She Could Have Danced All Night

Dear Reader,

Since I started this blog in August of 2008, this has been the longest respite I’ve taken. Reader, forgive me, I’ve been living, but I promise to make it up to you with a flurry of blog posts to come. Meanwhile, I want to show you my painting, “She Could Have Danced All Night.” The painting is a tribute to my 92-year-old Aunt Bernice, who died Feb. 19, two days after my  birthday. Below is the eulogy I read at her memorial service.

As I was out walking, a gust of wind swept by, swirling the last of 2010’s leaves into a vortex, whisking it away from me, and then suddenly died back to earth, as suddenly and mysteriously as it came. In that gust I felt Bernice, coming to visit one last time.

Life comes and goes without explanation, but Bernice lived a long and joyous life. Till the very end she always found the moments to make a joke, to laugh. “I’m all right,” she would say, though she was struggling to breathe.

If Bernice were here today, she’d want us all to have a good time remembering her. She’d want us to sing and dance.

Bernice was so much more than an aunt to my brother and me. She was a second mother, a sister, a cousin, and a best friend – even a partner in crime. When I was 18, a budding artist with a camera and an urge to conquer my fear of slimy garden slugs by photographing them against the brick patio at night, Bernice was my able lighting technician, holding the flash, guffawing all the way. I would probably have forgotten this silly incident, but Bernice reminded me often, each time laughing as if it were the first time. Conversation number 41.

When I commuted with her on the subway, I was amazed that everyone knew her by name. Whenever we thought of something we needed at the table, she always hopped up to get it, saying, “I need the exercise.” She took up tennis in her 60s, and she loved to dance until she couldn’t anymore.

Drinkin bear in a cabaret/ Was I havin fun/Then one night, they shot me down/ and now I’m on the run/Oh, lay that pistol down boy/ Lay that pistol down/ Pistol packin mama/ Lay that pistol down.

This was the song she sang to my children when they were young, bouncing them on her knee. Where did this song come from? Why was my aunt singing drinking songs to little children?

Bernice was an expert in identifying quality human beings, and she surrounded herself with caring and loving friends who stuck by her until the bitter end. But her very best friends were my mother and father, who tended to her every need, making sure she had the best care and quality of life and dignity, who took the phone calls in the middle of the night when Bernice needed emergency medical care, who arranged for her bridge and scrabble games, her entertainment, her visitors and excursions, and countless doctor visits and medical care, her infinite paper work. Even when my mother went through her own odyssey with cancer, she was there for Bernice, tending to her needs.

It was from Bernice and my father, another of her partners in crime, from whom I learned storytelling. They had so many great ones: the time a knitting needle pierced its way through my father’s arm, or when a mouse crawling on the floor caused Bernice to stand up on the table and shriek. Their childhood must have been like the Little Rascals.

In our two family house, after dinner, my parents would send me to do my homework, but instead I’d go and hang out with Bernice. She was always buying new clothes and would model them for us, often announcing them as gifts from Uncle Si. We loved to watch the Carol Burnett Show together.

I am fortunate to have so many memories from her 92 years to keep in my heart.

“Party girl,” my grandmother used to call her for her love of life. Wherever she is now, I know she is still partying. “There comes a time,” she once said, “when you can’t eat anymore.”

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