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Bernadine Caine, Angel on Earth

For those of you who were lucky enough to have your grandmother as your babysitter, you’ll be able to relate directly to this story.

When I was growing up, both my parents worked, so my grandmother would watch me every day, from when I was a little baby all the way through grade school. I was fortunate enough to grow up a mile away from my grandmother. I got to see a lot of her in my life. She could attend my school concerts, my sporting events and Grandparent’s Day at school. Through my grandmother Bernadine (how’s that for an old school name), or Bernie as most people call her, I got a glimpse into what an angel is like. As cheesy as it sounds, after you read this story, you’ll understand what I mean.

Bernie grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She came from a Polish family, the second youngest of eight siblings. She is the last one of her siblings still alive today.

Bernie’s parents owned a grocery store on the corner of Brady Street in the East Side neighborhood before she was born. Two of her oldest siblings died after bouts of black diphtheria and whooping cough, at a time when there were no vaccines for those types of communicable diseases.

Despite the hard losses they experienced, Bernie’s parents and her older siblings pushed on. After the two oldest children died, her parents couldn’t stand the sound of children playing in the road, so they sold their store. They decided to move to Wilson Drive in the Shorewood neighborhood, near the Milwaukee River, to try their hands at farming. Their farm was small, with a few animals, but it did have a significantly large vegetable garden.

Bernie’s family moved on, but their hardships wouldn’t stop after Bernie’s two oldest siblings died. A chimney fire burned their farmhouse down shortly before Bernie was born.

Luckily, her parents also owned a house on Hampton Road in the Whitefish Bay neighborhood that they were renting to their cousins at the time, in order to make some extra money. They moved to an apartment in Shorewood, which is where Bernie was born, while they waited for their cousins to move out of the Whitefish Bay home. Shortly after her birth, they moved onto Hampton. Once again, the family proved how resilient they could be. Their toughness rubbed off on Bernie permanently.

Bernie attended kindergarten and first grade at a public school, Cumberland, which was just down the street from her. For the rest of grade school, she walked two miles to and from school with her siblings to a Catholic grade school, St. Monica's, in Whitefish Bay. Holy Family, her current church that is closer to her house, wasn’t even built yet. She went on to attend Messmer High School.

Growing up, Bernie was known as the watchdog for her siblings. When her little brother Johnny had to go to summer school, she’d go with him to make sure he was doing his work. When her older sister Bernice went to the roller rink, she’d go with her to make sure she stayed out of trouble with the boys.

Bernie was one of the only women her age during the Great Depression that went to college. She attended Layton School of the Arts in the Third Ward neighborhood of Milwaukee, which is now known as the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD). She was an extremely talented artist and still is today. While she went to school, she worked as a secretary doing clerical work.

During Bernie’s college years, another hardship struck her family. Bernie’s mother passed away from a blood clot to her lung when Bernie was 21 years old, forcing her to leave school and get a full time job to help support her father. She moved back home to help her dad around the house, especially since all of her other siblings had moved away, including her younger brother who was in army. Her learned toughness really shined through for the first time in her life.

She shared a lot of quality time with her dad during those years. They loved baseball, and they’d go to Milwaukee Braves (now Brewers) professional baseball games. When Holy Family Parish was first built, her father and she joined the church because it was much closer to their house than St. Monica’s. They were original parish members, attending meetings for church plans before the church was even built. My mother, her siblings, my brother and I all ended up attending Holy Family for grade school.

Still looking out for her siblings even when they were adults, Bernie and her father would frequently make the trip up north to the small town of Wausaukee, Wisconsin to visit her sister Bernice, who lived up there with her husband and children. Sometimes on these trips, Bernie would bring her friends up north with her.

One fateful night, Bernie was out at a bar in Wausaukee with one of her best friends, Rosemary. A Wausaukee native farm boy named Michael Caine happened to be at that very same bar on that very same night, with his friend Bud. His friend was interested in Rosemary, so he told Mike to go talk to the other woman she was with. Little did Mike know, he’d meet the love of his life that night.

“I knew right away when I met her that she was the one for me,” my grandfather told me. “She was the nicest person I’d ever met.”

My grandfather will still tell Bernie today, “I liked you from the very beginning.”

The night they met, Mike liked Bernie so much that since she was three years older than him, he lied that he was the same age as her. They dated for a while. Bernie and Mike would meet in Wausaukee on the weekends to see each other. Bernie would go visit her sister and Mike, who was living and working in Green Bay at the time, would go home to see his friends and his mother. Mostly, though, they began to meet in Wausaukee to see each other.

Bernie was 26 and Mike was 23 when they got married. Bernie’s father sold their family house on Hampton in Milwaukee to the newly weds, so they moved in there. Bernie started a new job in the accounting department at International Harvester, a machining plant. Mike applied to be a firefighter, but, although he was very fit and smart, he didn’t have the connections to get a job. Instead, Mike worked at Milprint, a packaging plant.

After becoming pregnant with her first child, Mary Kay, Bernie left her job at International Harvester. At that time, if a woman got pregnant, she wasn’t allowed to work. Bernie ended up having three more children, and so began her days as an incredible homemaker and mother.

Taking after her parents in their farming days, Bernie kept a large garden in the backyard of her Hampton home. She grew a plethora of vegetables in the garden and taught her children how to eat healthy from the very beginning.

“She was big into nutrition before it was trendy,” my mother told me.

Bernie was even big into nutrition when she took care of me. When I was an infant and she came to my house to watch me while my parents were at work, she’d bring me vegetables from her garden and put them on my highchair tray for me to eat. Along with my mother, who learned from her anyway, she exposed me to many different healthy foods as a baby, which is why I grew up healthy and not a picky eater.

Despite Bernie’s emphasis on nutrition, I’ll always remember her cookie jar being full. When I got to be a little bit older, I’d walk to her house after school until my parents picked me up after work. Spent from a long school day, there was nothing I looked forward to more than digging my hand into my grandmother’s cookie jar and being surprised at what type of cookie she had in there for me that day. The cookies were for her grandchildren but also for my grandfather, who has a big sweet tooth.

Sometimes she’d buy the cookies, but sometimes she’d make the cookies. Especially around Christmas time, she’d make dozens of cookies. I’m fortunate enough that both of my grandmothers were fantastic bakers.

Around Easter, Bernie would make her famous kringle and kolaches, a Polish pastry dough with various fillings. She passed down the tradition of making kolaches to her children and grandchildren, showing us how to fill the dough with either poppy seed, apricot or cream cheese filling. Then, we’d take the kolaches down to a church to get them blessed by a priest. We still make kolaches every year on Easter to this day.

When Bernie was raising her children, it wasn’t an easy life. She spent almost all of her time taking care of her family. Mike worked long hours, and a lot of times he worked second shift. She was always in the kitchen: making her children breakfast before school, making them lunch when they came home from school for lunch, making them dinner and then staying up and making Mike dinner when he came home from second shift. She was always sleep deprived and constantly working around the house, but she never complained.

“She didn’t ever yell or scream at us as kids,” my aunt Mary told me. “She kept us in line, though. She was very patient.”

Mike and Bernie didn’t have a lot of money, so Bernie couldn’t go out to enjoy herself in her few moments of free time. Still, she made the most of it. She laughed often, and she loved to read: newspapers, magazines, books and whatever she could get her hands on in between household duties. She also took time for her creativity: sewing, knitting and painting. She even made most her children’s clothes, but she enjoyed doing it. Her home was always beautifully decorated and she painted the walls and furniture herself.

“She still enjoyed life,” my mother said. “She was selfless, but she always took a little time for herself. She taught me that you always need to take time out for yourself in order to keep your life balanced.”

Bernie was the kindest soul, but she was always aware and wouldn’t hesitate to speak out if an injustice was committed against her or her family. She always stuck up for her children.

When my aunt Maureen wouldn’t read aloud in first grade because she was so shy, the teacher claimed that she couldn’t read. Bernie went up to the school and made sure the teacher knew that Maureen could indeed read but was too shy to speak up in class.

When my uncle Mike was in third grade, he hit some girls in his class with a snowball on the walk home from school and the police wrote him up for it. She walked down to the police station and stood up for him. She explained to the police that he was just being a kid, throwing a snowball playfully, and she ended up getting the record erased.

Bernie was very involved in her community. She was a Cub Scout leader, and she attended all of the Whitefish Bay events, parades and festivals. Even though my grandfather was sometimes stubborn and would refuse to go to events, she’d always drag him along and keep him out of trouble.

She was also extremely active in her church. She volunteered on various committees throughout the years, but she ran the funeral committee for 15 years with one of her friends. They’d organize dinners in the church basement for after all of the funerals. It was an incredibly depressing task, but she did it with so much grace and an open heart, providing those people who had just lost their loved ones with warm hospitality. Maybe it was that she could relate to those people, after losing her mother at a young age and father later on, but it was also just the fact that she was an incredible woman of faith.

Bernie was very religious, and I’ll never forget going to church with her on Sundays because she sang at the top of her lungs to all the hymns. She had scarlet fever when she was a little girl and lost hearing in one of her ears, but it never stopped her from singing loud and proud. Even if the songs were a little off key, Bernie had a smile on her face while she was singing.

She didn’t just go to church on Sundays, either. When she was younger, her sister Bernice had a thyroid condition. She prayed to God every day and promised that if her sister got better that she’d go to church every Wednesday in addition to Sundays and not eat meat on that day. Bernice’s condition improved, and as persistent and religious as she is, Bernie never broke her promise to God. I always thought that she went to my grade school mass on Wednesdays because my brother and I were there, but what I didn’t know was that she was fulfilling a promise she made so many years ago.

“She’d always tell me that God would never give me what I couldn’t handle,” my mother said. Bernie truly believed in the power of prayer and God’s endless love.

“When I was little and my dad was gone, I watched a TV show I wasn’t supposed to watch,” my cousin Sierra told me. “It was a freaky show, and I was too scared to go to bed. At Sunday school, we’d gotten ‘a box of God’s love.’ Grandma told me to hug the box until I fell asleep.”

Bernie was always very comforting.

“When I was in nursing school, I moved back home to save up some money,” my mother told me. “I worked as a nursing assistant first, while I was in school. The first few days were tough, after seeing a lot of really sick patients, and one of my first nights at work I came home crying. I told my mom that I didn’t think I could do it. She made me a cup of tea and talked it out with me. She told me that I should give it a chance. It was only the first few days, and I shouldn’t judge it from one experience and not give up on it right away. She couldn’t have been more right. I ended up really liking it, and I became a nurse and still love my job today.”

When Bernie was older and her children were all grown up and had families of their own, she had more time to get back in touch with her creative side than ever before. She took classes, one of them being stained glass, which was a new form of art she hadn’t tried yet. She really liked it and started creating designs. When my grandfather retired, he got into cutting glass, and together they made quite the team. They created so many stained glass pieces that they decided to start selling them at art fairs. Their business logo was a picture of their house on Hampton, which is a farmhouse-style house, so they called their business “Bernie Caine, Cottage Creations.” My grandmother and grandfather enjoyed their time creating and going to art fairs together.

Now, even in Bernie’s nursing home, she is still making art. Two pieces she’s painted at her nursing home won the highest awards from the National Alzheimer’s Association. Some of her other paintings are on display at the nursing home, and my family also donated some of the stained glass that Bernie and Mike made to the home.

Bernie was helping to raise children even in her older years, after her children were all grown up. She babysat all of my cousins at one point or another, and I mentioned before that my brother and I would go over there often after school because both of our parents worked. Besides babysitting duties, my cousin Sierra grew up living in her house. Sierra’s mother went through a difficult time, and her dad, my uncle, decided to move in with my grandparents when Sierra was a baby, taking her with him. Sierra had the privilege of experiencing my grandmother’s love more than any of our other cousins.

“Up until she moved into her nursing home, she’d make Grandpa, my dad and I full dinners every night and accommodated everyone,” Sierra told me. “She’d even make a plate of food for our dog. She packed my lunch and her grown son’s lunch every day. When Grandpa would yell at me if the dog got out of the house or if I forgot my jacket at school and walked home without it, Grandma would be comforting afterwards. She took care of me when I was sick, always giving me Saltine crackers and rubbing my back. She woke me up for school with her peaceful voice every morning, did my hair and helped me get ready. She put clips on my coat so I wouldn’t lose my mittens at school.”

Bernie would have fun with Sierra, too.

“When my dad was gone, she’d read me Nancy Drew books,” Sierra said. “She and Grandpa would take me strawberry and apple picking. Also, all three of us would go down to the basement with a bucket of Boy Scout kettle corn and watch Old Yeller or Mary Poppins together. I remember one time we even watched the entire Ten Commandments movie, because Grandma insisted.”

Bernie helped Sierra get through a tough childhood, and Sierra will never forget it.

“In kindergarten, there was a Mother’s Day celebration,“ Sierra told me. “My mom didn’t go, but Grandma came. She came on Parents Day to read to my class. She walked me to school. It was rough being the kid with no mom there, but Grandma was there and was amazing.”

Although Bernie helped her family get through their darkest moments in life, she never really talked about her own struggles.

“I think her mother dying at young age affected my mom for the rest of her life,” my mother said. “She never talked it, though. Her mom’s birthday was my birthday, but even if she was sad, she never let it take away from the celebration of my birthday.”

Bernie also had a couple of miscarriages between babies one and two, which she took hard but stayed very strong to get through that time.

As much as she was mentally strong, she was also physically strong. She never got her driver’s license, so she always walked wherever she went, no matter how far. She walked a few miles to the grocery store. Even when she was well into her 80’s, she’d walk to senior exercise class or senior activities at church. I’ll never forget the time my grandfather was so worried about her because she’d been gone a long time, but it turned out that she just walked extremely far to a store, where she was buying birthday cards for family members who had birthdays coming up that month.

She enjoyed long walks, in her neighborhood and when she went up north to my aunt and uncle’s cabin in the woods. When I was a little older and the whole family was up at the cabin, she‘d take my younger cousins who woke up at the crack of dawn on walks in the woods so that the rest of the family could sleep in without being disturbed.

Although she could never drive, she’d always instruct my grandfather while he was driving. He’d never put on his seatbelt, so she’d force him to put it on, reaching over and grabbing the wheel while he did. Even when my grandfather and grandmother were already elderly, they’d pick up an even more elderly couple in the neighborhood and take them grocery shopping once a week.

Even when they were older, my grandparents were still happily married. When my cousins and I would go over to their house, they’d always be sitting in the living room talking. Bernie would read or knit while Mike would watch TV. They demonstrated to their children and grandchildren what a cohesive and happy relationship should look like, even after all those years.

Bernie wasn’t a woman that talked a lot, but she led by grace and kept the belief that most people were good people. She gave everyone a fair chance in life, and she wasn’t quick to judge. She never spoke badly about anyone.

“She is a peacemaker,” my aunt Mary said. “Her actions speak louder than her words.”

She was always there to talk to and would always listen to you. She wasn’t verbose, but the advice she gave was well worth the time and she'd leave it open for you to figure out the rest yourself.

“When I was about to marry your dad, she gave me a great piece of advice,” my mother said. “She told me that you have to give and take in a marriage. You can’t always get your way, and you have to be willing to compromise. I’ll never forget that advice.”

She was so laid back and easy going, and she gave everyone around her unconditional love.

“When my grandfather I was really close to died, she didn’t say anything,” my uncle Dan said. “She just came up to me and gave me hug. She knew exactly what I needed.”

Bernie was a caregiver and a caretaker. Her family always came first, and she was always supportive. She didn’t have a lot of money, she was never a jet setter and she lived her whole life in the same house. She was never flashy, but she touched people’s lives in different ways. Everyone who knows her loves her.

She’s been quite sick for a few years now and has had to move into a nursing home on the East Side of Milwaukee. She has a form of dementia now, but you can walk into her room at the nursing home and she’ll still give you the biggest smile. If you’re really lucky, you’ll be able to hear her laugh, which requires you to be funny and crack a joke.

“People at the nursing home always tell me that my mom has the best smile,” my aunt Mary said. “She has the same heart, just a slower mind.”

The same heart indeed. A heart of gold.

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