It’s just a museum, an old building with old stuff in it that no one really cares about anymore, sitting right in the middle of town.
It’s right where a supermarket should go. No one goes to mom and pop stores anymore. They don’t go to Bill’s Grocery or Jack’s Supply—they go to the supermarket because it has everything they need at a good price. In times like these where everyone is on their phone and no one stops to chat, the town needs a supermarket.
It doesn’t need a museum.
But to Sue it was not just a museum. It’s where she met Bernice.
Bernice was so smart. She was an engineer—not the kind that worked on trains. The kind that worked with numbers and whatever other things smart engineers worked with. Sue didn’t understand most of it, but she was proud of Bernice just the same.
The two had met right there in the lobby of the museum. It was a hot day in the summer of 1951 when Sue was on lunch break from her job, an operator with Ma Bell. Sue wasn’t booksmart. Heck, she wasn’t even streetsmart, but she always made sure the gentleman’s calls went to the wife when they wanted to talk to the wife and to the mistress most of the other times. It had taken her months to properly learn the switchboard. If anyone else had applied for the job, Sue might not have made it through the first week. But once she got good at putting wires into the right holes, she was really good. Sue was glad at least she was good at one thing. This made her feel better when she was around Bernice.
If Sue wasn’t so clumsy, she might never have met Bernice. In August in Augusta, the only public building within walking distance of her job was the museum. It was 98 degrees in the shade outside, but a cool 72 inside the museum.
Sue had taken her sandwich and coffee to eat, sitting on one of the public benches just inside the lobby. As was her habit, she wasn’t watching where she was going. She walked right into Bernice.
Her sandwich was splattered all over the floor, and her coffee was almost entirely on Bernice’s formally pristine white shirt.
“I’m sorry,” Bernice said. Those were the first words Bernice ever spoke to Sue, covered in lukewarm coffee because of Sue’s tendency to daydream. Though not at fault, Bernice apologized.
“Oh there’s nothing to be sorry about,” Sue blushed. “I’m the fool.” One look at Bernice, and Sue fell hopelessly in love. She didn’t know women could feel that way about another.
In 1951, it was unthinkable, but Sue couldn’t help herself. Bernice wasn’t a remarkable looking woman. She was about Sue’s age, a few pounds overweight, cornflower blue eyes. Her hair looked like she didn’t care what her hair looked like.
But Sue immediately saw Bernice’s kindness and gentle humor. Sue saw someone who belonged in the museum, making Sue want to be there as well.
In the matter of what seemed like seconds, Bernice had forgotten she had coffee all over her shirt and began peppering Sue with questions she was ill-equipped to answer.
“How often do you come to the museum? What is your favorite display? Do you think they should add a wing added exclusively for modern art?” Questions came fast and furious, as if Bernice didn’t even notice Sue wasn’t answering all of them. As their years passed together, this would be their pattern: Bernice did most of their talking. Sue was happy mostly listening.
After what was probably only thirty minutes or so, Sue asked Bernice just one question.
“Will I see you tomorrow?”
So much hung on those five words. Sue nervously scanned her face, looking for any indication that Bernice felt even a little of the intense attraction that threatened to consume Sue.
“I sure hope so!” Bernice replied breezily over her shoulder, as she scurried out the front door.
The next day, precisely at the same time, Sue made her way to the museum. It was still brutally hot outside, but Sue wasn’t after the air conditioning. She was after her Bernice.
Dressed in her prettiest periwinkle summer suit, Sue didn’t carry any coffee this time. She strategically positioned herself so she could see everyone who entered the museum. The museum was busier during lunch, but Sue patiently waited.
Like clockwork, at the exact same time as the day before, Bernice walked briskly through the door. Sue would learn later that Bernice always seemed to be in a hurry, except at the museum.
At the museum, Bernice would wander slowly, studying the exhibits, reading every display card and exhibit posting. They’d eventually visit museums around the globe, as Bernice loved perusing paintings and divining the mysteries of historical artifacts.
The museum was a cornucopia of knowledge; Bernice would feast on her lunch hours, ruminating about a new idea or epiphany to Sue. She was especially fond of any new offering or exhibit, knowing the curator by first name. She would circle the days on her calendar in bright red when she was sure to see something fresh and exciting.
Through the maze of hallways, Sue would follow Bernice along, not like a puppy, but like an inquisitive student. Sue struggles at times to understand all Bernice was telling her, but just hearing the sound of Bernice’s voice brought Sue great comfort. Over time, however, she would come to understand, enjoy, and love the exhibits just as much as Bernice.
At the time, there wasn’t an acceptable word in polite society for the type of relationship Sue and Bernice engaged in. They were friends, of this there was no doubt. Yet, as powerful a word as friend is—it vastly understated their attachment.
Days at the museum were augmented by lunches and dinners and movies. Eventually, Sue would spend the night at Bernice’s apartment. Soon after, she would spend all of her nights there.
Over the course of years, they became each other's constant companions, yet they never identified as anything other than friends.
Bernice was the one who stayed up all night in the hospital’s waiting room the night Sue’s appendix burst, and Sue went to every oncology appointment with Bernice. Afterwards, they would make their way to their home away from home, the museum, commenting on new collections and acquisitions.
Bernice would give Sue all the updates, explaining her prognosis in technical terms that Sue struggled to fully understand. She used words like white blood cell counts and platelets.
“Are you getting better?” Sue would ask, as the numbers simply jumbled together.
Bernice would always put a positive spin on the results, but after 60 years together, even Sue had become able to read the non-verbal clues. Bernice wasn’t getting any better.
On another hot day in August, a day a lot like that first day in 1951, Bernice lost her battle against an unseen enemy. Sue was alone, alone except for the Museum and the memories it held.
After Bernice’s death, Sue would get up each Sunday morning, stop at her favorite coffee shop, and head straight to the museum. The exhibits changed, but Sue’s affection for both Bernice and their museum did not. Sue would circle the days on her calendar in red whenever a new exhibit was to open.
As Sue headed up the front steps of the museum, coffee in hand, she was met at the top by a security guard.
“Sue, I don’t know how to tell you this,” the guard stopped for a moment, taking a deep breath. “They are closing the museum. It’s been sold to a developer, and they are going to build a supermarket right on this very spot.”
It was just a museum, just a building to most. To Sue, it was her connection to Bernice, and the news was almost more than she could bear. Tears streamed down her face, as she pondered what to do.
Sue didn’t have the first idea of how to stop her beloved museum from being destroyed. Leaving the guard and the museum, she just simply went home and cried.
Tears are God's way of easing both physical and emotional pain, but they can do precious little to save a museum. After a good long cathartic cry, Sue asked herself a question out loud.
“What would Bernice do?”
Bernice had been more than just a smart woman; she was a woman of action. Sue decided she would honor her friend by doing all she could to help save the museum.
A few phone calls and a little research later, Sue discovered she wasn’t the only one who was upset the museum was targeted for developers. A small but spirited group of museum supporters had already decided to block the entrance to the museum on the day of demolition, hoping to bring attention to their cause.
On the scheduled demolition day, Sue woke up early, bought a cup of coffee and met her new friends on the steps that led to her and Bernice’s favorite place. Although the oldest participant by far, she sat down on those steps, in front of bulldozers and angry men in hard hats.
She proudly linked arms with all who were there to protest. She had no idea if it would work, she expected it would not, but she was sure that somewhere else, somewhere where all knowledge is circumscribed into one great whole, Bernice was watching and clapping along with their protests and chants. Knowing Bernice was there by Sue, knowing she would always be, made the effort to save their first home together entirely worthwhile.