Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sometimes the good die old

posted Fri, 31 Dec 2004

Bernie Staab died a few days ago. Bernie and my grandfather grew up on neighboring farms. He was my grandfather’s friend, and later, mine. My grampa stayed in the family business, but Bernie, after serving as a SeaBee in WWII, became a carpenter.

“Carpenter” doesn’t do justice to his work. Bernie was an artist. He made the most beautiful things out of wood. The cedar chest he built for me does not have a single piece of metal in it. Every joint is dovetailed and all the nails are wooden. It is exquisite.

Bernie gave me a wooden vise he made similar to this one, only far better looking. I have it in my office. No one can ever guess what it is. I tell them it’s my vise/vice. When I get a blank stare, I explain that I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs, so I have to have something. They still usually don’t get it.

Bernie was so modest, though. “I was never much for book learning,” he said, explaining that he had gone only as far as eighth grade. That wasn’t unusual for central Wisconsin in the early 1900s. None of my grandparents went past eighth grade, either. Yet he and his wife raised a large family and he supported them all with his carpentry.

When he retired, he moved a lot of his machine tools to his basement and kept building, making cuckoo clocks, cedar chests, and other fine furniture. I would visit him every time I was in Dorchester visiting my grandparents.

A few years ago, Harpo was with me on a trip to Dorchester. I took him to meet Bernie, knowing he would appreciate Bernie’s craftsmanship.

“Shouldn’t we call first?” Harpo asked as we walked to Bernie and Irene’s back door.

“No,” I answered. “If they’re not home, we’ll just come back later.” City folk. Honestly. Dorchester is small. It doesn’t even have a stoplight. If you want to visit someone, you knock on his door. If he doesn’t answer, he’s either not at home or he’s not At Home.

I wish I could go to Bernie’s funeral. It would be sad, because Bernie will be missed, but he led a full, happy life for over 90 years, and I think he was relatively healthy in his last years.

It would also be fun, if my dad’s funeral is anything to judge by. Not the funeral and burial itself, but the lunch afterwards in the church basement.

That lunch was a party with friends and relatives we hadn’t seen in years. We kept saying how much my dad would have enjoyed being there. My uncle Larry, a butcher who makes the best bratwurst in the world, provided the brats. (This after bringing his divine venison summer sausage to the wake.)

For the rest of the meal, we had what the ladies’ altar society had made. They provide food for funeral lunches. We had an abundance of delicious Wisconsin food, including any kind of hotdish you would want and lots and lots of desserts.

Back to Bernie: Here is what you do when someone dies.

You acknowledge the death. I know it can be hard. It is difficult to talk about death. And our culture certainly doesn’t encourage it. But you acknowledge it to the family of the person who has died. You offer your sympathies, either over the phone or in a note.

You do not say

• “It’s better this way”
• “It could be worse”
• “Don’t think about it”
• “At least you have closure”
• Or anything else that would imply that the death is a good thing.

All you need to say is, “I’m sorry.”

If you are in the same town with the family of the person who has died, you take food to the house. Trust me. It is the right thing to do and a good thing to do.

I can’t take food and I can’t go to the funeral, but I am going to send a note to Bernie’s youngest daughter, Jane, with whom I used to play when we were in Dorchester when I was a kid. It will be an easy note to write because I have so many fond memories of her wonderful father.

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