Some Things Never Change

Some things never change.

This time last year Mike was stacking wood and shoveling snow (I just read last year’s newsletter!) in a “blustery 18 degrees” and today he does the same in 9 degrees of blowing snow. I’m comfy in my fuzzy pink bathrobe by the fire, still determined to give the snail-mail authorities a little extra business this year.

Our family continues to grow!

Travel this past year included two weeks in California where I was honored to help my sister Christine and her children with my brother-in-law Keith’s transition from this world to the next, my trip to Smith College to speak on a panel at their Leadership Conference, a trip to sister Carol’s to visit with Mum and sister Charlene, an unexpected trip to Hilton Head to visit with author Janet Sheppard Kelleher (where I parasailed and avoided gators and dropped my phone in the ocean and put together my book Haikus Can Amusebecause I dropped my phone in the ocean), a week in Maine to visit with my Mum and family at Susie and Jim’s gorgeous waterfront home, a road trip to visit Jake in Austin and another couple of weeks in the trailer at Moab and Lake Powell with Mike and the Ranger-dog. I’m becoming quite the Stand-Up-Paddleboarder and absolutely love being on the water! There were also several Colorado road trips to attend various author events at schools and libraries. Pitch: Please support your local libraries! They do much to support their communities and their local authors.

Summit Library’s Teen Reading Program director went all out for my visit with her group!

I continue to write and publish my books on Amazon and blog at about lots of things including another no-kill hunting season and my first warm elk harvesting from an early morning roadkill call. We finally had a legitimate reason to purchase a separate freezer. Waterwight hit the streets on Leap Day. It was great fun to write, and now I’m working on Waterwight: Flux, the second book in the series. I have a feeling 2017 will be a year of great productivity as I have several other writing projects in various stages of completion already.

Wildfires are always scary.

Training for and competing in his 11th one-hundred-mile mountain bike race this summer just wasn’t exciting enough for Mike, and though it wasn’t his plan, he ended the race in time to manage one of many of the wildfires in Colorado last summer. After several exhausting days he returned to a structure fire, and as soon as he was convinced all was in control, I drove him to Denver to have his second hip replacement, but not before I sent him off to California to climb mountains with his brother Mark over Labor Day weekend. He had to make sure he used up every last bone surface and I had to get him out of the house to compete in a 3-Day Novel contest. By the way, he’s now quite happy being Titanium Man, and I wrote my best piece of fiction ever. Not sure what the county would do without his Emergency Manager expertise, and he’s pretty happy with his influence in many areas throughout our community.

Our beautiful home!

He humored me by letting me offer our home for Leadville’s Victorian Homes Tour right after Thanksgiving, for which I felt compelled to complete the installation of hardwood floors in several rooms. We had a toilet in our living room until the day before Thanksgiving and couldn’t really use the kitchen for the whole week prior, but that didn’t stop me from being able to feed an Army Thanksgiving afternoon.

Have I mentioned what a great guy my husband is?

As for our sons, Jake still enjoys life in Austin working in the IT world and still working on the van that broke down there over a year ago. My Mum made the difficult decision to stop driving last summer and sent her vehicle to him, much to his surprise and delight. He visited us this past summer and at Thanksgiving, but will stay in Austin to have a friends’ Christmas this year. I knew it had to happen at some point, and it will be most peculiar having our first Christmas without him home, but we’re happy he has good friends with whom to share the celebration.

First Lieutenant Nicholas McHargue (Army National Guard promotion this past summer) continues to work at the mine while completing prerequisites for applications to medical schools. We still love having him live just a mile away, and I think he enjoys his mum’s home cooking every once in a while.

The Ranger-dog is still a goofball and loves traveling with us. If you’re interested in knowing more about him, I wrote a blog post called “Don’t Get a Dog” which you might want to read before making a decision to get a dog. We really do like him.

And so, as this year comes to a close, I reflect on things that have stayed the same, but acknowledge the many things that have changed. Like most everyone else, we lost and gained family members and friends this year. The gains are always happy, the losses always sad, especially when we think “too soon” or “not fair.”

I appreciate one of Langston Hughes’ poems about life and death:

“Life is for the living.
Death is for the dead.
Let life be like music.
And death a note unsaid.”

Each year I try to do better at treasuring the beauty of each new moment—even the painful ones—in my fleeting life. I wish the same for you.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, whichever ones you choose to celebrate. And may 2017 be a year filled with health, happiness, and unconditional love.

~ ~ ~

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I jotted notes about my Mum’s major life transition shortly after Dad died just two years ago, but never got around to finishing my story. After my phone call with her on September 10th, however, I knew it was time to brush off and finish what I started.

Patricia and Charles "Pat and Charlie" Bernier
Patricia and Charles–“Pat and Charlie” Bernier

I don’t believe Mum ever made the transition into retirement when Dad hit the magic number most men in his generation aimed for and stopped working. Theirs was a different generation, one in which women were transitioning into the workplace more frequently, though they were never treated as equals with their male peers. I don’t think it’s particularly funny that we’re still debating the merits of equal pay for equal work in 2015, but I’m certain it was never an issue Mum complained about.

She worked as a Main Office secretary at my high school, and from what I can gather, she was the best. She could type 120 accurate words per minute on a clickity-clackity typewriter and didn’t need to be told how to punctuate. She was home by 4 p.m. and never failed to put a scrumptious dinner on the table for her five daughters.

Susan, Laurel, Charlene, Carol, and Christine
Susan, Laurel, Charlene, Carol, and Christine, the Bernier 5! Too bad we didn’t sing…

Dad worked for AT&T and was home by 5:30 p.m., ready for his scotch and newspaper.

LTC Charles Bernier
LTC Charles Bernier

He and Mum would sit in the living room together, Mum with her glass of Sherry, Dad with his Dewars, and they would catch up, I suppose, on their day’s events. I say “I suppose” because we kids either knew enough to respect their time together, or we were likely more interested in ourselves. In any case, it was their routine.

After 40 years of working both in the corporate world and in the Army Reserves—retiring as a full Colonel—Dad officially retired, a word that doesn’t mean the same thing today as it did then. And Mum finally retired from her still-full bottle of Wite-Out. But while Dad transitioned into a life of leisure, spending more time watching news and completing crossword puzzles, Mum transitioned from taking care of the school’s principal to taking care of Dad.

Mum is a nurturer and thrives on being needed. Dad had no reason to complain about his status as numero uno in the household once they married off daughter #5, so a new routine was established quickly.

From my perspective, Dad got the better end of the deal, he being the one who would be cared for and pampered—willing and lovingly by Mum—until his last day, over 20 years after his retirement from the workplace. When Dad died, Mum was faced with reevaluating her decades-long routine.

Theirs was a love and devotion that spanned 65 years.
Theirs was a love and devotion that spanned 65 years.

Watching her as she has transitioned over the past two years as a widow has taught me much about this woman, 30 years my elder, who is as much a part of me as my own sagging skin.

I will share more observations, and the phone call, in my next post.

Laurel McHargue / Laurel’s email / Leadville Laurel Facebook page / Laurel’s Twitter



Good friend died this week
Wonder how long I have left
Every day must count

“NEED FOOD,” read the cardboard sign held by a woman who appeared to be in her 70s. It’s hard to gauge the age of homeless people as most do not age well.

I was returning from a weekend conference in Denver and stopped by our local Safeway for a few things before going home. The petite woman was walking toward the store in the opposite direction of my travel and I had already driven past her.

“Just go home,” said the left hemisphere of my brain.

It was Sunday afternoon, I was tired from the weekend festivities and anxious to reunite with my husband. I drove a little farther before the right hemisphere had its say.

“Go back,” was the command.

Risking a traffic violation, I pulled a U-turn. Something about the woman called me back to her. I drove up slowly with my passenger window down.

“Could I take you to Safeway?” I asked. I’d considered simply handing her one of my bags of food, but thought it might be awkward.

A literal bag lady, she approached the window with hands covered in blue rubber gloves and enclosed in plastic Safeway bags. She smiled a sparse-toothed smile and her weather-creased face lit up.

“Well, I don’t really need food,” she started.

It’s a trap! I thought. Why didn’t you just go home?

“. . . I’m allergic to almost everything. I can’t eat any of their chicken. What I really need is shelter. I’m staying at the Hostel and it’s $25 a night.”

Though I rarely carry cash, I had sold some books at the convention and knew I had at least that much in my wallet. It was certainly easier than taking her on a shopping spree.

I brought $25 from my wallet and she leaned into the window with another plastic bag into which I deposited her fee for another night at my friends’ place, the Leadville Hostel. “Wild Bill” and Cathy have operated the hostel for the past 15 years and it quickly became our home-away-from-home during the four years we lived in Colorado Springs before finally making the leap to Leadville. We visited far more often over those four years than we have in the eight years since we moved just a mile away from them, and whenever we accidentally bump into one another, usually at Safeway, we laugh about it.

“I’ll call Wild Bill and let him know I saw you today,” I told the woman. It came out sounding like I was keeping tabs on her, and I felt a need to explain. “He’s a friend.”

She smiled again and said, “Did you know even mice are smart enough to have a God?”

“Oh?” I waited.

“They call him Cheesus,” she delivered her corny punchline with a truly sweet smile, her gift to me, and walked away.

When I got home I was eager to unpack, but my brain reminded me to call Wild Bill. We hadn’t spoken in months and I figured it was as good a time as any to reconnect. He answered in his Mississippi drawl and we discussed the woman who was allergic to everything. He thanked me for helping out.

“And you know what time it is?” he egged me on with characteristic mischief in his voice.

“Um . . . what time?” I asked, ready for another bad joke.

“It’s time to get together for our annual ‘we-never-see-each-other-anymore’ dinner!”

We both laughed at the recurrent theme and agreed to meet for dinner the following week.

“I’ll call Cathy next week,” I said. “And it’s our turn to cook.”

I could tell he was busy—the Hostel is always in full-bustle with new guests and regulars—and we hung up with a “See you soon!”


Early Monday morning Mike came into the room to wake me, something he rarely does.
“Cathy just called,” he said too quietly, and although I was still in a waking stupor, I knew he was trying to convey serious news. Knowing many Cathys, I was confused. With difficulty, he uttered the words, “Wild Bill’s gone.”

“What? What do you mean?” I asked, fully awake.

He explained how our friend was on his way to Denver Sunday evening and didn’t get far at all before his vehicle went off the road and hit a tree. Stroke, heart attack, whatever happened, he died on the operating table Monday morning, 64-years-young.


“Could I take you back to Buena Vista?” I asked the bag lady at the Hostel, knowing she had recently been there. She needed to leave to make room for family coming from all over to grieve the shocking loss of a man everybody loved.

“No, it’s too hot there now,” she said.

Although she’d been told the reason she needed to move on, I wasn’t sure she grasped it fully. She was squatting on her heals in the living room, her hands bagged and prepped for a day of money-gathering, and she looked adorable.

“I think I’d like to write something about you,” I told her. “What’s your name? Where are you from?”

“Barbara Marzec Rotunda,” she said. “I’m from Niagara Falls.”

“Marzec’s Polish, right?” I asked. “Would you mind if I took a photo of you?” I wanted to capture her just as she was.

“Yes! Polish! And can I make borscht!” she declared, standing and pushing her bangs Barbara2back into her hat. She suddenly became self-conscious.

“Oh, I look horrible,” she said. “But I used to be quite a cutie.”

“You look adorable,” I said, and I think she might have believed it for a moment.

I learned about how she used to travel with rock stars, Stevie Nicks being one, and how the man she married was no good. She unfolded a paper map onto which she sat next to me, allergic to the fabric on the couch, and allowed me to take her photo. Then I delivered her downtown, handed her a $20 and showed her where the Advocate’s Office was.

“That’s what I need,” she said, “an advocate.”

She allowed me to hug her, though I could tell she was considering my potential allergy-inducing attributes.


How do we decide who we’ll help?

Leaving Safeway that evening to bring food to Cathy and gathering friends at the Hostel, I walked past a young man sitting near the door playing a harmonica—not even a little well—with a dog by his side and a hat out for money. It made me angry. I wanted to yell at him, “Get off your ass and look for a job.” He was far too young to be panhandling.

But then I thought of Barbara and how she had gifted me with one last conversation with a friend I’ll never forget. And although I didn’t stop to ask his story or offer money, I didn’t yell at him.

I hope Barbara has found shelter for another night.

I hope Wild Bill is resting peacefully, spinning his stories in a less judgmental world. Wild Bill Clower



I didn’t write anything immediately when I heard of Robin Williams’ suicide, probably because my initial emotion was anger, not sorrow. Living with the memory of finding a friend’s dead body and the devastating aftermath for his family and friends has forever altered my brain, and I find myself confused by the idea of demonstrating an appropriate response to the premature ending of a life.

I could say I understand how someone might find suicide the only solution to their misery, but I would be exaggerating. Yes, I have been places I never want to go again. I never again want to experience the selfish, angst-ridden teen years when I believed that if I died, then they’d be sorry, but after crying myself to sleep I’d get over it. Or the time I was certain I had failed at everything . . . being a good wife, mother, person . . . that I seriously tried to will my heart to stop one night, but then got scared I might succeed. Or the time I went out to the lake during an impossibly windy day and curled up in a blanket for hours under a creaking tree hoping it would fall on me and end my self-pity, but then I got really hungry. Or most recently, wanting to run away every day this past winter, hating where I lived and everything I was doing, until discovering I had a thyroid imbalance, something fixed with a little pill, my unreasonable depression not my fault.

So I’ve never truly been where those who have succeeded at suicide have been. “Succeeded at suicide” is not a phrase I want in my eulogy.

Like my friend, Williams seemed to have everything going for him. But it’s not fair for us to play the But … game. But he was an actor. He was, and his performances were unforgettable. But he was a husband. He was, several times. But he was a father. He was, and I am sad for his children. But he was a role model. He was, and I fear for those who may interpret his final action as justification for their own. But he was Patch Adams, Mrs. Doubtfire, Popeye, Mork, Aladdin . . . he was countless things to countless people.

But he was successful. He was, though in whose eyes?

There were many indicators that my friend’s self-murder was premeditated, and when I return to the days preceding the event, I wonder about the signs. Those left behind always wonder what they might have missed, might have done differently. I wonder about those living with loved ones who endure chronic depression, and if at some point, even they envision an end to it. I don’t dwell on this thought.

Some call suicide a selfish act, but I know better. Selfishness keeps you alive. Perhaps, like my friend so long ago (but he was a husband, a doctor, successful, handsome), he could never really be himself, despite having “everything” available to him. He could not be selfish. He could not save himself. And for that, I can finally feel sorrow.


The Little Bamboo that Couldn’t

photoThey said it couldn’t be done. Evidently, one winter in an unheated Leadville bathroom will make you stronger…or kill you.

Perhaps it’s the shock to my system when I sit on the icy seat each morning–after ensuring that the water in the bowl is not frozen–that invigorates me. Or maybe it’s the frequency of goosebumps, regardless of the hot water in the shower, that keeps me feeling perky.

Sorry, little bamboo. We can’t all be warriors.


Tribute to our Dad

When I look out to all of you gathered here to honor Dad, I wonder if there is really anything I could say that you wouldn’t already know. My family decided that the favorite daughter should speak today, however, and so I am here . . . speaking on behalf of all five of Dad’s favorite daughters and his most favorite girl of all, our Mom. They didn’t tell me how much time I had to speak, but as Dad is in no hurry today, I hope that you will bear with me.

Time is such a nebulous thing. We spend it, pass it, curse it, measure it, share it, and yet it remains something we can never grasp.

My sisters and I have spent a lifetime hearing how lucky we are to have the kind of family that people wanted to be adopted into, and whenever I hear the word “lucky” now, I remember Dad’s instant response.

“It’s not luck,” he would say, joking about much hard work it took to raise five daughters, however perfect we were. No, not luck. He would call it a blessing . . . and lots of hard work!

From the time we were all very young, Dad was a stern disciplinarian, a trait that would soften as he became confident that each of us would be well cared for by the men who would eventually claim us as their wives. At times he was even feared, not in a frightened way, but in a respectful way. His standards were high and no one wanted to disappoint him. He and Mom taught us how to be acceptable in public, from having us cater the many neighborhood parties they would host to sitting up straight at the dinner table. I know that those lessons made eating my meals at West Point that first year far attention-provoking, and that was a good thing!

I’m pretty sure that although we never wanted to, we all might have done things to disappoint him along the way. But there was never a time that we felt he did not love us.

“Good morning, beautiful,” I remember him saying on many occasions, perhaps because he couldn’t remember our name or even our “daughter number” first thing in the morning. I like to think he only said that to me, but even though I know that wasn’t the case, it always made me feel special.

We daughters know that he loved us and that he loved his bride of 65 years even more. His devotion as a husband, and Mom’s as a wife, made the two of them role models for many and inspired each of us to believe that the same could be possible for us. Michelle, who wishes she could be here this weekend, mentioned how Nana and Grandpa were always inseparable. There was never a Nana without Grandpa, a Mom without Dad, a Pat without Charlie.

Dad was a man of few words, no doubt because he could never get a word in edgewise with his chatty women and all the friends we would bring home, but he sure did love to laugh; and even more, he loved to make others laugh. He had a joke or funny story for every occasion and could time a zinger so flawlessly that his audience might never see it coming!

Dad was a selfless man who sacrificed much for those he loved. He worked for over 42 years at AT&T while sticking with his Army Reserve training which ultimately ensured a comfortable retirement for Mom and allowed them both the time and means to travel the world with friends and family, and to be there for whichever daughter needed them the most. I don’t believe they missed a birth of a grandchild, and were there to help several us more than once with major relocations. I cannot imagine that any of you in the audience haven’t been the beneficiary of Dad’s generosity in one form or another.

In addition to his host of loyal friends, Dad leaves behind a wife and woman stronger than any of us had ever anticipated, five nearly perfect daughters—each of us his favorite—with our husbands and our twelve children, five great-grand-children with a sixth due on what would be Mom and Dad’s 65th anniversary week (that would be why Michelle could not make it here this weekend), two sisters-in-law, six nieces, two nephews, some cousins, and a partridge in a pear tree.

We each will have our own unique “remember whens” to share in years to come, even though many of us have shared the same experiences. Family trips to Florida, to the Cape, to Nantasket . . . 7 of us in a station wagon with no seat belts! Mealtimes with him telling us in what order to eat the items on our plates—I’ll bet every child and grandchild remembers that!

“Eat some peas next, and then some potatoes, and then have some meat!”

I will remember him kicking my butt on the tennis courts in my high school days, offering his retirement savings so I could attend an exclusive school, visiting me wherever I happened to be in the world—be it Korea or Leadville, rocking my children to sleep, driving us to exotic places, dancing with mom on the cruise to Bermuda, feeding the men at the shelter, reading the names of his fallen peers at Memorial Day services, bowling with his candlepin buddies—and occasionally even winning $2, waiting to win the Lotto—probably with the goal of being even more generous to those in need, breakfasting with his friends at Easter’s, completing crossword puzzles with his Dewar’s close by, almost never missing his other favorite girls on “The Five,” and belly-chuckling over Mom’s dance routine story, even though he’d probably heard it a dozen times.

Dad wasn’t perfect—none of us is—yet his intentions always were, and certainly his love for his God, his family and his friends. He was a man of unshakable faith, unquestionable integrity, unbounded love, and in his own words, he wanted people to remember him as “serious, but humorous.”

A couple of years ago when I asked him how he felt about dying someday—I’m the reporter in the family—he smiled and told me that he would be happy to see his Mom, Dad, and little sister again, not knowing that he would also outlive his younger brother. He said he wasn’t afraid of death, but that he hoped it wasn’t time yet because he wasn’t quite ready to go. Recently he added that he’ll be happy to meet the son he never had and the older brother who spent only two days on this earth.

Ever the good soldier, Dad did what his doctors recommended, probably wanting more time—to attend the next wedding, to hold the next great-grandchild, to learn just one more word, and to share one more dance with Mom.

When Dad found out that the cancer had returned, though, and there was nothing more to be done, he stopped winding his favorite clock.

Although each of us may interpret his act in different ways (I, of course, want to think he was giving me a theme for tying together this tribute), I would like to believe that Dad finally decided it was time to live entirely in the present and to stop measuring what was passing. I even witnessed—and this may shock some of you—when he tuned out “The Five” on Fox News to spend time with a visitor!

I believe that we were all blessed with time to prepare for Dad’s next journey. Yes, we will still mourn—when we’re spending time together and waiting for his next joke, when our phone rings and we see “Mom and Dad” on the screen, when we attend the next Memorial Day service—but we will also share time rejoicing that each of us was influenced in some great way by our relationships with this generous man.

And how could any of us be sad for very long having experienced the gift of a transition time in Carol and Michael’s beautiful home where visitors and family could gaze upon the setting sun while Dad, not as interested in the scenery, could gaze upon each of us in the light of those setting rays?

Dave Sargent, Dad’s Aide-de-Camp and our adopted brother, observed that Dad was doing as much for us in his last days as we were for him, acting as if nothing were wrong, greeting everyone with a “Good Morning” whenever he woke up, regardless of the time of day, and thanking everyone for even the slightest kindness . . . a pillow fluff, a cup of tea, a gentle foot massage. He did his best to help the wonderful nurses and Hospice folks who came to help him during his last weeks.

I wonder why it is that we want to cling to the last words uttered by those we love, as if they will somehow be more significant than the lifetime of words leading up to them? In any case, I remember some of Dad’s last words when I asked him how we should celebrate his upcoming 90th birthday. A bit confused at first, remembering the joyful combined celebration we shared with family and friends just this last June at Carol and Michael’s, he said that if he makes it to his actual 90th birthday, he would like to have angel cake and dance to WJIB.

Now that Dad has left us, the time has come for those he left behind to sit up straight, to celebrate his life, to treasure his memory and to continue creating more of our own memories. Thank you all for the time and the love you have shared with our Dad.


So Many Babies…

My morning walk-with-a-friend-to-catch-up-on-life took a turn into one of our local cemeteries where the evidence of death is profound. Amongst the rows of those who lived to ripe old ages back in the 1800s were–to my mind–far too many who barely had time to breathe.

Many, like this simple wooden board, are enclosed in crib-sized fences, and others are outlined in stone or brick.








Some have no marker at all . . .


yet the evidence of what lies within is enough to stop me short.

So many lives, so many stories, so much suffering in an age when life was probably not taken for granted.








Breathe deeply, you who still tread the earth.