Thursday, November 12, 2015

Mary Berniece Burns Kelley

Mary Berniece Kelley was my mother's youngest sister.  Mary was their mother's name, but she preferred to be called Berniece or Bernie. I thought the name "Red" would have been perfect for her and  yet I see now that it would have lacked the refinement she was going for.

When I was little, my aunt and uncle (Kelley) lived in Buena Park, CA.  Going to see them meant that we got to go to Knott's Berry Farm or Disneyland! Joy! (I am still obsessed to this day with the chicken dinner at Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant). Later, visits to  the Laguna Art Festival and the Sawdust Festival were so inspiring to me.  I am grateful for her influence that way-- she was an artist with an ever-examining eye! I saw things differently when I was with her.   Aunt Bernie had flaming red hair, rings on every finger, a year-round tan,  and the latest rhinestone Bernardo Sandals. She was the "perfect" size 4 and loved to wear the latest fashions that showed off all her hard work to stay that way.  That she and my mother came from the same home was a great mystery to me as a child-- they were so different!

My favorite room in the Kelley home was the red room.  It had red leather furniture,  leopard carpets and black lacquer accents.  Their Siamese cat, Ting-a-ling, liked this room too-- it provided the perfect backdrop for her!  I am not much of a cat person but we seemed to bond over the decor.  My uncle was an amazing school teacher in, what I was told, was a rough part of the  Los Angeles school district. He was also a very talented artist and created beautiful tile work and fountains wherever they lived. I think he was a frustrated "want-to-be" architect living with an eccentric artist which, when combined, formed the perfect storm!

My mother and my Aunt were born in Pennsylvania in the early 1900's.  Their father, Mark was a farmer and their mother, Mary Elinda was an accomplished pianist and singer.  She was a millineress with her own shop -- at that time, a rarity for women. My mother can still recall her earliest memories-- her mother playing the piano and the birth of her baby sister Mary Berniece Burns (she was born at home).  Grandmother Mary died with complications from a later childbirth when my mother was about 12 years old.  I can't even imagine this, nor can I imagine how difficult the children's lives (two boys and two girls)  became afterward. Let me just say that all the Burns children became strong, resourceful, talented and kind adults.

Aunt Bernie and I grew closer as the years went by.  I called her often and we talked about art, jewelry (her passion and mine), fashion, travel, food and exercise.  As part of her art education, she studied painting at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, and always had a project going that she liked to talk about. She loved still life and portraits mostly.  I remember posing for hours as a little girl while she painted my portrait in pastels. It made me feel important and antsy all at once!  While we are different people, we shared so many of the same interests and those conversations were always satisfying. With the years, I began to understand how people can be different but complimentary.  She wasn't warm and cozy like my mother, but I knew that she loved me and appreciated our relationship.

We celebrated Christmas together in our various northern Californa homes over the years. She was a nervous flyer so I always had her favorite vodka martini waiting for her upon arrival.  She and  glamour travelled together-- full make-up, big red hair, furs, and lots and lots of jewels. My uncle even managed to look debonair with her many suitcases in tow! I loved that she dressed for the occasion and we dutifully took her back to her hotel for all the outfit changes between events. She told me that they lived for those moments year to year--what a time it was...

Aunt Bernie was one of the most stubborn, determined, strong-willed people I have ever known. She was difficult-- everyone said that not as a criticism but as a fact. It is also true that greatness is more than likely born from difficulty rather than ease.  3 years ago, when she fell ill and became unable to take care of her world, I stepped in.  None of this was planned and it seemed strange to be in charge of someone who had once been so very in charge of everything.  Our last visit with her in September was difficult in that we knew it would be our last. There is much I could say about it, but what I will choose to remember is this:  That lasting moment when she held my face in her unadorned hand and  examined me with that ever-critical eye of hers.  She missed nothing except maybe a detail or two blurred by her tears.  Softness was setting in, preparing her for her next world, her next adventure. Wherever she is, it will be colorful and glamorous. I know that my world holds a bit more color and glamour because of her.


  1. I had the pleasure of knowing your Aunt Bernie, and she was quite the lady! Carla, you have captured the true essence of her in this lovely remembrance. Much love and heartfelt sympathy to your entire family and especially to your Mom on the loss of her sister.

  2. Lovely Carla. How wonderful that you had your memorable last moments with Aunt Bernie. xo