Carol Alexander was born Carmella Bellino on 3 June 1938 in Boston, Massachusetts to Giacomo (aka “James”) and Maria (aka, “Marie”) Bellino (née Carco), both the children of Sicilian immigrants—James, an orphan.
At the time, James was a silversmith and Marie a homemaker. When Carol was still very young, her parents built a two-story brick house atop a hill in Revere, MA. It was there, in what was then a quiet suburb, that Carol would grow up with her younger brother, James Jr., and her baby sister Gail Ann. It was also there, in the upstairs apartment, that as a newlywed, Carol and her husband Alfred Leo Alexander would make a family of their own and raise their only child, Scott Christopher.
By all accounts, Carol had a relatively happy childhood until she was molested by her maternal uncle—a secret she kept for decades, even from her beloved husband and son, until just a few years before she died. To compound the challenges she faced as a young girl, when she was in high school, her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and—not long thereafter—her sister Gail contracted polio and had to be placed in an iron lung. Thanks to Marie’s dedication to her daughter’s recovery, young Gail survived, but unfortunately her marriage to James slowly deteriorated under the stress of both of these devastating illnesses.
All the while Carol did what she always did. She kept her chin up and used humor and hard work to try to hold the family together. She went to great lengths to offer to her parents and siblings the love and support they so desperately needed. As for where Carol went for support, that was abundantly clear. She delighted in her schoolwork, in her passion for the theater, and in her many friends and admirers. Chief among the latter was Alfred “Freddy” Alexander, the handsome, sensitive and caring athlete who was smitten with Carol from the moment he laid eyes on her. “She was gorgeous, popular, and so smart—the class valedictorian,” Alfred recalls, “I didn’t think I stood a chance with her.” Carol’s diary, which she shared with her husband and son many years later, contained her own prescient prediction that, despite the efforts of many suitors, “Freddy” was and would always be her one true love.
After graduating from Revere High School as valedictorian of the Class of 1956, Carol had hoped to be able to accept the full scholarship she was offered to attend Boston’s Emerson College for the Performing Arts and pursue her dream for a life in the theater. Unfortunately, at about the same time, due to his MS, her father lost his job as a silversmith, and Carol had to forgo her dream and go to work for the John Hancock Insurance Co. in order to help support her family.
Continuing to draw strength from her friends, and coworkers, Carol never lost her optimism and zest for life, and her love for her “Freddy” just continued to grow. On 5 July 1959, these high school sweethearts were finally married at the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua in Revere.
Not long after the nuptials, Fred was drafted and stationed at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. In fact they long joked about Fred’s concealing the fact that he had been drafted until the day before he had to leave. “I just couldn’t face having to tell her I had to leave and watching her cry. I’ve always hated to see her cry.” Carol being Carol, however, she swore to herself that, before her tears had a chance to dry, she would join Fred in Texas. And so she did. A few months after Fred arrived at Fort Hood, Carol followed and the two newlyweds lived in a rented-out porch in a small white house on Church Street, not far from the base. It was in Killeen, in the base hospital, that Carol gave birth in December of 1961 to their son, Scott. About a year later, they moved back to Revere after Corporal Alexander finished his tour of duty as Fort Hood’s Clerk of Courts Martial.
Carol spent the next four years as a homemaker. She loved cooking for her small family—especially chicken cutlets, “always double-dipped because that’s the way Freddy likes them,” as her lifelong friend and neighbor Marie Prendergast recently recalled her often saying. She also cultivated lasting friendships with Marie and other women with small children who lived in the neighborhood. Every week Carol would convene multiple matter-of-fact gatherings that decades later would come to be dubbed “play dates.”
In 1966, however, once Scott started school, she decided she wanted to return to work outside the home. At the bottom of the hill was a small family-owned florist that was looking for a part-time floral designer. If it couldn’t be the theater where she could express her considerable creative talent, then maybe Carol could do so as someone who would craft floral masterpieces for people marking all sorts of special occasions in their lives.
Unsurprising to those who knew her, Carol excelled as a floral designer—so much so that Fred managed to convince her to join him in opening their own business. Carol would always joke that Fred had promised that he would make up for the fact that she never got to pursue a career in theater by “one day putting my name in lights.” And so he did. They opened Alexander’s Flower Lane which eventually morphed into Carol’s Floral Boutique.
For over two decades, Carol and Fred worked tirelessly, side by side, to grow their business and they succeeded in becoming one of the premier florists on Boston’s North Shore. Despite a few financial setbacks here and there, they and the business thrived until illness came to knock once again at Carol’s door. The difference was that, this time, it had its sights on her. In the mid-1980s—not long after Scott graduated from college and went on to graduate school in New York City with his new wife and high school sweetheart Karen Lewis—Carol was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma.
No stranger to devastating illness, it was as if Carol instinctively knew what to do: fight, fight, and fight some more. After extensive radiation treatment and surgery, she won her first fight with cancer—all the while continuing to work as much as she could in the flower shop. Little did she know that the life-saving radiation treatment she received would trigger two subsequent bouts with breast cancer and a whole host of degenerative muscle disorders—including dropped head syndrome, tooth loss, and eventually difficulty swallowing—that would keep her in fighting mode for many years to come.
Carol was the kind of fighter that succeeded because she was just as determined to cling to her love of family, friends, travel and sense of humor as she was determined to cling to life itself. Her son Scott recalls calling from Indiana, where he was living with Karen and Carol’s baby grandson Myles Lewis, to wish her luck the evening before her second mastectomy. Hearing what sounded like a party in the background, Scott asked what was going on. Carol’s response was: “We’re having a going-away party for Lefty.” “Lefty?” Scott inquired. “Is he one of the shop’s delivery personnel. “No,” Carol responded barely able to contain her amusement at her adult son’s naiveté. “My left breast, silly.”
The one person in the world that could make Carol laugh like no other was one she adored like no other—her beloved grandson Myles Lewis Alexander. When Myles was born in New York City on 13 July 1988, Scott recalls Carol saying to him in the hospital waiting room: “Honey, don’t take this the wrong way. Being your mother has always been wonderful, but there is nothing like being a grandmother!” “Nana,” as Myles always referred to Carol, was the family archivist of “Myles lore.” She treasured every drop of every moment she spent with him, and especially the ways in which they would collude against Myles’s stodgy parents. “Remember that time, Nana,” Myles recalled in a conversation with his grandmother on Christmas Day, “when you came awfully close to letting me get my ears pierced. Remember?” “Yeah, I remember,” Carol replied. “I didn’t because I knew your mother and father would kill me.”
A few years after winning her fight against breast cancer, Carol had another familiar but equally unwelcome visitor: a brain. tumor. This time it was benign, but nonetheless a source of terrible dizzy spells. So, in 2006, she opted to have it surgically removed.
Scott recalls that during her fight with breast cancer and in her recovery from brain surgery, one of his mother’s favorite television shows was a first-generation so-called “reality” tv show: Mark Burnett’s Survivor. He remembers asking his mother why she liked the show so much and her responding: “Scott, these people are amazing. I mean what they have to go through. Some of them even eat bugs to stay alive.” This time Scott recalls barely being able to contain his amusement. When Carol asked him what was so funny, he mentioned the “Lefty” telephone conversation and said, “Oh, Mom! Who’s being naive now? You are the ultimate survivor! What is eating bugs compared to what you’ve been through?!” To which Carol responded with a gratified laugh, saying “I guess I never thought of it that way.”
Although Carol, the ultimate “survivor,” pulled through her brain surgery “with flying colors,” her family and friends witnessed a fairly profound alteration in her mood and personality shortly thereafter. As is often the case after brain surgery, her low-grade struggle with anxiety and depression increased dramatically. Once someone who loved to work, go out with friends, meet new people and travel—Fred would often joke that there must be “traces of jet fuel in her blood”—now Carol rarely wanted to leave the house. She stopped working and stopped many of the activities she and Fred enjoyed. In fact, when Fred would leave for work, she would count the hours and minutes until his return, often calling friends and his mobile if Fred were just minutes beyond the strict arrival time he imposed on himself to help keep her calm and reassured.
In November of 2019, just a few months before the COVID-19 Pandemic was to sweep the globe, Fred’s own health struggles with diabetes, congestive heart failure, and chronic kidney disease began to take their toll. Now retired and at home with Carol, but fearing he could no longer tend to her needs the way he always had, Fred agree with Scott’s proposal that they move to Chicago to live in a small but comfortable studio apartment just a block away from Scott and Karen. Shortly after their move, Carol contracted pneumonia and was subsequently diagnosed with a swallow disorder related to her radiation treatment for Hodgkins disease back in the 1980s. Carol—ever the survivor—agreed to having an enteral feeding tube installed which would effectively mean she would never be able to enjoy a meal again.
She spent six weeks at the marvelous Shirley Ryan Ability Lab—with Fred opting to live with her there once the pandemic lockdown protocols were imposed. She wouldn’t have been able to stay otherwise. Upon their return, Carol was confined to a wheelchair with a head brace and her feeding tube, but she would have none of these “contraptions” cramp her style. Always committed to tasteful glamour, Carol chose a wheelchair color to match her signature metallic ruby red hair and delighted in manicures, makeup, and the most up-to-date fashion in easy-to-manage workout ensembles chosen for her by her equally stylish daughter-in-law Karen.
Having by this time lost most of her teeth to the corrosive effects of radiation, Carol’s one dream—besides living to see her beloved grandson Myles and his beloved wife Julia Zhu have children of their own—was to get “new teeth.” Myles and Julia managed to make both her dreams come true. Not only did Myles and Julia fulfill “Nana’s” dream of “new teeth” as an 83rd birthday gift, but, in June of 2021—just 25 days after Carol’s 83rd—Julia gave birth to Gemma Zhu whom Carol would almost incessantly describe as “just perfect, perfect!”
For Thanksgiving, Julia and Myles brought Gemma to see her great grandparents for the first time. In fact, in early November, after staving off dialysis for almost a year, Fred agreed to dialysis rather than hospice, largely so he could hold Gemma in his arms at long last, and also so he could see his beloved wife Carol smile with her “new teeth” as she got to do the same.
After spending Christmas Eve of 2021 with Karen, Scott, and their devoted home health care worker, Rita, Carol and Fred spent Christmas Day with Scott who was planning to join Karen in Pasadena, CA the following day to visit Myles, Julia, and baby Gemma for a few days before the New Year. On Christmas Night, however, Fred phoned Scott and told him that Carol seemed to be struggling to breathe. When Scott arrived, Carol’s oxygen saturation was very low and he called 911. Scott rode with her to the Emergency Department at the nearby University of Chicago Medical Center where she was treated for non-COVID related pneumonia.
After a few days on a regular ward, where she seemed to be making progress, Carol was admitted to the intensive care unit and placed on a ventilator. After two days her medical team was able to remove the ventilator and she was able to breathe on her own. One day later, however, she once again began her struggle to breathe.
Scott was with Carol the entire day she died. They prayed the Liturgy of the Hours together and talked about many things. Scott recounts his being able to understand most of what his mother tried to say, despite the fact that it was especially difficult for Carol to form her words clearly. She talked about how much she loved her husband Fred, her children Karen and Scott, her grandchildren Myles and Julia, and her new great granddaughter Gemma. In fact, the two spent many of Carol’s waking minutes looking at photos and videos of Gemma with Carol flashing a weak but visible smile with her prized “new teeth” every time she heard Gemma coo.
Up until 30 minutes before she died, Carol impressed upon Scott that he couldn’t be late to pick up Fred from dialysis and bring him for his hip X-ray at Northwestern Medical Center. Scott says that it was no surprise to him that she was thinking of her “Freddy” right through to the end.
After a life well and fiercely lived, Carol went home to the eternal embrace of her loving Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier at 16:19 hrs Central Time on Monday, 3 January 2022.
Carol was predeceased by her parents and her siblings Gail Ann (Bellino) Gentile, and James Bellino, Jr. She leaves behind: her beloved husband Alfred; her only child Scott Christopher Alexander and his wife Karen Lewis Alexander (of Hyde Park, Chicago); her only grandchild Myles Lewis Alexander and his wife Julia Zhu Alexander (of Pasadena, CA); her only great grandchild baby Gemma Zhu Alexander; her beloved nephew Damon Gentile (of Surprise, AZ); her cousin Pauline Dorgan (of Everett, MA) and her lifelong friend and soulmate Marie Prendergast (of Revere, MA).
Relatives and friends are invited to join the family on Saturday, January 15, 2022 in the Main Sanctuary at Old St. Pat's Church, 700 West Adams, Chicago, IL 60661, where a Memorial Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11:00 a.m., The Rev. Edward Foley, OFM (Cap.) presiding; The Rev. Akizou Kamina, SVD, concelebrant.
In accordance with CDC guidelines, face masks are required and social distancing will be observed.
For those who are unable to attend in person on Saturday, you are cordially invited to attend via live-stream. Please click on the link below.
Preferred memorials may be made as gifts in Carol’s memory to: Catholic Theological Union - https://ctu.edu/give/ or Inner City Muslim Action Network - https://www.imancentral.org/donate2/.
Relatives and friends are encouraged to sign the online guest book by logging onto: www.PleseFuneralservices.com.
Funeral services and arrangements have been made under the genuine care and direction of Kenneth A. Plese, in Joliet, IL 815-735-2125.