Eric Bergeson: A country funeral for Bernice
The Saturday before Father’s Day, Dad and I shared pall bearer duties for the funeral of Bernice, one of the last of the old neighbors. She died at age 95.
Bernice spent most of her life in a farmhouse a mile north of our farm. It had no electricity. She cared for her parents until they passed away in the 1950s. Then she lived alone, keeping an immaculate yard and making her famous crescent rolls loaded with bacon fat. Her rolls were as sinful as Bernice was saintly.
For 50 years Bernice was Sunday school superintendent at St. John’s Lutheran Church, originally known as the Swedish Lutheran Church. In addition, Bernice taught religious release time to elementary kids in our town school for years.
As a release time teacher, Bernice had to deal with the big-town Lutheran minister, a Norwegian who teased her mercilessly about she and the other “dumb Swedes” out at St. John’s.
Bernice was deeply hurt. Racial tensions between Swedes and Norwegians ran hot at the time. Only after the Catholics arrived did the rival Scandinavians bury the hatchet and form a unified front.
For decades, Bernice worked along side other neighbors for my grandfather, later my parents, sorting trees in the root cellar in the fall and transplanting seedlings in the spring.
April Fool’s day was her favorite. There wasn’t a year Bernice didn’t convince me I had a growth on my nose, or blood running from my ear.
In elementary, I ran out to the root cellar after school. Bernice and I would sing a burlesque version of “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” which included a slide down the scale on the word Spar-ROWWWW which left us both in giggles.
Grandpa did not approve.
After Bernice moved to town, she continued her jokes. In her mid-80s, she got me good. On April Fools, Bernice called and claimed to have ordered 100 Chinese pussy willow, when could she pick them up?
She carried on the charade for five minutes, throwing a temper tantrum when I said there was no such thing as Chinese pussy willow, questioning my integrity as a businessman, the works. She stayed in character right to the end.
The next year, I decided to return the favor. I called Bernice posing as Rev. Ralph Nelson of the Committee to Convert the Lutherans to True Christianity, (the CCLTC). I asked for a $5000 donation so we do outreach in the local area.
This did not go down well with Bernice. When I finally confessed, she was truly hurt, and I had to apologize.
Bernice remained delightfully sheltered all her life. At her funeral, the minister told of her first and only trip through a drive-through. She couldn’t imagine what sort of people would allow strangers to drive up to their kitchen window and ask for food.
On the last day of release time instruction in sixth grade, Bernice got very, very serious. We kids fell silent. We were about to enter high school, Bernice said, a time where we would be tempted. One particular temptation worried her the most. In hushed tones, Bernice warned us against the dangers of “seps.” On and on she went, talking about the evils of seps, and how we should save seps for marriage.
We had no clue.
Bernice taught Daily Vacation Bible School into her later years. She was expert at moving the pieces of the tabernacle into the proper position on the flannel board as she explained the symbolism.
Overnight during one DVBS, some pranksters rearranged the letters on the church sign to read “Devil” and “Satan” and other shocking words from the dark side.
Bernice was naturally upset. “You know what?” she whispered to a fellow teacher the next day, “I think it was vandals!”
We moved from the church in town to the graveside in the country. The sun shown down on the most beautiful day yet. We stood in silence observing the stunning floral casket spray in the sun.
Two teams of Amish plough horses clopped by, one team pulling a hay wagon, the other team trailing behind. A half-dozen barefoot Amish children with straw hats and suspenders dangled their legs from the hay wagon and watched the silent gathering just across the ditch.
After the committal, the women dabbed tears while the men drifted two or three graves down to mumble about crops.
Once we reached a safe distance, the pall bearers one-by-one said, “Well, I suppose...” and made a break for home to cultivate. Or mow. Or nap.
Another beautiful country funeral for a dear neighbor.
I was honored to take part.