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Episode #2

By Jack Elliott

In this Essay RJ honors Vera Ginsburg, Co-Founder of the Genard AIDS Foundations. It's a lesson in faith, trust, and the importance of surrounding yourself with allies and advocates that see you and believe in you.

The Genard AIDS Foundation Co-Founders Marsha Genard and Vera Ginsburg.


In a world where everyone “texts” to see a dear friend’s name pop up in the caller ID on your phone comes with some dread and anticipation – especially if you have not been in touch for a while, and if you, and they are of a certain age.

“Vera died!”

This was the response I heard after I had said hello. Oh no. I thought. Not Vera. What do I say to her partner of over thirty years. How do I immediately offer any meaningful condolences “on-demand?”

All I could offer was “I’m so very sorry.” The call was brief. Just as brief as two earlier calls I had received in the last two months of other lifelong friends who had unexpectedly died. It’s happening. It’s happening again. Another mighty leaf had fallen from the tree of life.

After I hung up, I couldn’t even recall what I had been doing when the call came in. My office, my house, was suddenly quieter than I ever remember it being. But then, simultaneously and at the same time, I heard loud trucks going by, the sound of someone mowing their lawn, and the world outside my window moved along as if nothing had happened. It’s beginning to feel like it did, back then. Oh no. “Am I ready?”

Back then, was the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. It was a time where each week offered such phone calls. By late 1994, I could no longer count the number of such phone calls that I had received. AIDS had wreaked havoc on my world. My friends, my colleagues and those in my church were dying faster than I could cope. It was my survivor’s guilt that propelled me into advocating for those still coping with this dreaded pandemic. Step by step I did what spirit revealed for me to do. I solidified the purpose of my ministry. I used my vocational expertise to help those who could no long work in their former fields of employment, find new hope, purpose, and a will to live, by pursuing the passion they had denied themselves for most of their life. This work took me to the AIDS Consortium. The AIDS Consortium was a gathering of HIV/AIDS survivors serving Contra Costa County. At that very first meeting in 1992, I met Marsha Genard. The co-founder of the Genard AIDS Foundation. We hit it off instantly. In fact, that very evening my partner Terry and I joined Marsha and her partner Vera for dinner. It would be the first of literally hundreds of dinners we’d share at Max’s, DJ’s, the Yacht Club and even the Outback Steak House.

We aligned our advocacy work and for several years raised money via our annual charity auction known as the Red Ribbon Auction. Vera’s expertise (and class) Marsha’s connections (and amazing talent for making strangers immediate friends) and my willingness to do whatever they needed me to do as the Board President, allow us to raise enough funds to serve hundreds of folks for nearly 15 years. The harder we worked, the better our friendship grew. I was blessed to witness their amazing relationship. Watching the two of them is where I learned about unconditional love.

"Thagirls" (as they were called by allies, advocates, and friends) would bicker. They would argue as passionately as they loved. Watching them, I learned that the passion from the arguing was in direct proportion to the intensity of their love. Until I met them, I always thought that once the arguing commenced, the relationship was over. Fighting meant someone was about to leave. But not with them. They had a safe word. Actually, a safe number. I’ll call it “181!” This wasn’t their number. Their number was sacred and just for them. However, I would often hear one of them shout their sacred number and the arguing would immediately cease. Tears would flow, hugs would ensue, and they’d assure one another that the other was indeed loved and valued. What a gift. What a teaching.

From time to time, when I was with them, and the bickering would commence. I would shout “181!” They would stop. Vera would laugh. Oh, how I loved her laughter. It was the sweetest sound I had ever heard. It will forever be impressed upon my mind. Oh, how I loved being in an adjacent room and hearing Vera laugh as she won a hand at Texas Holdom or shared in the joy of a story well told.

For thirty plus years I have been blessed to call The girls my beloved friends. And I am in such a place of gratitude that they allowed me into their life.

Sometimes we realize that we are witnessing the perfect moment. A moment we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives. A moment that we’ll never ever forget. I had such a moment with thagirls.

We were in New York. We were at the Townhouse. A beautiful club on the upper East Side. Three large rooms that had been the lavish public rooms of a brownstone mansion. Marsha was holding court in a wing tip chair near a huge burning fireplace. She was surrounded by newly met friends listening to her every word as she share memories of her late son Steven. Vera and I were near the piano singing show tunes, encouraging young performers to sing out, and relishing how good life could be. I watched Vera glow. I heard her laughter. I knew in that moment, with all that she had endured, all that she had survived, and all the life that was still ahead, in that moment she felt joy. My buddy, my ally, my beloved friend; what a gift to be a witness to your magnificent life. I am humbled and grateful that you invited me in, to be a witness to the last thirty years. Rest in peace beloved Vera. You will be in my heart always and forever.181!

Love Jack

Note: (c) 2022/2023 Rev. Jack Elliott. Photo credit: Genard/Ginsburg Families. This essay corresponds with Episode #2 of the Remember When...? Podcast.

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