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Bertha’s gentle soul

A model of God’s love

During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I met one of the gentlest souls I have ever known. Her name was Bertha, and she was a resident in the county nursing home at which I was volunteering as part of my confirmation service project. At the age of 89, Bertha was the oldest person I had ever had the pleasure of knowing. The lessons she shared with me that summer have stuck with me despite the nearly 30 years that have since passed.

Bertha grew up on a farm in central Michigan. She often spoke fondly of her childhood and the dedicated work ethic that her parents fostered in Bertha and her siblings. At a young age, Bertha developed rheumatoid arthritis – the kind that gnarls the hands and fingers, twisting them and painfully enlarging the joints. The arthritis eventually affected her hips, knees and ankles so that, by the time Bertha reached early middle age, she was severely crippled. She made a slow progression from walking with a cane to crutches and finally to a wheelchair. When I met Bertha, she was confined to an electric wheelchair that she was able to direct with a small joystick.

It was easy to tell when Bertha was in pain, but she never said a word. The occasional grimace would cross her face and she sometimes groaned faintly, but those were the only outward expressions that telegraphed Bertha’s daily agony. I found it astounding that she never complained or asked for pity. I found it all the more astounding that Bertha had discovered amazing ways by which she was able not only to cope with her limitations, but turn them to a kind of advantage – not so much for herself, but for her fellow residents.

One of the many skills Bertha had learned as a child was to crochet beautifully. It was amazing to watch her hands as they would slowly yet deftly create beautiful afghans as gifts for her fellow residents and for sale in the nursing home gift shop. Bertha felt strongly that there was nothing more comforting than a warm, hand-made afghan, and she loved knowing that she was doing what she could to make the best of a bad situation. I also came to admire her self-styled form of efficiency that was revealed in her own wise words, “If you cant walk, you’ve got to make every step count.” She was a victor, not a victim.

I took some time that summer to find out how much yarn was needed to make an average afghan. With a few careful questions, a little research and some figuring, I was astonished to discover that Bertha crocheted, on average, about 15 miles of yarn each year. That figure paled in comparison, however, to the gentle, uncomplaining and gracious way in which Bertha chose to deal with her limitations.

The spiritual works of mercy encourage us to bear wrongs patiently. Through her own faith-filled and gentle witness, Bertha taught me that God’s grace can help us to do that and much more. After all, as she would say, if we can’t walk, we’ve got to make every step count. And so our journey in FAITH continues.