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Jack Smith

Fleeting memories of a gentle man, as a family gathers in the rain to mourn his passing

February 17, 1987|JACK SMITH

My wife and I drove up to Bakersfield the other day for her brother's funeral.

Ernie Bresson was the gentlest of men. He was kind, generous and amiable. There was no anger in him. I doubt that he had an enemy.

If he had a fault, it was that he favored the San Francisco 49ers--a heresy that I failed to disabuse him of.

He died at 69, of cancer, after a painful and debilitating illness. He had retired from the Bank of America, for which he had worked for 40 years. For a time he specialized in the handling of delinquent mortgages, a job he didn't like; but he was good at it, I believe, because he couldn't be anything but friendly with the hard-pressed debtors.

A few years ago my wife and I drove up for his retirement dinner. His son, Gregg, then a sheriff's deputy, said a few words, noting that his childhood had been happy because his parents had been gentle and good. I remember thinking that no man could hope for a better testament from his son.

We drove up in time to meet my wife's family for a private viewing of the body at the mortuary on the eve of the funeral. Tears were shed. I am not comfortable with this ritual; but we could see that his ordeal was over; he was at peace.

We spent that night at the home of my wife's sister, Suzie, in Oildale. She has eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. She lives alone now in the house that she and her husband built more than 50 years ago.

She showed me an obituary in the Bakersfield Californian that accurately listed all of Ernie's numerous relatives, including me, but they had interchanged the pictures of Ernie and another man. I imagined the other man's family were as distressed as we were.

I spent the night in troubled sleep. Naturally everyone would say that newspapers always get everything wrong. It was probably the only time in his life that Ernie's picture was in the paper, and it was with the wrong obituary. I decided that I would call the Californian in the morning and, as a fellow newspaperman, ask them to print an item about the funeral and use the correct picture.

But in the morning I decided I had no right to do that. I make mistakes myself. Sometimes it is better to let them lie than to call attention to them by correcting them. The paper would probably just get something else wrong, the way I do.

The funeral was held at 10 a.m. in the mortuary chapel. My wife and I were seated with the family in a side room behind a curtain. We were with Ernie's widow, Nelda; his sisters; his son and his daughter, Susan Denise, and their spouses.

What surprised me was the number of people in the chapel. There was standing room only. After the services, they filed past the casket. It took 10 minutes. I doubted that an ordinary person could expect that many people to attend his funeral in Los Angeles. I've gone to the funerals of celebrities in Los Angeles that didn't attract that many mourners.

My wife and I went to the cemetery in the mortuary's family car, an enormous Cadillac. The driver told me to sit in front. We followed the hearse. At an intersection where the hearse turned right, we were held up momentarily by a stoplight, and a car squeezed in between us and the hearse. The driver mumbled a curse. It was the first time I had ever known a mortuary principal to depart from that pious decorum they affect. He was human.

The sky was gray. A light rain was falling. At the cemetery there were two green canvas shelters over the place where Ernie was to be buried. An American flag covered the casket. In the war, Ernie had served with the Army in Africa and Italy.

A row of eight chairs stood under the shelters. We who had come in the family car sat on them. After the priest had consigned Ernest Bresson to the earth, friends began to pass by us, shaking hands and offering condolences.

People were stepping on a gray tombstone that was embedded in the earth in front of one of the chairs. It was shiny with rain. It lay in a little moat of water.

My wife said to me, "They're stepping all over Papa."

I leaned over and read the inscription on the stone: "Beloved Father, Ernest J. Bresson, March 11, 1889, March 11, 1957."

"That's your father!" I exclaimed.

"Yes," she said. "He died on his birthday. And Mama's right over there."

We were sitting on the family plot.

After the ceremonies, a mortuary factotum folded the flag and presented it to Ernie's widow. "From the United States government," he said.

I have always told my wife that I don't want a funeral; but if she could get a free flag from the government, as a consequence of my two years in the Marine Corps, I would be happy to reconsider.

After the services, we all went to Gregg's house and dined on a cornucopia of dishes brought to the house by neighbors and other friends. I heard laughter. Nothing alleviates grief like lots of food, drink, company and laughter.

"By the way," my wife's sister told me, "the Californian straightened everything out this morning. With the pictures."

I was gratified. My profession had come through with integrity.

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