Building a Life Together

Building a Life Together: Stories from Coco and Bill Cary

When Coco and Bill Cary welcomed me into their home for a conversation about their life and family’s history in the Crittenden/Eclipse neighborhood, I was immediately struck by the joy, peace, and beauty of their home. A long driveway leads to a home that the two built over two decades that sits on 3 acres of wooded land. Over the course of our conversation, birds flitted through the backyard, and a hungry racoon helped herself to snacks. The eye-catching wooden furniture was handmade by Bill, and the home’s design is thanks to Coco’s artistic eye. Her paintings decorate the home with as much beauty as Bill’s woodworking.

In some ways, Coco and Bill are opposites. Coco is a traveler and always asking where they can travel to next. Her childhood and adolescence were filled with international cities because of her father’s army career. Her French mother was an interpreter for Coco’s father during World War II, and the two had five children across Germany, Paris, and Ohio. Coco recounts living in Germany, France, Japan, Ohio, and Washington D.C. and how wonderful it was to live in an international village and to have the freedom to explore France as a teenager. Bill, on the other hand, is a homebody whose family has long and deep roots in the Crittenden/Eclipse neighborhood.

The neighborhood’s graveyard is the resting place for many of his ancestors, and like Marilyn Wagner, he is kin to so many families in this area. His great-grandmother Nancy Moore (“little grandma”) and great-grandfather Madison Monroe Gray lived in Moore’s Point, and their son, Johnny Lee Gray was Bill’s grandfather. He married Eleanor Clyde Winslow. Johnny’s brother, Floyd, was Captain Lip Johnson’s son-in-law, and he worked for the Captain (and is pictured in The River That Binds Us).

The family property was in Moore’s Point, however, Johnny decided that his family needed to move when the journey to the children’s school became too difficult and dangerous. In those days, there was no Sleepy Lake or dam, so when the children attended the Crittenden schoolhouse, their mother needed to take them there in a row boat, no matter the weather. When the tide was low, Eleanor would push the boat through the mud. She was a strong woman who mixed and hauled plaster as they built their home at Moore’s Point, but Bill most humorously remembers her famous frugality. She was always mending something on her Singer sewing machine, and she never threw anything away. When their toilet stopped working, she used her creativity to turn it into a flower pot in the yard rather than discard it. People would bring her muskrats, and she would skin them and eat them, but Bill can confirm that he’s never tried them himself.

Once the family moved to Eclipse, Bill’s grandfather wanted to build an indoor bathroom because a black snake dropped on him from the rafters of the Johnnyhouse. However, Bill’s great-grandmother objected to this idea strongly and proclaimed that indoor bathrooms were the work of the devil and that if God had intended for an indoor bathroom, they would have had it already. Needless to say, Bill’s grandfather went ahead and added the bathroom inside.

Bill’s family moved to Eclipse permanently in 1959, but, before that, he had split his childhood between Norfolk and Eclipse at his grandparents’ home. His grandfather gave Bill’s parents a lot to build their home when Bill was in 7th grade. Back in those days, Route 17 was a 2 lane road and the neighborhood was isolated and self-sufficient. There were tolls on the James River Bridge, the Nansemond River Bridge, and the Chuckatuck Creek Bridge, and the area felt much more country because of this toll-induced isolation. The village market was where the karate studio currently is, and there was Keeling’s Texaco and Oscar and Eula Phelps’ Gulf station where the BP currently is. Gayle’s store in Eclipse had items that were too high to reach, so the owner would use a pull stick to grab things off the shelf. There was a Coke machine and a gas pump with glass on top that you would crank to the number of gallons you wanted and watch the gas move. Emma Martin’s store was on Bleakhorn, and the Crittenden post office was on Steeple Drive. There was a beauty parlor on Cypress Road (now Eclipse) where the ladies went to get their beehives. Bill recalls that everything was purple there: purple walls, purple shag carpet, and the owner even wore purple! Bunkley’s Store and the Eclipse post office were also on Cypress Road.

Fast forward a few years, and Bill recalls that he met the love of his life in 1967 during he and Coco’s sophomore year at Frederick College in their English class. He had recently transferred from UVA, and she had recently transferred from Mary Washinton. They would both transfer to Elon in their senior year when Frederick closed to become part of the Virginia community college system. Bill recalls that Fred Beazley guaranteed that the tuition for the transferred students would remain the same, so he paid $800 for his senior year at Elon instead of the $1,700 sticker price. Bill and Coco both became teachers and were married on July 10, 1971 and have been happily married for almost 52 years.

Bill’s grandfather had said for years that he wanted to sell “the woods” (the 3 acres that Bill and Coco currently live on) because it was too expensive. The property was intended to go to Bill’s Aunt Hulda, but she was permanently living in Florida. Bill bought the 3 acres for $500 in 1969, and he emotionally told me how grateful he was for everything his grandfather had done for him. Before Coco married Bill, she lived with Martha Hazlewood for a time and then briefly in Churchland.

Bill started building their house in May 1973 and unrealistically believed that he could have it finished by August just in time for his football coaching season at John Yeates High School. The house would not be completed until 1992. Coco and Bill did the majority of the work on their home. They had no money with their teaching salaries and were grateful for their family and friends’ assistance. His uncle was an electrician, his dad helped with plumbing and wiring, and his neighbor was a roofer who helped to get him started. They moved into the downstairs portion of their home in December of 1974 and added on to their home as each of their children was born. Bill, their first child, was born shortly before they began building their home, and they completed rooms upstairs when their family grew with the additions of Mike in 1979 and Elizabeth in 1981. Coco recalls that they hung 4×12 drywall with a toddler running around their feet.

Bill began woodworking while he worked at John Yeates. He asked to use the power tools in their shops and wanted to build a table out of wood flooring. As his skills advanced, he made the china cabinet, the TV stand, a doll house, and many other beautiful pieces for his family that are pictured in this article.

Bill and Coco have many, many more stories to share, and I look forward to chatting with them again.

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