Bernice Effulgent | By Joy J. Henry

Grandma Bernice bobbed up and down, her freshly dyed hair shielded from the chlorine. She flew down from Wisconsin for my second wedding and hadn’t left the hotel pool in days.

“You career women,” she said as she water-cized. “You think you invented work.”

It was 1982. I was telling her about my new job in downtown Tampa, where I wore a suit with neon piping and did graphic design in front of an IBM PC XT all day.

“After Fred went away I inspected bottles in a milk factory,” she said. “This was during the Depression, of course. They dumped half the milk in a big pond out back. Subsidies.”

She threw her arms in the air and did a twist. She’d had her first husband, Fred, committed decades ago after he ran into the backyard naked, on his way to work on Huey Long’s presidential campaign.

“I visited that damn hospital every single week hoping he could go back to work when he got out. The day he’s released he moves in with some woman from the red-light house. Ah well. They didn’t have no ‘bipolar disorder’ in those days.”


Ken and I got married in his mother’s backyard. He and his buddies were supposed to set up the food for the reception, but they showed up late stoned and drunk out of their minds. I sat in my mother-in-law’s living room, already in my dress and near tears. Grandma Bernice tugged the flesh of my ass between her fingers, trying to distract me. “Whale blubber,” she said. She went to the backyard and rounded up seven or eight guests to help put out the food.

Through the window, I watched Ken shadowbox with my son, Jonah, under a live oak. They wore matching white suits. A year earlier I’d jumped out of a second floor window, sure Jonah’s father was really going to kill me this time. Ken lived next door. Every Saturday morning, he’d watch me cook pancakes on a fire pit in my backyard, because we didn’t have money for gas. He’d bring me hot coffee with brandy in it. I made perfect pancakes on that open fire, golden brown.

“Men are the shits,” Bernice said, bumping open the kitchen door with her hip. She handed me a glass of beer and caught me watching the two of them. “Hey now,” she said. Her hand on my cheek smelled like Avon cold cream and cigarettes. “If Ken’s a nice man, you can figure the rest out later. You’re a woman. You’re an expert at playing the long game.” Then I was wed and she led us all in a polka.


Secret Americas features writing about images from the U.S. National Archives.

Image via Flickr – Organized Daily Exercises at the Century Village Retirement Community, National Archives and Records Administration College Park. This photograph was taken by Flip Schulke. 

Joy J. Henry is a writer living in California; she will join the MFA program in Fiction at Oregon State University in the Fall of 2013.