Across the seven decades that I was privileged to have Bruce Brenneman as my uncle, we spent a lot of time laughing. One of my favorite memories of Bruce, ever since I was a little boy, was watching him and my mom and their Mom–Grandma B–get to laughing so hard that the tears would roll down their cheeks and they’d have to take off their glasses and wipe their eyes and keep going with the next funny story. That image is how I choose to remember him today, not tethered to an oxygen machine. Bruce and I had a cornucopia of topics that made us laugh. Most of them we also shared with Kathie, and quite often with Allen, Darren, and Doug or others. Other subjects were Brenneman-family specific. (Aunt Florence: is she dead? Real old Maude; the Culp mean streak, etc.) And then there were a few that were just for the two of us. Those were the times that we’d exchange a knowing glance or eye roll across the dinner table, down the church pew, or across the room in a faculty meeting and we’d both know what the other was thinking and that we’d chuckle over it later when we were alone.
Early last Monday morning Kathie called me with the news that Bruce was gone. And in the week since, with the deluge of emotions, visitors, food festivals, memories, laughter and tears, there have already been so many times that I needed to share something with Bruce because he alone would realize how funny or poignant or lovely it was: the avalanche of food and flowers that descended upon Circle Drive; the arrival of the Brenneman clan; Renee and Wade getting all dressed up and driving four hours just to give Aunt Kathie a hug and turn around drive back; Kathie–possessed by her wonderful mother–grieving by needing to start cleaning house right after Bruce passed, the stampede of facebook tributes and the few that included grammatical errors (as this blogpost will doubtlessly join) and which I assume that Bruce, in glory, accepts even more graciously than he did while still with us; So forgive me for needing to share some of these thoughts with you since I can’t process all of this with dear Bruce.
One of our recurring jokes involved the abundance of, or more often lack of, finesse in life. Together we lamented hastily thrown-together events, signs, or meals with little or no attention to detail. For Bruce, if something was worth doing, it was worth doing with finesse. Whether it was preparing dinner, decorating for Christmas, directing a play, wrapping presents, writing essays, corresponding with friends, or building relationships, Bruce always went above and beyond the basic expectations and added his unique fancy flourishes and finesse to all festivals. It might be the carved orange and maraschino cherry garnish on his serving platters, or charging up front before church started to dust the communion table,or the handwritten notes on the papers he graded: trying to be sure that the next effort would be better than the last.
Bruce’s final two years were terribly difficult ones. Speech (teaching, directing, visiting with friends, singing) and food (cooking, planning, eating, entertaining, sharing) had been the consuming passions of his life and it seemed such a cruel irony that he would end his days without them. And at the end of each difficult day, he could not even curl up in the comfort of bed; his labored breathing necessitated sitting up in a chair day and night. Had all of that happened to me, I’d have been so cross and cranky over it. I’m sure I’d have wanted to withdraw from the world and sulk. The aforementioned ‘Culp (some maternal ancestors) meanstreak’ is an occasional family tendency to be a little ill-humored and impatient. Bruce had it at times and so do I, especially when things weren’t quite going our way. But in Bruce’s final battle–to his endless credit–he became more patient, more gracious and more loving. His inability to enjoy food did not dissuade him from cooking for others. He continued to take joy in preparing special treats for all those around him. As recently as June he made his signature ribbon jello for JonDavid’s graduation party. Two weeks ago (terribly weakened and with Kathie doing most of the work) he made a Boston cream cake for a dear friend. The Saturday before he died on Monday was their 51st wedding anniversary and even though he’d been in the hospital all week, Bruce (using Suzanne as his elf) had earrings, a card, and his customary dozen yellow roses ready for Kathie. (“I don’t think my wrapping quite lived up to his standards,” Suzanne lamented. Not to worry, Cuz, that bar was always set a little out of reach for all of us!)
Uncle Bruce taught me to live, and to die, with finesse. But Bruce’s exacting standards were not based on snobbery or superiority, but rather it reflected the high value he placed on those around him: his family, students, cast members, friends, and loved ones. The beautiful memorial service we enjoyed yesterday? It was not planned by Kathie, or Wes, or Brian, or Suzanne, or me; it was planned by Bruce himself, right down to the music choices. He had written out the instructions and tucked them in Kathie’s Bible. (“Thank heavens Kathie read her Bible for once,” quipped Allen) Bruce knew what we would need to begin the healing process after losing him.
So today, as we begin to adjust to life without our dear Bruce, I picture him sitting at the great table in heaven, talking, eating, and singing again, having a great feast with all of his friends and loved ones there–served with more finesse than even Bruce could imagine–and laughing until the tears roll down his cheeks. I love you, Uncle Bruce.
5 thoughts on “Such Finesse”
Beautifully written, Tim.
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Exceptional, Tim. Bruce;s grace was indelible, and I shall remember him fondly, and with humor.
Thanks Tim. Nicely stated. God’s blessings on you and all as you grieve Bruce’s departure from this life onto the next.
What a beautiful tribute in memory of a very important person in your life. You have been blessed . May God be with you.
What an amazing man. And your tribute lets us all know him a little more…thanks for sharing these stories!