginia’s judicious way of describing her baby brother. Whatever was at the root of John’s struggles in life — and his life ended abruptly with a heart attack at the age of 56 — it is clear that he had trouble holding down a teaching job, from Maryland to California. Nearly every letter from him that I found, each effusively thanking his sisters for the money they’d sent, hinted that a few dollars with their next epistle would help him and his wife through their latest crisis.
Mrs. Bullock remains an enigma. There is little written by her, except for some love letters to Virginia’s father in the 1890’s. I still don’t know what to make of the endless stream of cards — for her birthday, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day — addressed to her from her children. They paid homage to her in phrases one reserves for a saint and did so for her entire life, for she lived and ailed and lived until she was 97.
I didn’t learn much new about Virginia. She was completely devoted to them all and devoted to maintaining an air of normalcy in the face of trials. There were Consolidated Edison bills, going back 40 years. There were weekly visitor passes to Rockland State Hospital, where she went to see Wilson. An accordion file held receipts from the Frank E. Campbell funeral home, marking the deaths of Fred (1960), John (1970), her mother (1971), Wilson (1975) and Caroline (1976).
Walking Through the Valley Of the Shadow of Death
The last time I saw Virginia she was in Lenox Hill Hospital. Her mind was sharp, but her voice that evening had that faraway sound I had heard from people who were approaching death. Still, I tried to make things jolly and light. I had seen her hospitalized a number of times, and she had always rallied and returned home to her favorite chair in the kitchen, where everything was within reach — telephone, checkbook, jam, saltines. I expected nothing different this time.
As I held her hand, I said, ‘’Virginia, you’re braver than I am.’’ She grinned.
‘’No, really, you are tough,’’ I insisted.
She took a deep breath and said, ‘’Well, dear, in this life, you have to be.’’
Fifteen minutes later, she went into cardiac arrest. In seconds the room was jammed with nurses, interns and careering carts. Someone grabbed my arm. ‘’I know you’re her nephew, but you’ll have to leave,’’ said a social worker.
I didn’t want to stay. With tears in my eyes I headed down the hall, reciting Psalm 23, Virginia’s favorite, only I was so upset I could come up with only bits and pieces of it. I finally gave up and said aloud, ‘’Get out of here, Virginia, and go to the rest you deserve.’’
The Campbell’s receipt for Virginia’s funeral is filed with the others in a crate of Bullock ephemera I keep in my apartment. Virginia found it too painful to give me her family when she was alive. Instead, the Bullocks