An icon from my childhood just passed away, and the sadness I felt upon hearing the news showed me just how hard this poor woman had to work to earn my respect. I know that sounds strange, and cruel, and basically, it is. You see, even though I grew up with a good group of kids in a great neighborhood, for whatever reason, we needed a common nemesis, and Mrs. Bednarik filled that role.
She was older than the other parents. Her son was overweight. She never tipped me as her paperboy. The list goes on.
Okay, it really doesn’t. And even the three items on the list do not merit the abuse we heaped on her and her family. Yet hers was the only house we egged and TP’d on Mischief Night. Her son was the only one we ridiculed and bullied at the bus stop. And her paper was the last one I’d deliver.
We were good kids, but we did some cruel things. I don’t why. There seems to be this odd Lord of the Flies period between the ages of 9 and 12 where kids feel this need to demonstrate their powers of destruction. Toys get destroyed. Property gets defaced. Feelings get hurt. Yet try as we might, we could not break Mrs. Bednarik.
When we started aiming our terrible sights at her son, she took to waiting at the bus stop with us. She was the only parent out there, braving the elements and ridicule to protect her son. She tried a variety of tactics, from bribing us with candy, threatening us with punishment, and hurling some mean comments of her own toward us.
I’m not sure if her approach worked, or if it was a stage we eventually grew out of, but we did end up becoming much friendlier with her son. There were football games in their yard, video games in their house, and I remember going with him and his dad to my first automated car wash. All under her watchful eye.
She had no reason to trust us, yet we felt insulted by her suspicions, which was really just an excuse to continue casting her as the neighborhood villain. So even as we played with her son by day, we still soaped up her driveway by night.
What can I say? We were jerks.
If we had one of those Wonder Years/Stand By Me-style narrators following us around and romanticizing our actions and exploits, he might be able to excuse our behaviors by talking about how we were just looking for a dragon to slay. That growing up in a middle-class neighborhood with no real problems caused us to go out and create some of our own. That Mrs. Bednarik, with her foghorn voice, quick to anger disposition, and refusal to ever back down, was a perfect target for our adolescent slings and arrows.
But even if he was right, we were still wrong.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until years later that I realized that those very same qualities that made her a target were what made her worthy of my respect.
She was outspoken.
She was a fighter.
She was loyal.
She never gave up.
Sure, she was gruff. I know many adults who were afraid of her. But as I grew up, literally and figuratively, I began to see a softer side as well. Still a bit prickly, not exactly warm, but certainly softer.
When I was 15, her husband died, and Mrs. Bednarik had to get her driver’s license. Problem was, she was 53, and had never driven a car! She made it very clear that she would not rely on anyone for help or rides, so she did what she had to do to take and pass the driver’s test. Even as a kid, I remember thinking that was pretty brave of her.
Somehow, after that, roughly twenty years passed without our paths crossing, until I found myself married and attending the same church as Mrs. Bednarik. At first I was afraid, worried she would still (rightfully) hold a grudge, but she seemed genuinely happy to see me. So much so, that some other members later approached me, wanting to know what my secret was!
But SHE was the one with the secrets. For instance, I had no idea what a great baker she was until she started pointing out to me that all the cakes I’d been sampling during Coffee Hour were made by her. I also had no clue she could sing, but there she was, up in front with the choir every Sunday.
She made no secret of her many ills and ailments, opening many conversations with her latest health concern – but it was never “woe is me,” it was just a matter of fact. Matters she bore with great strength and dignity, as she continued to go about her daily business in spite of her cane, or walker, or oxygen tank.
It was also no secret how much she loved her son. They were inseparable, and could often be seen out and about together; shopping and dining, while people watching and drolly commenting on the state of the world. My mom was overjoyed if we went to church with her on Easter, but they went together every Sunday. And they went everywhere else together, too. I may have come a long way from those days at the bus stop, but the two of them never changed, remaining protective and true to each other right through to the end.
I can’t take back all the dumb things I said and did as a kid, but I’m glad I had the chance to at least connect with you as an adult. I didn’t have the guts to say I was sorry when I had the chance, so I won’t bother now - but I WILL do my best to try and impart what I learned to my son, so that maybe he can avoid that disturbing, destructive phase of slaying imaginary dragons, and put his energy towards simply treating others with kindness and respect.
So, thank you, Mrs. Bednarik. Thank you for tolerating me and teaching me and forgiving me. I may not have always appreciated you, but I do now.