The best stories never make the papers.
These are the stories of ordinary people, living quiet and purposeful lives, doing their best to accomplish what God puts in front of them.
This person’s story began in 1928.
Big things happened in 1928. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly an airplane across the Atlantic Ocean. If you ever fed your kids Gerber baby food, relaxed in a Lay-Z-Boy, or enjoyed the air conditioning in your home or car, then be thankful for 1928. And if you’ve ever uttered the expression, “the greatest thing since sliced bread” you can thank Otto Frederick and his invention of the sliced bread maker.
While these discoveries and inventions were making news in 1928, Bertie (Stratton) Knowlton came into the world without fanfare in Champlain, New York. Born to parents likely paying $12 a month for rent and 9 cents for a loaf of bread.
Who knew that a loaf of bread would later become a fun part of her life story?
No family is perfect. While Bertie’s father was a kind man, her mother did not know how to love. She found it very difficult to express affection to her children. Her harshness created an often hurtful home environment.
As is often the case, our strengths are born of painful experience. Bertie purposed while still a young girl that when she grew up she would be a Mom who would make sure her children knew how much she loved them. She practiced on her dolls, tucking them in properly for their naps. And she loved on the puppies her father would sneak into her bedroom late at night, without her mother’s knowledge.
Life is full of challenges and Bertie met a big one early, surviving rheumatic fever. It would be the first of several major health conditions she would face over the course of her life and the beginning of an amazing testimony to God’s healing and faithfulness.
As a child Bertie discovered she had an aptitude for art. She could draw. One day she sketched a fine rendering of a bird, proudly presenting it to her mother for approval. Her mother took one look and said, “This is no good. Don’t ever draw again.”
Crushed and wanting to obey her mother, Bertie stopped drawing.
Her father moved the family to Houghton, New York in 1941 so it would be cheaper to send his children to the local college. Several years later another family moved to town for the same reason. There was a boy in that family who would become the love of Bertie’s life.
Jim and Bertie met in 1944 and went to high school together. They dated for two years and fell in love. Bertie’s family was of a rather strict Wesleyan persuasion that didn’t believe in colorful clothes. Red, a color associated with harlotry, was forbidden for girls to wear. Make up and movies were off limits. They didn’t believe in jewelry, either, as it was considered showy and pretentious.
Given these restrictions, Bertie was not allowed to have an engagement ring. So Jim bought her an engagement watch instead. The teenage couple graduated high school at noon and got married at 4 o’clock that afternoon, a small ceremony in the living room of her parents’ home.
Now married and independent, Jim celebrated their new adult status by taking Bertie to the store, buying her a red dress, red lipstick and taking her to the movies. I don’t know if it’s possible to be a rebel while watching “The Yearling”, but they gave it their best shot. He said they giggled through the whole movie, thinking about how “bad” they were being.
They drove to Toronto, Canada for their honeymoon. To save some money, they decided to skip the restaurant and buy their own food; some sandwich meat and a loaf of bread. When they got back to their room they discovered the bread wasn’t sliced and there was no knife. So they laughed and wrapped the meat around the bread instead.
Where’s Otto Frederick when you need him?
Thus was the beginning of life together for Jim and Bertie Knowlton.
They had five children by the time Jim graduated from Houghton College in 1959. Contemplating a relocation, Bertie’s parents said, “Don’t move to Florida. It’s just a bunch of old people here. Move to California. That’s where the young people are.”
So westward they went. Settling in Orange County, Jim taught school and Bertie took care of their now 6 children. Their oldest daughter would die suddenly of Lupus at the age of 22.
The grief of losing a child never goes away.
Bertie developed debilitating arthritis to the point of being wheelchair bound. They prayed for healing, even though the church they were attending didn’t believe God did such things in modern day. God made fools of the skeptics by healing her completely. Well, almost completely. He left her little finger a little crooked. A reminder, Bertie would say, of what God had delivered her from.
Of all her wonderful qualities, perhaps most admirable was that Bertie loved people well. Her practice with dolls and puppies as a child paid off. She lived to show love to others. In her home, her neighborhood and around the world. When Jim retired from teaching they moved to Papua New Guinea to serve as missionaries for ten years.
At the age of 76 when many people decide to slow down, Bertie took a trip to Africa where she had a near death experience with an elephant. During an excursion, the driver of their Land Rover mistakenly drove between an elephant and her baby. Realizing the potential peril, he sternly instructed everyone to be completely still and not make a sound. A pastor’s wife in the back of the vehicle ignored the instruction and clicked the shutter on her camera, causing the elephant to turn and charge.
Coming home, the image of that charging elephant burned into her mind, she decided it was time to stop listening to her mother. She picked up a paint brush and taught herself watercolor. Her first painting was of that charging elephant.
Her paintings would later claim many first and second place prizes in art shows and be put on display in banks and businesses in Laguna Woods, California.
Not bad for a gal in her 80’s.
She also came home from Africa with a purpose to love on people there. She and a friend founded “GoGo Grandmothers”, a ministry to African grandmothers who step in to raise their grandchildren who lost their parents to AIDS. The ministry has grown to over ten churches.
Bertie was able to love people well because she loved Jesus well. Her number one desire in life was to live in such a way to point people to her Savior. When asked what her greatest wish was, she said, “My number one desire is to meet every one of my grandchildren in heaven.”
1928 is a long time ago. Yet if you were to ask Bertie, I bet she’d say the time passed very quickly. In the scope of eternity, even if life is long, it’s short. Bertie Knowlton, my mother-in-law, passed away this month at the age of 88. Married 69 years to the boy she giggled through the movie with.
In my classroom, I have a collection of Bertie’s watercolors on display. A reminder for me and my students that we are to be lifetime learners, never too old for new adventures. Most of all, a reminder of the importance to finish well.
When I wonder if it’s too late in life to start what’s on my heart, I look at that elephant and remember I’m still a ways off from 76.
So yes, there’s time. As long as we’re alive, there’s time.
Let’s get to it.
“…Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, tending to your own business, working with your hands…” – 1 Thessalonians 4:11
Todd A. Thompson – toddthompson.net