by Ken Haggard, UUFP Member since 1966
Bernice Marcotte (Berni) was born in Derby Line, Vt., on the Canadian border. The matriarch of the family (in North America) was a 13-year-old orphan when in 1670 she was sent from France to Québec to marry and produce babies. Berni’s family history was drilled into her during her upbringing and I believe her understanding of the difficulties her family experienced, and its mixed French/Indian heritage was a strong factor in the way she viewed life and how she lived it. First of three daughters, Berni had a very Spartan childhood. Her mother was a troubled woman who would at times beat her with a razor strap. Berni remembered the strap but not the beatings. However, her sister Charlotte remembered, saying that she would lie quietly in bed thinking, “Thank God it’s not me!” while listening to Berni scream.
Berni was the shyest person I’d ever met. As children she and Charlotte would sneak away from home, into the woods, where they would each climb a tree to hide and read books. Berni had a kind and understanding heart. For years she walked several blocks to the house of a friend who had muscular dystrophy. There, she would help her onto the school bus and from the bus into school and to her classes.
It was Berni who introduced her Catholic family to Unitarianism and she learned self-reliance early. Any money, more then her 10-cent allowance, she earned herself. Later, after paying most her own way through a year of business college she moved to Springfield, Mass. As she left home her father handed her $10, telling her to pay it back when she could. She told me with pride she never spent that money and returned the same bill to her father after receiving her first pay check.
Berni was 20 when in ’58 we met at a Christmas party at a minister’s home. She took an instant dislike to me, “jerk, loudmouth, Westover boy, ” she had written in her diary (not kind, but true). In early spring of ‘59 we met again at church and I, with difficulty persuaded/shamed her in to going to lunch with me. After lunch we attended the Unitarian Youth Group. There followed a 1-month courtship, much of which consisted of long walks, often in the hills and forests of western Massachusetts where we had long conversations about what we each wanted from life, and culminated in her acceptance of my proposal of marriage. Years later her sister told me I was the only boy Berni had ever brought home to meet her family. When asked if this was true, Berni said yes and explained it was her shyness; her family teased her even at the suggestion she might have a boyfriend.
For the first three years of marriage she worked 90 percent of my way through college so as she put it, “I would not have to stay in Nebraska one day longer than necessary.” It was cold, hot and lonely. It was not the Berkshires. The Westphalen’s (my family) were loud, in your face, and some loved to tease her to see her blush. After her three years in Hell, we moved to Virginia and Berni, seven months pregnant, set about creating the life she had described three years before while walking in the forests. Berni gave birth to a son and two daughters (only the boy survived her). She had six grandchildren, five girls and one boy.
She volunteered at the Peninsula Junior Science Center until they hired her on staff. After several years there she quit and volunteered for seven years at Sara Bonwell Hudgins (a school for children with mental and physical disabilities). She left there only when the school started mainstreaming children. Once, when asked how you taught a severely handicapped child how to brush their teeth she just said, “First you teach her how to turn on the light.” She worked as volunteer teaching older women to read, the first being a widow who had left school after the second grade to work in the fields. At the graduation the woman hugged Berni and told her, “You’ve changed my life!” Berni was a member of the League of Women Voters, serving one term as vice-chairwoman, then turning down the presidency, pleading shyness. She was active in the Democratic Party.
At the UUFP she was always serving in some position, often working in RE, doing the newsletter (on an old mimeograph machine), church secretary, cleaning, cooking. Always involved, always doing something.
Berni loved children. Two nieces, she had cared for since they were two weeks old had, with the approval of their birth grandmothers, honored her with the title of grandmother for all the love and care she had showered upon them. She loved reading, cooking, needle work, weaving, and taught these to her children and grandchildren. Berni was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1983 and over the next 26 years it slowly came to dominate her day-to-day activities. After the turn of the century she would have two brain surgeries and two other major operations. She developed an allergy to a Parkinson’s drug (a dopamine agonist) that almost killed her bringing her weight from 108 down to 70 pounds before she began to recover and could be released from a care facility.
To understand her you must appreciate how much she loved life. Yes, even in Nebraska she found friends and a way to tolerate my family. Once a friend of mine said that if you did not believe in Jesus you would go to Hell. I told him, “Well if that happens to Berni, she will find something good about being there!” Berni in turn asked, “Is it worse than Nebraska?” This attitude sustained her and, to a degree, infected, me. In spite of severe difficulties with Parkinson’s her most frequent complaint about the disease was that she “wanted to grow old gracefully”! I always replied she was growing old gracefully under pressure.
She maintained contact with the many people she knew, carrying on a 50-year correspondence with friends, people she’d worked with, grown up with, with all of her graduation class of 15. Something in her, something in their childhood surroundings, had welded them together! I was honored when they offered to let me to continue attending their reunions after her death.
When we first met she was not a dancer. She was too shy; she’d never danced with a boy except at a Grange Barn Dance. In a role reversal I taught her to dance. She complained that in public I held her too close. I just replied that, “no one is watching us they’re too busy dancing close.” In time she learned to Square, Round, and Line dance which we continued until her Parkinson’s required her to stop for safeties sake. Still at home we danced in private.
In 2008 a few months before her death, following a major operation that the surgeon was not sure she would survive, a doctor wrote on her Discharge Summary, “Mrs. Haggard is a remarkable woman in that she has had PD for twenty-five years, yet continues to lead an active lifestyle and has strong voice and articulation. This is attributed to her determination and complying with her exercise regime.” Shortly before her death out of the blue one day she said, “Ken, I worry about you.” I asked, “Why?” She replied, “You can’t take care of yourself.” As usual she was right. All successes in my life came about because she married me, and love compelled me to keep the promises I’d made while walking with her in the woods. In time, I’d learned to listen, to listen carefully! Berni was a remarkable woman. And for me most remarkable of all was that after 71 years of a strenuous and difficult life, after 50 years of marriage to me, who I regret did sometimes slip and tease her a bit, she, still shy, loved me, as I loved her!
Parkinson’s disease had long before her death made the beautiful smile that first drew my attention to her, physically impossible. Still, at the end, keeping one of my promises to her, I told her it was time to let her go. She, gently, almost imperceptibly, squeezed my hand, one squeeze, our signal for yes, and I felt through her eyes that smile.
Now, as if we too had been welded together, I am unable to let her go!