A Tribute to My Mother

Grace

The Life and Legacy of Irene Bernhardt

January 6, 1936 – August 28, 2006

 

I.  A Flourish of Color and a Sweet Song

She was born like a flourish of color against the dismal grey milieu of the Great Depression, the grace of her presence like a divine promise that our country might soon emerge from its hard times with renewed life and vigor. Fair haired with deep blue eyes and a disposition as gentle and sweet as her countenance, the little girl came into the world just as she left it seventy years later—an angel. If love is patient and kind, and if love bears all things with grace and equanimity, then Irene Elizabeth Anne Wittig was love.

Margaret and Herman Wittig welcomed their daughter into the world on January 6, 1936, in Rushville, Nebraska. They brought her home from the hospital to their rural ranch-farm southeast of Hay Springs, a respectable town of around nine hundred folks. As war began to erupt in Europe and President Roosevelt struggled to revive the country, little Irene had already begun bettering the world in what small ways she could by bringing peace and comfort through her good-natured demeanor and nurturing presence. It was a practice that would thread through her life, constant as breathing and natural as sunlight.

On the Wittig farm, the family raised cattle, hogs, and chickens. The corn, wheat, oats, and hay grown in the fields were supplemented by a rich vegetable garden where young Irene would help her mother pick beans, carrots, parsnips, peas, kohlrabi, potatoes, beets, and turnips. The Wittigs never thought of themselves as wealthy, but their humble lifestyle was garnished with all the riches of their harvest, their stomachs filled and palettes satisfied by Margaret’s adroit cooking skills and Irene’s contributions as her tiny apprentice.

Indeed, life’s hardships had hardened Mrs. Wittig into a stern woman, but the sweeter side of her personality shone through in her cooking. Irene often helped her mother bake cinnamon rolls, cakes, and pies, picking up Margaret’s dexterity in the kitchen. In other walks of life, she mirrored the peaceful inclinations and quiet footsteps of her father, who saw to it that his wife and children were always cared for and happy. Sugar was rationed during World War II, and in watching her father buy 60-pound cans of honey from a Wyoming beekeeper so his wife could continue to bake, Irene learned the value of resourcefulness and self-sacrifice.

Just as the Wittigs cultivated a healthful bounty to nourish the body, they also cultivated strong characters in their children that centered upon faith, morality, and good will. They were patient and kind, teaching Irene and her brothers, Phil and Ed, to memorize Bible verses. If the Wittig children knew the words of the Bible by heart, they could rest assured that following their hearts would always lead them down the right path. Irene’s faith in God became so fundamental to her soul, in fact, that when she would suffer a stroke decades later, she was able to recite Scripture again long before she was able to produce common speech.

Though quiet and soft-spoken, young Irene was playful and full of wonder. She would coo with delight when her grandmother brought her a little straw hat or a charm bracelet after trips to San Francisco. She would giggle at her two grandfathers when one would tell her she should brush her teeth every day, while the other would tell her that brushing one’s teeth was dangerous. Both had spectacular teeth, and amidst the good humor, the little girl was quick to understand that there can be two sides to a story.

Along with her soft laughter, Irene filled the Wittig house with piano music. As she graced the air with gentle melodies, one couldn’t help but listen to the notes and realize that she was, above all else, a giver. She did not seek the spotlight, but instead projected it, radiating a pure and nurturing energy that encouraged others to be the best versions of themselves, and to enjoy life to its fullest.

A mind for music is often built for math as well, and even her older brother Phil had to work hard to keep up with her in class. The Wittig farm was three miles from the nearby two-room country schoolhouse, and the plains of Nebraska were often transformed into harsh, windswept terrain in the winter months. The thermometer would drop below zero, often to negative twenty degrees with forty mile-per-hour winds that chilled to the bone. Still, Irene and her two brothers would make the trek. Slipping jeans on underneath her dress to keep warm, she rode to school on her small black-and-white Shetland pony, Trixie, with a tenacious commitment to her studies that would eventually earn her the rank of salutatorian of her high school class. Before long, she had grown too big for Trixie and began to ride Beauty, the larger horse that Phil used to ride.

Irene’s childhood would not have been what it was without Immanuel Lutheran Church, where she had begun Sunday School at the age of four. Her cousin, Marilyn, was only six months younger, and the little girls loved to play games in the back of the church at recess during summer vacation Bible school. Nothing excited them more than having sleepovers at the Wittig farm, and at age nine, Irene moved only two miles away from her beloved cousin. The two would ride to church together on Saturday mornings and would perform up-tempo duets together on the piano—Marilyn on harmony, and Irene coursing out the sprightly melodies.

Party telephone lines and wall-mounted crank-up phones were common in rural areas at that time, and as Irene and Marilyn matured into young ladies, they were thrilled when their families decided to construct a “private” telephone line for their exclusive use. The best friends had their own number—a short ring, a long ring, and another short ring. They would chat about their days and about the 4-H Club, as both girls were members.

There was certainly a lot to discuss when it came to 4-H Club. Those days were long and grueling—after finishing their morning farm chores, Irene and her brothers would go into town, wash calves, and ready them to be shown at local fairs. Irene would also sew clothing, cook, and participate in speaking contests that tapped into the subtle competitive streak that sometimes shone in the deep blue of her eyes. She so excelled in the 4-H scene that she was named Sheridan County’s first 4-H Queen during her freshman year of high school. Phil was also crowned the county’s first 4-H King on that same day—November 26, 1949.

4-H consumed much of Irene’s attention and energies, but she was also an avid participant in her church group, Luther League. From an early age, the Luther League was fundamental in shaping her character, and she and Marilyn even traveled to Hastings, Nebraska as local teenage representatives for a week of leadership training.

II.  Goodnight Irene, the 4-H Queen

Some folks, they like their sugar

Some folks, they like their wine

Some folks love their music

And they sing it all the time

Irene, goodnight

Irene, goodnight

Goodnight, Irene

Goodnight, Irene

I’ll see you in my dreams

The jovial and spirited singing of Irene’s boy cousins came wafting through the window of the girls’ cabin as they strolled by one night for a serenade, and she and Marilyn giggled with delight. It was a Luther League camping weekend in Chadron State Park, and Irene was leaving the days of her childhood behind as she bloomed into a lovely young woman. With her days full of laughter, music, learning, friends, family, and community activities, time began to pass faster and faster.

Busy and popular as she was, however, Irene would still steal moments to herself in the evenings to read in the soft glow of the kerosene lamp. When electricity came to the farm, she would listen to the radio too. Her favorite pastime activity, however, was playing board games with the family. The Wittigs would spend hours dueling over Monopoly or Chinese Checkers, and Irene was a cunning pinochle and pitch player as well.

Christmas was among the most special times for the Wittig household. Christmas Eve church services were followed by a feast of Margaret Wittig’s oyster stew, which in turn was followed by the elegant Christmas fruit-and-nut bread that Irene helped bake. Each Christmas, Margaret would make Springerle, a special German sugar cookie. Before electric mixers, the eggs and sugar for the cookies had to be hand-beaten for an hour—a tiresome task that Margaret would delegate to her husband and sons. Baking Springerle thus became a tradition that brought the entire family together in the kitchen. After the men were done, Margaret and Irene would add the flour and other ingredients before rolling out the dough with a special rolling pin that would imprint lovely patterns and designs into the flattened dough. Margaret would cut the designs apart, separate them, and leave them to dry overnight before baking them the next day.

Irene and her brothers were growing up, however, and the close-knit days of the Wittigs were coming to a close as it came time for her to begin making her own way in the world. When she would daydream about what she might be when she grew up, Irene had had her heart set on being a teacher, but after a brief stint serving as a teacher’s aide, she found her naturally gentle demeanor averse to disciplining the children of others. Graduation day finally came, and after receiving her high school diploma along with her 42 fellow classmates, she instead enrolled in a two-year pre-nursing program at Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, with aspirations to become an administrative nurse. Those aspirations, however, were soon to meet their match.

III.  A Better Offer

?gniddew ym ta ronoh fo diam eht eb uoy lliW

Marilyn held the letter from Irene—a full page and a half—quizzically, before realizing her mischievous cousin had written the entire thing backward. She held it up to the mirror and read:

Will you be the maid of honor at my wedding?

While the letter itself was a joke—a trademark example of the silly and sweet little things Irene would do to make others smile—Marilyn suspected that its message was no joke at all. Tall, slim, and shapely with a million-dollar smile that struck the boys weak in the knees, Irene had more than her graceful and good-natured personality to attract the attention of potential suitors. Marilyn, however, had never taken these passing romantic interests very seriously… that is, until Bobby Jean Bernhardt moved to town and joined Luther League. He was a dynamic, hardworking, 24-year-old farmer who felt that meeting the 17-year-old beauty was God-ordained, and she fell in love.

Their courtship was simple and pure. Bobby had enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Kansas but would get away whenever he could to visit Irene at nursing college in Nebraska. He would drive up to take her to dinner at their favorite Omaha restaurant. As the two grew more serious, Marilyn began to fear that their giggly schoolgirl days of constant togetherness were coming to an end, but the cousins managed to find opportunities to go on double-dates from time to time. Once, they even drove to Black Hills’ state park to see Mount Rushmore, with Marilyn and her date roaming around the Hills to explore while Irene and Bobby stayed behind in the car.

Later, the Wittig siblings were together in Phil’s car when Bobby met them on a country road and flagged them down. Delighted, Irene hopped out of one vehicle and got in the other, and Bobby drove them to Walgren Lake as he went on and on about some “new bait” he had gotten that was sure to help him with his next great catch. When they arrived at the lake, Irene leapt from the car and turned to him expectantly. Instead of pulling out his fishing rod, however, he sank to his knee before her, holding out a diamond ring.

The wedding took place on June 1, 1956, when Irene was twenty years old. She had spent weeks sewing the wedding gown herself—a lovely, long, formal white dress with full veil and train that rendered the purity of her spirit to all who attended. The summer air was made sweeter as the young lovers pronounced their vows in the small rural church, and as they proceeded down the aisle after the ceremony, tears of happiness filled Bobby’s eyes.

That “new bait” Bobby had offered forth that day at Walgren Lake landed him the best catch of his life, and thereafter, Irene gave up all plans of becoming a nurse. He had vowed she would never have to work outside the home as long as their children were young, and Irene knew she wanted to focus all of her energy on perfecting the art of motherhood and homemaking. People laughed at her readiness to abandon the nursing path and urged her to see it through as it might prove fruitful later on, but Irene didn’t bat an eyelash. “I got a better offer,” she said with a smile.

IV.  The Foundation of a Family

The newlyweds quickly settled into their life together, farming wheat and raising livestock near Hay Springs, and within two years, their daughter Donell was born. Donell was followed by Gordon in 1960, Devonne in 1961, Gloria in 1963, and Barbara in 1969, thus completing the small Bernhardt family. Both hardworking, God-fearing, and good people, Bobby and Irene formed a perfect union—he as a leader and protector, and she as a nurturer and supporter. She adored her role as a mother and cared for her children with a grace and innate adeptness at the role so pronounced it was as if she had been born to do it. She would sew and cook long into the night—stretches of precious stillness and peace that were only punctuated by the welcome interludes of one of her children getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Just as Irene had sewn her own wedding gown, she would also make a new dress for each of her girls every Easter. The loving practice called for many late night sewing marathons, but the loveliness of her daughters in their new dresses at church on Easter Sunday was worth it for Irene.

This act of dedication exemplified the kind of hard work and care that was so fundamental to the lifestyle of Bernhardt farm. Whether it was chores out in the field or around the house, the young family always put in a good day’s work. Irene herself would tend the animals and tend to her impressive garden, which measured twenty by a hundred yards and boasted many of the vegetables she had helped her mother grow when she was a child. The sweet corn, tomatoes, and kohlrabi were enlivened by a colorful cornucopia of flowers that lent a whimsical quality to the farm. Hollyhocks bloomed near the garage, and gladiolas and daffodils—two of Irene’s favorites—brightened up the farm as well. When Bobby and Gordon would return from the fields after a long day of hard work, they were often greeted by Irene as she pulled the weeds out from amongst the vegetables and flowers.

During and after those long days, meals were especially important occasions for the Bernhardts—a special time when the family came together to enjoy Irene’s exceptional cooking. She would put together her own ad-libbed recipes, and fried chicken and leg of lamb stood out as particularly mouthwatering highlights. Creamy soups, casseroles, cornbread—all were eagerly anticipated by Bobby and the children.

When the family would gather around the table for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, each meal would begin and end with a prayer—an outward display of the deep faith that coursed through their family heritage. Not even the littlest child was permitted to leave the table before the closing prayer was said, demonstrating that theirs was a family united in faith and love. Above all else, and with her whole mind, body, and soul, Irene believed in God. It was from this immovable faith that her grace was derived, and that grace radiated through her voice and touch whenever her family members were sad or in distress. When Irene said, “It’ll be alright,” her children knew it was true, regardless of whether the problems they faced were big or small. Irene truly believed that, no matter what the trouble was, God would prevail and make things right.

This strong Christian faith was undergirded by an encyclopedic knowledge of and intimate familiarity with the Bible that Irene could share with her children whenever they needed advice. When they began leaving the farm to go out into the world and start their own lives, they would often write home to her with questions about things they were encountering. Irene would respond with a dialogue all her own—an interpretation of Bible verses and proverbs that never failed to inspire her children to be the best people they could be.

To Irene, being a good person rested on a foundation of compassion, and she never permitted her children to speak negatively about others. She abhorred gossip and always espoused the motto, “If you can’t say anything nice about a person, don’t say anything at all.” As well, Irene believed in joy just as deeply as she believed in respect and kindness. She was quick to laugh and had a delightful sense of humor—the same kind that compelled her to scrawl that backwards letter to Marilyn all those years before. She would look for jokes and stories in Reader’s Digest or on the Johnny Carson show to share with the family at mealtime, when she’d often begin laughing so hard she could barely speak. This would make Bobby laugh, and the children were quick to follow suit.

Nothing made Irene laugh more, however, than her children’s own antics. When she’d chop off the heads of chickens to prepare them for cleaning, for instance, the kids would cradle them in their arms pretending they were babies. They would then grab them by their wings and walk them around, laughing and playing. Irene and her children had a special relationship, and when Bobby would go out of town for meetings, she would throw all caution to the wind and take them downtown for the special treats like frozen pizza, which he normally forbade.

It wasn’t only Irene’s own children who were drawn to her. Recognizing in her the childlike innocence and lightness that they themselves possessed, kids were attracted to her innate glow. When they would look at her in church, she’d wink back, and once in the grocery store, a little girl even left her grandmother’s side and snuck her hand into Irene’s. Animals, as well, could sense the nurturing and gentle aura of her presence. When Irene would stroll through the barnyard, a loyal following of cats would follow along behind, and she would often stop so one or two special ones could hop onto her shoulder.

Just as she filled her childhood home with music growing up, Irene continued to fill the Bernhardt house with upbeat and fun piano medleys. She would always play the songs in a specific order, cultivating her own mini concerts that featured “Shrimp Boats (Is A-Comin’),” “Aba-Daba Honeymoon,” and Guy Mitchell’s “My Heart Cries for You.” She would weave in songs from earlier generations too—classics like “Red River Valley” and “Mairzy Doats”—and was especially overjoyed when the children would stand up and sing the lyrics. Never liking to be the center of attention, Irene left the singing to the kids when they had company, but when it was just the immediate family, she would join in enthusiastically as Bobby, never one to sing himself, enjoyed the melodic voices of his wife and children.

These voices sang especially sweet on Christmas—always a big celebration for the family, and one of the most treasured times of the year, just as it was for Irene growing up. Among her favorite songs of the season was “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot” on Nat King Cole’s Christmas album. The site of the festivities would rotate between Irene, Phil, and Ed’s households, and every year they had a beautifully-decorated tree. Irene would keep the children’s presents hidden so well in the weeks proceeding the holiday that they sometimes wondered if they’d receive any gifts at all. Then, when she’d magically produce them on Christmas Eve, the children would laugh with delight.

Even on Christmas, the Bernhardts remained frugal and cost-conscious. As a lower-middle class family with five children to support, they had to keep a vigilant eye on their finances. Still, Irene made it a rule to always give ten percent of the family’s earnings to the church. Even on those particularly tight years when hail would destroy a considerable portion of their crops, Irene maintained a positive attitude that was firm in its conviction that things would work out, no matter how bad they might get. This commitment to optimism and generosity even in inclement conditions seeped into the consciousness of her children, and several still maintain the practice of giving religious tithers by donating ten percent of their income to the church today.

The ten percent rule spoke much to the values of the Bernhardt clan. They were sensible, down-to-earth, and had their priorities in order. Irene was never one to be bewitched by Hollywood or to idolize actors and actresses, but she did enjoy a good story. In the fifties, she and Bobby liked to cozy up and watch Gunsmoke and Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. Later, they enjoyed Columbo, Perry Mason, and even the soap opera General Hospital. She liked James Stewart and Julie Andrews movies like The Sound of Music, but much more than being any sort of movie buff, Irene was an avid sports fan. Bobby had been a first-rate softball pitcher in his youth and won a number of championships while serving in the Army, but his wife’s enthusiasm for athletics seemed to surpass even his own. She loved listening to football games on the little kitchen radio, rooting tirelessly for her very favorite teams, the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Denver Broncos. She loved baseball as well, always rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who later became the Los Angeles Dodgers. Her daughters didn’t care to listen to the games in their younger years, but Irene would get so excited that she didn’t mind listening alone.

Irene’s favorite sports player of all, however, was always Bobby. After they married, he pitched in local softball games, and Irene would go to each and every one, always rating his performance. She loved watching Donell, too, who was naturally athletic and picked up football in high school while also learning how to play the guitar Bobby had bought before joining the Army. The Bernhardts were very supportive of each other, and Irene was always her husband and children’s biggest fan.

V.  Right, Wrong, and Resilience

Like Bobby, Irene was always politically conservative and could be very impassioned and articulate if engaged in a political discussion, drawing on the skills she cultivated in her 4-H speaking contests as a young lady. Still, politics never played a big part in the discussions of the Bernhardt household. Instead, conversation and practices were more geared around an ethical, moral compass that granted the family an instinctive and inner conviction in knowing right from wrong. For instance, the Watergate Scandal, among the first political discussions the Bernhardt children can recall having, was put simply: what Nixon did was wrong.

Equipped with these strong internal senses of morality, the children did not often misbehave, but when they got out of hand, Bobby tended to be the family disciplinarian. Barb was too young to get too wrapped up in the sibling antics, and Gordon was always incredibly cognizant of rules and proper behavior, but the three other girls could sometimes get rowdy. Irene could certainly dole out punishment when necessary, but the children certainly had an acute awareness of which parent was more stern. While she never yelled or spanked, however, they acknowledged that simply knowing their mother was disappointed in one of them would have a tremendous impact in itself.

Perhaps Irene’s aversion to punishing and disciplining her children was because she loved them so deeply she would often take their successes or failures on as her own. Her most devout commitment in life, aside from her devotion to God, was the protection of her children from the hardships of life, and when one would encounter a serious obstacle, she would take personal responsibility by asking herself what she could have done differently as a mother to have avoided the outcome.

Among the greatest of these obstacles came when Donell was confronted with a teenage pregnancy and was counseled by a minister of the Lutheran Church to terminate the pregnancy. Irene and Bobby heeded the minister’s guidance but immediately regretted the decision to abort the fetus. Donell and her parents weathered the storm and emerged on the other side, deciding to transition over to the Church of Christ and finally settling on the Baptist Church as a better fit for their faith.

It is easy for a family to stay strong and united in good times, but it is the bad times that truly test the integrity of the glue, and when the Bernhardts came face to face with the accident that would define them, it became clear that Irene was that glue.

This accident came in November of 1976, a few months before Donell was to be married on February 12, 1977. Irene had just spent a week at a health seminar in Georgia, and Donell and her fiancé, Maurice Turnbull, picked her up from the airport that night. The three were driving home when, just over a hill on a country road, they were involved in a car accident. When the cars crashed into one another, Irene suffered a minor concussion and lacerated hand, and Maurice suffered serious injuries and spent months in rehabilitation in the hospital. Donell, tragically, was not so lucky. Her neck was broken in the accident, and she died immediately.

The tragic death of her eldest child was the most profound sorrow of her life, but Irene didn’t skip a beat in showing her love and affection to her other children. There were moments of incredible despair, especially the stormy night of Donell’s burial when Irene awoke and wept periodically throughout the night, feeling as though her lost daughter was cold and needed a coat. Drawing on the unshakable religious faith that had guided her through her whole life, however, she persevered and thereafter kept her sadness private, remaining a pillar of strength and unity that kept the family together even in the wake of that unprecedented hardship. The remaining four Bernhardt children knew their mother would think about Donell and cry, but they were never made to feel that they had to live in the shadow of a deceased sibling.

Loss and sadness work their way out of us in mysterious ways, and Irene’s experience in the matter was more tangible than most. Every time she would rub her forehead where she had hit it on the windshield glass, tiny shards would work their way through the surface of her skin and out into the air. This, like her pain, went on for years, yet her resilient spirit and firm belief that her child was with the God she had always known and loved allowed her to carry forward and smile for what she still had—a loving husband, four wonderful children, and a world that, while complicated and mysterious, was still full of wonder.

VI.  A New Peace

As Gordon, Devonne, Gloria, and Barb grew up and ventured out on their own, Irene found the immediate obligations of motherhood making way for more time to cultivate new skills and interests. One day, she came across a newspaper advertisement for census takers and asked Bobby if he thought she could do it. He replied that he thought she could but that he didn’t want her to go too far away alone, so she answered the ad and worked outside of the home for the first time in her life. Later, she expanded her repertoire further and began to sell cookware at Pampered Chef parties, where Bobby would accompany her. She would show the cookware in peoples’ homes, and even bought a good set for themselves since she received a discount for her services.

As the years continued to pass, dusting Irene’s short hair a light salt-and-pepper color, she bloomed from a wonderful mother to a doting grandmother and great-grandmother. Dressed in culottes and tennis shoes, she routinely drove the thousand miles to Texas, where Barb, Gloria, and Devonne lived. She was present at many of her grandchildren’s births, visited at least a few times each year, and never failed to send birthday gifts and Christmas boxes of baked treats. Just as she had always related to children on a level of shared innocence and wonder, she lived for her grandchildren and was most in her element when she was near them.

When she wasn’t around her grandchildren, she filled her days with Blue Bonnet Club gardening activities, sewing, and reading. She not only read books, but also began surfing utilizing the internet to read online articles about health and to email her grandchildren. Though Irene enjoyed her technological ventures, however, she still enjoyed playing cards far more than surfing the web. She knew eight distinct games of solitaire and would sit at the table playing one after the other, in succession. When her mother, Margaret, moved into a nursing home, Irene would visit her several times a week to play cards. Music still brought her an unrivaled sense of peace as well, and she had begun to collect small hand bells.

VII.  Decline, Only to Rise

In her late sixties, something fundamental changed for Irene—she seemed to lose her ability to play the piano. This came in the wake of deepening health problems that included headaches and a possible mild stroke. Still, she eagerly anticipated her and Bobby’s Golden Wedding Anniversary party celebrating their fifty years of marriage, to be held the following June. The party was to be followed by a cruise to Alaska in July which the Bernhardt children had planned for Irene and Bobby. In anticipation for the exciting festivities, Irene was whisked off to Rapid City to shop for new clothes after spending time with her children and grandchildren in Fort Robinson, Nebraska, for a family reunion.

Irene’s cheeks were rosy and her eyes bright at the Golden Anniversary party in the Hay Springs Community Center, which a number of out-of-state relatives came into town for. Two days later, however, she had a stroke and was rushed to the hospital, where a blood clot was removed from her brain. She then underwent physical and occupational therapy and, with a good prognosis, was released from the hospital in July. At home, Bobby took her for walks, and they progressed to quarter-mile strolls. Irene’s spirit, however, was nearing the end of its stay here, and on August 28, 2006, she passed away. Bobby always described his wife as an angel, and from that day forward, she surely was one.

At the funeral of their beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Irene’s family played old hymns that Irene would have loved, as well as the song “One More Day” to express their deep love for the woman that had shaped them so fundamentally. I would hold you every second and say a million I love you’s / That’s what I’d do with one more day with you, they sang. Reflecting back on Irene’s life, each and every one of them was at once inspired, grateful, and at a loss for how so much good will, grace, and Godliness could be embodied in one person. She was always patient, kind, compassionate, and hardworking. The name Irene means peace, and rightfully so, for through the beautiful peace she kept tranquil and constant within her own soul, she was able to inspire the same in others.

Losing Irene was unlike anything the Bernhardt family had experienced before, but having watched her cope with loss and grief with her characteristic grace, it was almost as though she were still there supporting her loved ones in their time of mourning. The fundamental elements of her life—grace, love, compassion—continue to resonate in the world, in both tangible and intangible ways. The Steinway Model L piano that enlivens the music ministry of Alexandria Presbyterian Churh in Alexandria, Virginia, for instance, is but one example of the breadth and intransience of her memory, as it was donated in her honor by her son Gordon several years after her death. Even as Irene is with God in Heaven now, her legacy continues to allow others to express their faith and love on Earth, just as she did each day of her life.

© 2012 Gordon J. Bernhardt. All Rights Reserved.

Acknowledgement:  Thank you to my father–Bob Bernhardt, my three sisters–Barbara Wood, Gloria Bernhardt, and Devonne West, my uncle–Phil Wittig, and my first cousin once removed–Marilyn Wright for contributing their thoughts and memories to this tribute.  And thank you to Emily Burns for taking those thoughts, organizing them, and crafting this tribute.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *