Two months ago a special person died. She was the last surviving person of that generation on my mother’s side of the family: my Aunt Bernice, widow of Uncle John. No one from that generation—no siblings, no sons-in-law, no daughters-in-law—remains. During my childhood I only saw her when we traveled from Michigan to Pennsylvania for summer visits, but I always seemed drawn to her. She was different than other women in the family. She never seemed interested in talking about the price of eggs, what color should Grandma’s living room be painted, never joined in quibbling about who-said-what-when-why. I picked up vibes from overheard conversations between my other aunts that Bernice was “different,” not as dedicated as they to baking from scratch, the pursuit of crisply ironed shirts and dresses, the seen-but-not-heard philosophy of raising children. She worked as a bookkeeper in a jewelry store in town and as such, knew many of the town’s leading (i.e., wealthy) people. People outside the close knit–closed–family circle. People whose ancestors perhaps didn’t come from central or northern Europe. Good heavens, she not only read books each evening but even wrote children’s stories for her church denomination’s newsletter.
It was as adults that we talked long on my infrequent visits. Now we were separated by an ocean but when we did get together, she asked about my feelings, dreams, goals. No one in the family had ever plunged into those frightening depths. In the summer of 2006, we had an especially meaningful conversation during which she shared bits of her life without a word of complaint or regret. She said these words had never before been spoken aloud. I came away with my heart full. The words below (written after that visit) are my tribute to Bernice. A woman who quietly influenced me more than she knew. More than I knew.
A woman of elegance trapped in an earthy world, united by unbreakable bond to a man whose plaid shirt reeks of tractor oil, tobacco and sweat. His physical world is just acres broad; his emotional, spiritual world miles narrower. He mows the grass, moves dirt from place to place as she reads of life in England or dreams of living in New York, Edinburgh, San Francisco.
I’ve seen pictures of her at age twelve—a dreamy, faraway look in her eyes even then. She loved to read, to study English, French and Latin. Her mother wanted her to be a teacher. Fine touches on her wooden porch—pink geraniums and trailing vinca in a white china pot, African violets in a linen-lined basket, white candle in a metal holder coated with velvet-like green patina, delicate flowers on the gleaming wood table—all these announce a woman whose eyes see more, whose heart hungers after more.
She married young under the pressure of I-love-you-I’ll-kill-myself-if-I-can’t-have-you. She said with a wistful smile, “I loved the uniform.” Children came soon. One. Two. Soon four. Life was hard with yet harder life to come. Sisters-in-law gave to help the family survive, but the giving was with strangulating ties. Bernice knew no repayment would, could, ever be deemed enough.
Marriage turned out to be more difficult than she had dreamed. Alcohol began to muffle his love, or at least his expressions of love. The heart knew wounding, but she loved yet and forever. When the youngest child started school, she took that job in town to survive financially. Or was it to simply survive? From nine to five she escaped the drudgery of economic poverty and emotional starvation.
Years pass, children grow, husband settles ever more into his small world. Dreams of college fade as does bitterness over missed opportunities, unfulfilled expectations. Her outside world looks much the same, but her inner world continually develops. She pursues intellectual growth through reading, emotional growth through writing and awareness of more, ever more. She cooks roast beef and mashed potatoes but dreams of Monet’s kitchen herb garden. She lives with, and loves the man in the sweat-stained shirt but occasionally wonders if she’s missed her own Bridges of Madison County experience. The sisters-in-law would be horrified.
Her children and grandchildren pursue careers of craftsmanship, tilling land, caring for the elderly, repairing engines, keeping house, each one carrying a remnant of her quiet grace. Life is short and ever shorter, but as she looks at these traces of her real self, she knows that all has not been in vain. In a way she never imagined, her dreams have come true.
Thank you and goodbye, Aunt Bernice.