Gilbert leaves behind a long, literary legacy
Elizabeth Bernier Gilbert was not your typical housewife. She was a working mother, a poet and writer, newspaper editor and soprano.
Gilbert proudly served her country in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps during World War II and was a member of Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church for nearly 40 years.
As a prolific writer, Gilbert was a frequent contributor to the Valencia County News-Bulletin, offering observations on life from her little corner of the world.
On Wednesday, Sept. 11, Gilbert died in an Albuquerque hospital. She was 92.
“I guess she was a woman a little ahead of her time,” said her oldest daughter, Susanna. “She was not the typical icon of a 1950′s housewife, vacuuming the living room in pearls and high heels.”
Susanna and her sister, Elizabeth, remember both their mother and father, Richard Gilbert, working to support the family. With five children, it was hardly surprising, Elizabeth said.
“But even working, she was always there. If you cracked your head open at home, she was there,” Elizabeth said, laughing.
“I don’t know how she did that,” Susanna added.
The women said their mother worked as a cashier at a now-defunct Belen dry cleaners, as a teller for Norwest Bank before it eventually became Wells Fargo, as a teacher at St. Mary’s School and a book editor at Little, Brown and Company.
Gilbert was born in Massachusetts on April 13, 1921, and came to New Mexico the way many people do — she met and married a native Belenite.
She met Richard Gilbert at Camp Myles Standish when she was serving in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Gilbert left the WACs after 32 months of service on Feb. 10, 1946, with the rank of first lieutenant.
Susanna and Elizabeth said their mother joined the Army for the same reason many did and still do — she needed money for school. Gilbert, described as a beautiful soprano by Susanna, wanted to attend the New England Conservancy of Music, but her family couldn’t afford to send her.
But soon after her discharge from the Army, Richard was called back to Belen, needed by his family. So the young couple relocated to a house on the corner of 10th and Delgado in 1947, right next door to her mother-in-law.
Sept. 16 of that year was a hot day, Susanna says. Her mother was hanging clothes on the line when her water broke; Susanna was ready to be born.
With her husband at work and a lack of public transportation in Belen, Gilbert walked from their house to the clinic south of Buckland’s Pharmacy on Didier.
Susanna tells the story of her birth as she cries, her voice raw with emotion.
“She walked to give birth to me. That is why I say I always love to walk,” she said, wiping away tears. “Mom walked to give birth to me. That is how I will always remember her.”
Both Elizabeth and Susanna say their mother was always there for them and her community.
Susanna said her mother always said her first friend in Belen was the late Eva Glidewell, owner and operator of one of the first grocery stores in the city.
“And we always shopped at her store,” she said.
As things got more modern in Belen, Eva’s was always the place the family shopped, Liz said.
“Mother had loyalty to her hometown store,” she said. “I don’t think we ever set foot in the Piggly Wiggly.”
Even though she never finished a college degree, Elizabeth said her mother was a wealth of knowledge.
“She wasn’t a certified teacher but, because St. Mary’s was a private school, they could hire her,” she said. “She had a lot of knowledge. I think she probably knew more than a certified teacher.”
Much of her knowledge was gained by copious reading and observing life, the women said. Gilbert was published in Readers’ Digest, St. Francis Magazine and New Mexico Magazine. A recounting of her brother’s battle with and recovery from polio was published in Yankee Magazine.
Susanna has gathered all her writings into an anthology called “A Life in Long Hand.” She remembers her mother writing out her short stories, poems and essays on yellow legal tablets, while Liz remembers her sitting down to compose her words on a typewriter.
Susanna said many of her stories were written about real people and everyday events; the names were changed to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent alike.
One such story was about a young boy from Belen High School who took the ditch path home, behind their house on Sky Line. Gilbert watched as he picked a single rose.
In “The Rose Thief,” she writes that she did not stop him, scold him so as not to stop “the beauty in him that he carried in his two hands so carefully.”
Remembering how she and her young husband had planted the roses on her birthday, Gilbert silently encouraged the boy to give the bloom to someone he loved, writing “You who brings joy to my long-ago youth.”
Her granddaughter, Ann Marie Gilbert, shared Gilbert’s April birthday, creating a special connection between the two, Ann Marie said.
“I remember when I was little, I was very inquisitive. I asked questions about everything,” Ann Marie said. “I remember questioning her about God. She was a very religious woman, but she never said, ‘This is what you must believe.’ I don’t remember exactly what she told me, but she ended with ‘and He’s all around us.’ And that was good enough for me as a kid.”
Gilbert cared for two of her children and husband during times of serious illness, Susanna said, always putting others before herself.
“Even with the dementia, when she was in the hospital, she didn’t want to be a bother,” Susanna said.
Liz remembers her mother asking to be moved to the “next room” to free up her room for someone else, someone who was really sick.
“She was always worried about everybody else,” Liz said.
Gilbert’s dementia was due to Alzheimer’s disease, her daughters said. In the months before her death, Gilbert’s memory was often a capricious thing.
“She could remember things that happened decades ago, but the last five minutes? No,” Susanna said.
During her final night, Gilbert kept repeating a six-digit number — 116079. It was her WAC identification issued to her in 1943.
As more and more members of The Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers age, Susanna said it was her greatest hope that treatments would be found to prevent or at least treat Alzheimer’s disease.
One of Gilbert’s final communications to the News-Bulletin was four years ago. It consisted of a hand-written letter on a sheet of paper from a yellow legal pad and a lime-green stickie note, inscribed with the message, “This is my credo: Born 4/13/1921. Died in God’s good time.”
Also included was a place card for Table 2 for an unidentified dinner. On the back, she had written: “There is no someday, only today. Hear my voice now, for there is no later.”
The letter, addressed to former editor Sandy Battin, read:
Dear Friend Sandy,
Thanks for all the kindness you have shown me when my muse got the upper hand, and I had to let her rip.
You’ve been so kind these many years and I hope I haven’t been too long-winded.
This letter is one you might use for my obituary. Life has treated me kindly these 88 years by leading me to a find, decent husband and five wonderful children: Susanna, John, Richard Jr., Elizabeth Mary and Thomas Kevin Gilbert.
Long life to you and may God bless you for all your days.
Elizabeth Bernier Gilbert
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