Baltimore, Maryland

For some reason, I remember her shoes.

My niece, Bernadette, was wearing “flats” on the sunny spring morning when I drove her and my brother to the Minneapolis airport.

As they got out of the car and walked to the terminal, I saw her shoes and how she carried herself, and thought how “cool” and cosmopolitan she had become at 26.

She was headed back home to Baltimore, and my brother to Denver, following the graduation and party of my mother from college in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

That morning was the last time I saw Bernadette. She made a round trip drive from Baltimore to Minnesota and Wisconsin that summer, but I was somehow too busy to see her, although I did talk to her on the phone from my mother’s house while she was en route.

She died in late October that year of 1999, when she fell under the wheels of a train near her townhouse in Baltimore’s Ridgely’s Delight neighborhood.

She was the first born of my 10 nieces and nephews. A couple years before 1999, she had graduated from Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. At the time of her death, she had applied to medical schools and was working on medical research in Baltimore. You can still Google and find a study for which she was co-author in 1999.

She was the first of what we hoped would be many prides and joys. Being first did not diminish those who followed.

Dealing with her death was, and remains, the worst experience of my life.

In a round-about effort to try and make sense of it all, I set out in the summer of 2000 to tour Kansas for two weeks to find the roots of my grandfather, Harry Peterson. I might have made the trip eventually in my life, but never so soon if Berni had not died.

What I found restored a measure of balance and hope.

I found a wealth of living relatives, and stories of others passed, stretching back to Delaware and the 1600s and, somehow, to Sweden before that.

However, that is all its own separate story.

I knew that if the opportunity ever came my way, I would visit Berni’s haunts in Baltimore.

My work at Baltimore’s Convention Center ended at 5pm today. I walked back to the Mt. Vernon Hotel to change clothes and set out to walk the 1.2 miles to Berni’s last residence at 605 S. Paca Street.

The walk is pleasant enough. Past the University of Maryland Medical Center, past Oriole Park at Camden Yards. In fact, Berni’s last home was only three blocks from where baseball is played for 80 games every summer.

You would never know it. South Paca Street is such a quiet oasis, lined with trees, townhouses built to the edge of the sidewalk. A red brick, three-story walkup. Around the corner and a block distant is the dog park where Berni played with her dog. Two blocks away is the gas station. A block further is the pub, Pickles.

Six tenths of a mile further south is the 1300 block of Ridgely Avenue.

Three sets of rusted railroad tracks make a crossing next to an abandoned warehouse.

Two blocks away is the relatively new M & T Bank Stadium where the Baltimore Ravens play football. In between lie acres of surface parking lots.

It is almost absurdly simple to visualize the scene late on a night in October 1999. A car of young people stops short of the railroad tracks on the right side of Ridgely. Berni and a friend get out and wait for a train to come by that is moving slowly enough to try and jump aboard.

The scene is so innocuous now. So ridiculously ordinary and benign.

I have sometimes encouraged the nieces and nephews to dream big and reach high.

Berni had always held a dream of riding the rails. That night, her dream exceeded her reach.

Standing in the middle of the middle tracks, I could feel the possibility of chasing the dream for no more than 30 feet before falling short. I could see the feet touching the ground, running to make it happen.

I saw the shoes.

Oddly, it was not as emotional at the tracks as I had thought it would be — as it had been when I set out from my hotel in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood.

I stood by on Ridgely for 45 minutes thinking of this and that.

Although I had the sense that Berni was no longer at this scene, whether or not she had lingered for a time, I told her of the amazing stories I had been prompted to learn after she lost consciousness here. I told her I would rather have learned the stories later and in some other way.

I told her she had been the maid of honor at her sister’s wedding, and was now an aunt. I told her another sister was now living in Madrid and she would never recognize the cool dude her brother has become.

I told her that her grandmother had had heart surgery a couple years ago but was now standing for election to the Minnnesota Legislature.

I told her we missed her, and that as long as we all lived, so would she.

I told her that she may never have known how much Irish was in her blood, and related the Irish blessing:

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And the rain fall gentle on your fields.
And, until we meet again, may God hold you
In the palm of His hand.

The train that came by as I walked away had the most mournful whistle — heard for blocks away. I have heard that train’s whistle on the plains of Kansas, next to the childhood home and presidential library of Dwight Eisenhower in Abilene, and next to the homestead where my grandfather was born in Jasper.

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