Friday, 25 July 2008

Happy Birthday Bernard!

37 Things about My Uncle Bernard

1. He was born on the 25th of July 1920 and was named Bernard Adelbert, after his Dad.

2. He was 2 years younger than his sister, my Mom.

3. Mom always said she was 5 years old before she lived in a house, so Bernard will have been at least 3 before he did. Their father was a road contractor and that job caused him to travel with his work force and his family, literally on the road.

4. Bernard looked a lot like his father, being of slight build, maybe about 5’6” and 120 or 130 pounds at most.

5. Also like his Dad, he had dark brown hair, swimming pool blue eyes, high cheekbones and a hawkish beaked nose.

6. The 1930 Census shows that he lived with his Grandmother in West Monroe, Louisiana, along with Mom and the youngest of his maternal aunts. I’m guessing Mom and Bernard needed to be in school by then, rather than travelling with their parents, but as their parents divorced sometime in the next decade, this may also have contributed to why they were living in their Grandmother’s household.

7. When they were very young – late teens or early twenties, Bernard and Mom did exhibition ballroom dancing together. They occasionally danced together later on, if I asked nicely to see it.

8. When he was 22 and Mom was 24, their step-father moved the family from Oklahoma City to New Orleans. I still have my Mom’s Vargas diary from that year (1942).

9. Bernard’s Social Security card was issued in Louisiana.

10. When Bernard was about 26, his mother and step-father adopted 4 children from Catholic Charities, a fairly remarkable thing to do. I remember once asking Mom if she hadn’t been jealous in anyway and she said no, but she thought it had taken Bernard a while to get used to having younger siblings.

11. He worked as a dance choreographer and a dance teacher, on an ad hoc basis as far as I can tell. He taught classes and developed routines, occasionally going to dance conferences. I remember once meeting Yvonne Choteau at my Grandmother’s house on 31st Street, a big occasion for us all. Talking with my Uncle Pat the other day, he reminded me that Bernard had also worked with Miguel Terekhov.

12. Bernard was gay. This wasn’t openly discussed in our family, but Grandmother had a bit of a mean streak and liked to tease him, calling him “an old maid”. I always knew he wasn’t allowed to bring men friends to the house, but didn’t understand why. When Grandmother adopted the 4 children, she initially got 3 (Rita, Linda and Pat), but soon after got another little boy. One story was that they got John so that Pat wouldn’t grow up to be a “sissy”, an only boy with 2 sisters. It seems unlikely that Pat was ever in any danger of being a “sissy”, though as an actor he does seem to choose some interesting roles (just kidding, Pat).

13. Bernard drank red wine and smoked cigarettes. I think he smoked the same filter-less brand that my Dad liked, Pall Malls.

14. Bernard lived at home, with Grandmother, for most of his life, particularly after his 40’s, when I remember him best.

15. I remember Bernard as gentle and patient, but he was exacting -- a real perfectionist.

16. He was an excellent teacher as well as a great dancer. He had a very smooth style. He taught me some of the most intricate tap routines I’ve ever seen. I still remember parts of them and tap dance while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil or for the elevator to reach my floor (if I’m alone, of course). I know that other dance teachers found his routines challenging. He also taught ballet and modern jazz, but I think he preferred tap dancing.

17. When she didn’t have customers booked, we used the big room of Grandmother’s beauty shop on 31st Street for our lessons, which we both really enjoyed. Each lesson ended with a curtsey and a bow. Mom didn't pay him do give me these lessons, he just did it for fun.

18. Bernard was responsible for my dancing debut, on stage, at the age of 3. We made the local newspapers.

19. Bernard taught all his younger siblings, and me, to drive a car. It's one of the things we all remember, his taking it upon himself to ensure that we all got our driving license. I'm fairly certain I wouldn't have passed the test without his help. The summer I turned 16 he came over every morning in his 1964 Dodge and drilled me in preparation for my driving test. No one asked him to do this, he just saw it as his role.

20. He made his bed every day. I still have his bedspread. It's not a great bedspread, but it's the only thing I have of his.

21. He paid rent to Grandmother and kept her company. After Bernard was gone, Grandmother only lived alone for a couple of years before she moved in with Mom.

22. Bernard ran errands for Grandmother when she was busy working in her beauty shop and sometimes he provided a taxi service for her elderly customers who didn’t drive. He also did the yard work.

23. I never heard Bernard swear.

24. One year while my Dad went to school down in Dallas, Mom and I went to live with Grandmother across town from our house. Bernard won't have had much money but that year he paid for me to have piano lessons from Mrs. Campbell and he chauffeured me to my dance lessons over by our house each week.

25. He also gave up his bedroom to Mom. I don’t remember where he slept then. I slept mainly with either Mom or my Aunt Rita.

26. Though Bernard wasn’t allowed to have men friends at Grandmother’s house – and I never recall ever hearing of any – he did have interesting women friends who came over. In particular I remember two nurses who went by their surnames – L and C. I always understood them to be a couple, but didn’t think too much about it. I was beginning to understand that our whole family was a bit unorthodox. L was a large woman with very short, sparse hair and a deep melodious voice. C was tall and slim with well styled auburn hair. She was very quiet, though I seem to remember she had a foreign accent, German perhaps. I always had the impression neither was entirely sober. Grandmother liked L & C – we all did. L told amazing stories about the Ob-GYN department she worked in, and the stories usually embarrassed me.

28. After Grandmother moved from 31st Street to 34th, Bernard didn’t dance much anymore. He eventually went to work for a very wealthy, eccentric brother and sister, J & L.

29. His job was caring for their animals: walking their many rescued dogs. The job developed into being a caretaker for a large house in the country where they housed the dogs and stray cats – on separate floors. I understand the attic windows were opened for the birds to access the food.

30. Bernard told me the part of the job he really disliked was feeding the rats in the basement. He talked about how they ran towards him when they heard the food rattling in the tin plates. Bernard said J and L had provided for the animals in their wills – the rats included. All were to be neutered (if not already) and allowed to live out their natural lives. Grandmother liked J and L.

31. Bernard wore reading glasses when he read the paper. I think I remember seeing him do the crossword puzzle.

32. I don’t remember seeing Bernard read, but he did use the dictionary a lot, Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. He like words and pronouncing them correctly. He corrected other people’s pronunciation when they got it wrong.

33. Bernard and I had a ‘party piece’ when I was 6 or 7 years old. He taught me that the proper response to, “Shelley, what are the names of the remaining active volcanoes in Mexico?” was
Popocatepetl (po-po-kaw-TAY-petal & ix-tox-i-WAT-al). Everyone thought we were adorable – but then they’d all had a few drinks by then.

34. Pat told me Bernard lived for a while in New York, something I’m not sure I ever knew. I mentioned finding a painting of Bernard in Rita’s garage that used to hang in his bedroom on 34th Street. Pat said someone did that of him when he was in New York.

35. I don’t think Bernard was particularly happy in his latter years. He stayed in his room and drank a lot. He and Grandmother argued quite a bit. This was probably in part because Grandmother always enjoyed a good fight, but I think she also worried about Bernard.

36. It can’t have been very easy being a gay man in a Christian family in conservative Oklahoma during the 1950s and 60s. I’m sure he knew that he was loved by his family, but still I wish Bernard could have had a happier life than he did. Whatever his shortcomings were, Bernard was never anything but kind to me.

37. Bernard was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and died very soon after, in February 1977, at the age of 56.

1 comment:

spanishtownian said...

what an amazing story of a loving, creative soul. I stumbled upon it because I work for Catholic Charities in Louisiana and received a google alert for those keywords after your post. What a wonderful man. I would have loved to have known him.