I didn’t know Bernice very well, nor for very long. By the time I moved to Bridgeport at the beginning of 2015 the bar named after her had already been open for nearly fifty years. I felt at home there within a couple weeks of my first visit. Many of the regulars at Bernice’s never met Bernice but her aura was ever-present within the place.
She spent most of her last days in a little room directly behind the bar’s small stage. Passing by while hauling away empties, I often heard TV game-show or daytime talk sounds emanating from there. Every now and then she would come out when I was mopping the floor or stocking the cooler. Even in her housecoat, her eyebrows were always painted and she usually had lipstick on as well. You could tell she was accustomed to men admiring her. She always called me Mr. Coffee because I always brought a cup in to work. I think she knew I was there by its smell.
She liked to keep an eye on things. Steve would get exasperated when she presented him with a list of errands for the bar even as it had been years since she had anything to do with the day-to-day running of the business. His reactions were often those of a boy to a domineering mother. She knew how to push his buttons to the very end. Yet, by giving up his career to run the bar after his father passed, Steve showed her he cared. They took care of each other even as they often seemed each other’s last nerve.
All the time I spent organizing the garage and working at the bar made me feel a bit like part of their family. Like a distant cousin from out of town come to stay for a short spell. The bar wasn’t just a business but also their home, so crossing the threshold through the back door was passing from public to private space.
The only time I ever saw her outside the bar was on Election Day when Steve took her to vote at the police station a couple doors north of the bar. I brought them hot chocolate while they waited. The only other time she left the bar was to go see doctors. A few weeks ago she was admitted to the hospital, had a stroke, then passed away soon after.
I didn’t visit her in the hospital so I never got a chance to say goodbye. I went to the wake, but wakes and funerals are for the living rather than the departed. Her body lying in the open casket near the back wall of the funeral home seemed like an afterthought. Steve remarked how it looked nothing like her.
The bar is open again. I’ll be curious to see what remains of Bernice’s living space. I took one of the many snapshots gathered for her memorial and used it to paint a portrait. It now hangs over the doorway of the kitchen which leads to the back porch. Steve had talked for a long time about converting this room into an office and storage for the bar. Changes come slowly at Bernice’s and no amount of them will wipe away his mother’s presence from this building. Nor should they. This will always be her place. I’m glad I got to know her a little before she passed.