By: H. Anne Thurston-Brandley, Columnist
As the years roll by in one’s life a handful of minutes or even days will become unforgettable. The reasons may be believability, depth of love, horror or self-evaluation. One thing is certain; such happenings will affect who you become and your appraisal of others who enter your life.
Remembering can be deliberate or totally out of one’s control. Often it is an occurrence of today that will instantly transport a person back in time. I have yet to determine what it is that brings Bertha back into my mind and heart. Yet I have come to realize she has stayed with me all these years so I will take the time to understand the desires of others and do what I can to help them be fulfilled.
It was back in the mid fifties Bertha first walked into the kitchen door of Ohio home with Ed. She was a Black woman, of medium height and on the heavy side. As he introduced us she smiled from head to foot at our four little tots peering from behind me. Bertha had come to work on Fridays for me as a maid. All this had come about because of a friend who had an invalid wife who needed help. As they came to know Bertha they learned her two days with them was the source of her only income. This prompted them to seek additional work for her. Upon hearing of her need neither Ed nor I could refuse our help.
Never having had any kind of help in my whole life as a wife and mother I was apprehensive of the whole idea, but determined to do my best. Before the first day was over I learned my fears were unfounded; Bertha had her own routine and it far exceeded anything I could have cooked up. And to top everything off she had a fantastic voice. She sang whenever her work placed her in a room by herself. Bertha’s singing was soft, low, rich and embracing.
Ed would pick her up at the end of the city bus run about four miles from us and return her to it at the day’s end. She carried her work clothes in a bag, changing before and after work. Never once would she join me for lunch not even when the children and Ed were elsewhere. Her choice was to eat after I had left the table. Despite this socially demanded behavior we became family – her family. She had no other.
When Ed informed me in 1961 he had chosen to leave his work at the Port of Toledo to move to Boyne City, Michigan to help my brother operate its ski hill I was devastated. The move meant the children and I would travel far away to an unknown northern area away from all our family, church and friends. Just in my late thirties I simply felt my world had collapsed. Yet, my husband’s excitement was so real I didn’t fight the idea, but shoved all my fear, sadness and loss out of sight, struggling with it alone at night. But Bertha knew. Unknown to me she accepted the move knowing she would be with me to help.
When it penetrated my mind she thought she would be going with us I told Bertha she would be staying in Toledo. My reasoning was there would be no Blacks to befriend her in the distant north land. She pleaded. But I knew I couldn’t arrive in a strange town with a Black maid in tow. Heaven’s what would the people think of me? No, that wasn’t possible. We all cried as we said our final goodbyes.
Sometime after our move I heard the story of the Millers; the beloved Black family which had settled in Boyne in the late 1800’s – walking Indian trails and lake shorelines to secure their property ownership in Traverse City. I immediately thought of Bertha. That is when my world collapsed. During the preceding busy weeks of moving and getting the ski hill underway I had not had time to think of sending a note back to Bertha assuring her we were all OK. But once I realized I could ask her to return to all of us it hit me she could neither read nor write plus none of us had an address for her or any idea where she lived in the city. Ed called his friend, but discovered he had recently bundled his wife up and moved to Florida – no known forwarding address.
It wasn’t until many years later my mother happened to read Bertha’s obituary in the newspaper. She had died alone of TB, being housed in one of the City’s dreary old brick hospitals used for that purpose.
In all the years since I moved Bertha out of my life I have viewed others who are different from me in a very open manner. I don’t see differences, but rather the ways we are alike, our struggles, our loves, our families, friends, dislikes and likes. But mostly I am far more aware of what I might possibly do to make their day a bit brighter. Guess what? To this day I regret losing the opportunity of our being Bertha’s family to love and share life with.