Missing our ‘neighborhood mom’

I can still close my eyes and see my mom and Eleanore Bertrand engaged in their lively chats over the split-rail fence separating our two yards.

I might as well say “my moms.”

How lucky can you be? My siblings and I had our own wonderful mother, and a second mom in “Mrs. B.”

Eleanore’s recent death from cancer — 15 years after Mom died — has left us all feeling motherless.

And it has made us treasure even more the bond between our two families and these remarkable women.

The cultural stereotypes of the day would have insisted the women were gossiping over that fence. In truth they were acting both as confidantes and as command center for the 100-strong neighborhood kids on Robertann Drive in Kettering.

“We told each other everything,” Eleanore once told us.

As children we gave little thought to the burdens of raising six rambunctious kids (our family) or five (the Bertrands’), or what a comfort it was for our moms to have each other.

We took it for granted that Eleanore made the effort to be her glamorous, gorgeous, sassy self, even when weeding the garden. She always wanted to look her best for her husband, Dick, who called her “wife of my life, sexpot of my dreams.”

We only knew Mrs. B was always there for us, in the happiest times and the hardest times. She rescued us from countless calamities, from broken bones to busted heads to disastrous bridesmaids’ dresses.

As my sister Beth recalled, “She saved our lives … literally. She was just always there in many of the worst or hardest moments from Mom being taken in the ambulance when she miscarried to the numerous injuries to the first person we went to when we learned of our own mother’s cancer.”

The Bertrands, like our own parents, proved that you can be loving, attentive parents without sacrificing romance. At the end of the work day, Eleanore sometimes would dress up and meet Dick at Benedict’s bar for drinks. “They would be huddled in a corner at a small table by themselves,” said their daughter, Vicky Neyhouse of Beavercreek.

Everyone assumed they were having an affair because, well, what married couple would carry on that way?

“She and my dad never ran out of things to talk about,” said their daughter, Molly Montgomery of Kettering.

It’s a love story that began as a double date with Eleanore’s boyfriend Lou and his roommate — a handsome UD football player named Dick Bertrand. “It took one look at him and it was pretty much love at first sight for both of us,” Eleanore wrote in a recollection her daughters found after her death. “Dick had the greatest blue eyes I had ever seen. He was built like a football player, 6’2” and 215 pounds of muscles.”

They went to a party with their respective dates, but Dick followed Eleanore around like a lovesick puppy. “I went in the kitchen for a drink and there he was,” Eleanore wrote. “He asked me to dance in the kitchen I said yes. When it ended he kissed me. From then on I was his and he was mine.”

They were 18 years old.

“They loved intimately, with a joy that was infectious,” said their son Scott, an Atlanta chiropractor. “They fought like Thor and Athena, but what you came away with was their passion, a zest for this life that I should never have taken for granted.”

The Bertrands were founding members of “the Robertann Rowdies,” neighbors who escaped from the critical mass of kids with backyard parties that lasted late into the night.

Children were strictly forbidden, but we watched from the rooftops anyway. “We couldn’t sleep,” Vicky said. “There was too much noise, dancing, drinking, playing cards.”

Mom would spot us and call out, “Go to bed, girls!” But Eleanore indulgently urged, “Let them watch, Vera.”

The Robertann kids got in on most of the fun, particularly in the summer when the Rowdies constructed floats — true marvels of engineering – for the annual Kettering Holiday at Home parade. Kids would help out on various menial chores, from paper drives to float-stuffing, led by our parents in a rousing chorus of “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Recalled Vicky with a laugh, “It never occurred to us that it might be inappropriate.”

Eleanore, an untrained but gifted artist, spent months crafting exquisite, life-sized figures for the Robertann floats. Her garage was peopled with trolley car passengers, a bullfight audience and matador, and circus performers.

It was Eleanore who noticed my sister Peggy’s talent for art and encouraged our Mom to enroll her in art classes, a luxury in those days. “I really feel that Eleanore played an important part in my being an artist today, and thus the person that I am today,” Peggy said.

Eleanore also came to our rescue when the bridesmaid’s dresses turned out to look like castoff waitress outfits from Mel’s Diner. The talented seamstress valiantly tried to repair the damages, then persuaded a distraught Peggy that it would be OK for us to wear matching little black dresses.

No tragedy was too big or too small, no news too insignificant or too major; we shared everything with the Bertrands. When John F. Kennedy was killed, Eleanore rushed over to tell Mom; when Bobby Kennedy was killed, Mom rushed over to tell Eleanore. We watched the Apollo 13 launch on the Bertrands’ color TV.

They were our touchstone. “We had a sense that if they were there, it was OK,” said my sister Anne.

They set an example that continues to this day in the lives of their children and grandchildren. “I’m a loving, affectionate Mom, because I learned that from my Mom,” Molly said.

They were there through bridal showers and baby showers, weddings and funerals.

One of the saddest times was losing Dick unexpectedly when he died in his sleep in 1997. He was only 65, still active and vigorous, even winning a trophy in the National Senior Olympics.

“She never got over it,” Vicky said. “She lived for her kids and grandkids, but she told me, ‘Every day is a day without him.’”

Former Robertann neighbor Roxanne Riley Smith of West Carrollton learned a lifelong lesson from the image of Dick and Eleanore holding hands as they walked home from Robertann Drive gatherings: “It was burned into my brain to hold the hand of the person you loved most.”

Even as we miss our beloved “neighborhood mom” so profoundly, it’s comforting to think of that joyful reunion.

“That helps a lot, knowing they are together,” Vicky said. “I know he was waiting for her, laughing and smiling. And that they are arm in arm, doing everything together.”

We can’t know what heaven is like, but somehow I can picture it so vividly: the two of them walking home in the dark, holding hands.

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