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Waterford couple who died of COVID-19 had lifelong, whirlwind romance

Waterford — Billy Jim "BJ" and Ramona June Frasher really did stick together until death did them part.

The Waterford couple died due to the coronavirus in early December — BJ, age 95, just four days after Ramona, 92. They were residents of Greentree Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, a nursing home in town. On Nov. 20, they both tested positive for COVID-19, and within a few days they had pneumonia. The Frashers held on a bit longer, but Vickie Meyers, one of their two daughters, said they weren’t conscious for long because they got sick so fast.

According to their daughters, the Frashers lived for each other. Those who knew them were not surprised by their manner of dying. Still, their other daughter, Cathy Frasher, said, the family was “devastated.” The sisters agreed, though: If it had to happen, it’s good it happened this way.

“Vickie called me and said they both tested positive,” Cathy Frasher said. “From then on, it was just praying. At their age, you don’t even know what you’re praying for. Do you pray that both of them survive, and we go down the road and one of them dies, and the other one’s living without them? I’m so sad to have lost them, but they went together, just four days apart, and neither one of them had to live without the other. I think that would’ve killed my father, to live without my mom.”

BJ, who grew up in West Virginia, was a master storyteller; Meyers said she feels a “terrible responsibility” to be the keeper of the family’s stories in light of her father’s passing. One such tale is BJ and Ramona’s origin story, known as “the roller skating story” to Meyers. In February 1947, as a 21-year-old, BJ had broken his wrist roller-skating and had to get a cast.

“My mom was there, and he thought she was pretty cute,” Meyers said. “He was going around asking girls to sign his cast, and he asked my mom to sign it. She told him no, she thought it was way too forward. So he kept skating around and asking her again, and finally he wore her down, and she signed his cast. But the myth of the story is that night he told his friend, ‘I’m going to marry that girl.’”

And he did. In June of that year, they were married.

Ramona grew up in Ohio. BJ had served in the Navy during World War II, and when he came home, he ended up working as a production manager in the paper industry. He and Ramona had a son, Steven, a year later; Meyers was born four years after that, and Cathy followed 15 months later. Ramona was a hairdresser and stay-at-home mom.

Meyers said the family moved a few times within Ohio for her father’s career. They moved to suburban Philadelphia when Meyers was in high school. Cathy Frasher said she moved to Connecticut with her mom and dad after she graduated high school in 1972. Her brother was in the Navy and stationed in Groton at that time in Navy housing.

“I was 18 years old, and my mother, father and I all moved into the same bedroom at my brother’s house. This was not fun,” Cathy said. “You had to crack the door open, step up on my mattress to get inside the bedroom so you could shut the door, and mom and dad were on the other side of the room. Granted, that didn’t last very long, and we were in Branford Manor soon after.”

Ramona and BJ moved south after a stint in Connecticut, while Cathy Frasher stayed in this area. The couple went back to Ohio to help a relative who had lost a husband about 12 years ago. But both ended up getting injured, and Meyers said they realized they needed to be around someone who could help. So they moved to New London and into the Bacon Hinckley Home, where they lived in an apartment.

In 1975, Meyers moved to Connecticut, where she met her husband, an Old Lyme native. She lives in Quaker Hill now.

BJ and Ramona stayed at Bacon Hinckley until Ramona had multiple strokes. She needed medical care, so they moved into Greentree Manor, where they lived for about six years before their deaths.

During their professional lives, Ramona also worked as a TSA scanner, in a couple of drug stores and other odd jobs. She also worked a gig when she was a teenager that she never forgot.

“Before WWII, she was still in high school, she would’ve been about 16, she was in a big all girls dance band,” Meyers said. “All the guys were off in the war, so they had these all girls bands, and she played the cornet. She entertained at the military bases, at the officers’ clubs, and that’s what she was doing during the war while dad was away. Of course, they didn’t know each other then.”

BJ was particularly proud of the last job he worked, as a parole officer and addiction counselor in Mississippi, which grew out of his involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous. “He was real proud to be doing that type of counseling,” Meyers said.

Growing up, the Frasher kids knew their parents “really deeply loved each other,” Meyers said.

“There were bumps in the road. I won’t say they didn’t have their arguments or problems,” she said. “My dad when he was younger had an alcohol problem, but he went to AA and got sober, and after that he spent the rest of his life trying to make amends for when he wasn’t the best husband.”

Cathy Frasher saw her parents as a comedy duo, basically Gracie Allen and George Burns without trying to be.

“Some of the funniest stories in my life involve my father,” she said. “I was on the phone with my cousin; the stories that we have about his dad and my dad are just crazy stories. The stories with my mom and his mom, they were the two passive little quiet women, and our dads were the wild, screaming, yelling, drinking, partying, crazy men. They always say ‘opposites attract,’ and that’s what my parents were. They were the opposites that attracted.”

Cathy Frasher said her parents were supposed to get married on June 7 but ended up getting married the 9th because on the 6th they were driving through flat lands in Ohio, it was raining and they slid off the road, getting stuck in a cornfield.

“Dad had gotten out of the car and was trying to push the car, while mom was revving it up, trying to get it out of the gulley into the road again and couldn’t do it,” she said. “When he got back in the car he was soaking wet, and mom said, ‘Take your shirt off so that we can get it dry.’ That was an ongoing joke with them — dad would say, ‘We weren’t even married yet, and she tried to get me to take my clothes off!’ And my mom would always say, ‘Now, you know that’s not true!’ That’s just the way they were. He was a jokester to the nth degree, and my mom was the silent partner.”

She and Meyers both praised Greentree Manor and Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London for helping and being sensitive to the family’s needs during a trying period. Meyers said the last time the family could congregate in a real way — without COVID-19 restrictions — was on March 7 of this year, her dad’s birthday. After that, they were able to see each other through video calls or by meeting outside at Greentree and socially distancing.

Both sisters said they were grateful for their last contact with their parents. Meyers spoke with her mother on her 92nd birthday, Nov. 19, via video chat. The next day, BJ and Ramona both tested positive for COVID-19.

Cathy Frasher was frantically trying to reach her mother on her birthday but couldn’t get anyone on the line. She said later on, Meyers called her and said, "‘There’s 17 cases at the nursing home,’ and I said, ‘Oh God, I hope they stay in the room,’ and she said, ‘Me too.’”

The next day, Cathy Frasher finally got ahold of someone at the facility, who told her, “‘Honey, you don’t know, everything is just so chaotic here right now.’"

"I told her that’s what I’d heard, but yesterday was my mom’s birthday, and I’m 67 years old, and I’ve never not talked to my mom on her birthday," Cathy Frasher said. "Please let me talk to my mom.”

Later that day, one of the nurses went into the room and made sure Cathy Frasher could speak with Ramona. “That was the last time I got to talk to her. I’m just so grateful for that phone call, because if I hadn’t gotten to have that, I would have had nothing,” she said.

The sisters said when their parents moved into Greentree, the two pushed the beds together in their room. BJ didn’t even have to be there initially, as he was healthy enough to live on his own.

But, as always, they couldn’t bear to live without the other.

“After he got sober, he realized he was smart enough to have gotten her, and he decided he would straighten up, fly right, and hold onto her until the day they died, and he did,” Cathy Frasher said. “They’re dancing ‘The Jitterbug’ up in heaven right now.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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