Her Name in Lights

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Matt Geiger

My friend died this morning.

When I learned of her death, I dug up the first words I ever wrote about her, in 2013, the first of many:

“It was the early 1950s when a young farm girl named Bonnie Bakken stood in the doorway of her parents’ home in Black Earth. Her hands on her hips, the fiercely independent young woman told her mother she was leaving the farm, the church, and Wisconsin.

She was going, she said, to see her name in lights. 

“And I did,” she reflects today with a nod, cradling a small cup of coffee and flexing her hands to counteract the arthritis that often binds them. “I saw my name in lights many times.”

We spoke many times over the years, and a couple times in recent weeks. The last time we talked, I could tell it was the final time. I spoke with a nurse at the facility where she was less than 24 hours before she breathed her last breath, and the next morning, I received a message from one of Bonnie Bakken’s close friends that she was gone.

“Listen to the cry of a woman in labor at the hour of giving birth–look at the dying man’s struggle at his last extremity,” said Søren Kierkegaard, “and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment.”

Kierkegaard was full of radiant insights, but on this he was merely shallow and dreary, because the way something begins, and the way it ends, have nothing to do with what comes in between. Our universe began as an infinitely dense point, and it will end in the most terrifying notion ever articulated: entropy. All energy will be evenly distributed. All will be quiet and dark. In between are symphonies and fireworks, the giggling of young children, the wagging of dogs’ tails, the smells of breakfast with family, the sounds of singing in church.

That is why, when people die, we always look back at their lives. That is why we tell their stories.

As she approached her own death, Bonnie started to end many of her conversations with people the same way: “I love you.” From what I’ve heard, she did it with close friends and casual acquaintances alike. I know she did it with me.

She was old when I met her, seven years ago, over coffee and pancakes at a café that later burned down and was never rebuilt. In the years to follow, I spent quite a bit of time with her. We chatted, she regaled me with stories of her life, and I tried, as best I could, to help her tell her stories to new listeners and readers. We recorded a piece for Public Radio’s “Wisconsin Life,” she told her story in the newspapers I write for, and she was featured in a chapter in my second book. She was on the cover, too. When we held a little book release party, she sat with me, tripping people with her walker and signing copies, beaming as she always did when she was the center of attention. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who so enjoyed the spotlight.

I remember visiting her in her apartment one day, to drop off the books that she loved to mail out to old friends.

When I did a series of radio interviews about the book in which she was featured, hosts all across the country always asked about Bonnie. What I told them was that she looked like someone who you could easily dismiss–or simply miss–if you spotted her in a grocery store. She was shrunken and frail, her joints bulging out, gargantuan calcified knobs draped with loose flesh. She was a “little old lady.”

But if you talked to her, and more importantly listened to her, you heard the most incredible stories. She was a pin-up star, a burlesque performer, and an icon of a glamorous time that has long since vanished. She seemed to grace the cover of every “men’s magazine” in existence in the 1950s and 1960s. She had been buxom and bosomy by any definitions, one of the most mammalian people on the planet. Her eyes glinted. She was a mother, a friend, and a singer in the church choir.

Like many people, she eventually came home. Like the good lion in the Hemingway story, who travels to Africa, then flies home on magical wings, seats himself at a bar, orders a cocktail, and thinks that he is happy to have traveled, and happy to be home. Here in Wisconsin, in her old age, Bonnie traded her sultry songs for church hymns. She even took her pastor to a burlesque show a few years ago at which she was honored. He brought his own mother to the show.  

Life was full of accidents and tragedies. It seemed like most of the people she knew met tragic ends, dying of substance abuse, burning up in drunken car wrecks, or worse. I don’t know if she ever told me a story about someone she knew who died old and in bed, the way she eventually would. She was beaten and battered in her life, both figuratively and literally. By the time I met her, she was crooked, her back arched and her leg jutting out to the side.

As she aged, her mind stayed sharp, but the feuds she engaged in with some of her foes seemed to grow worse. She seemed to worry more than usual. One time, I sat with a group of people trying to mediate a dispute she had with some elderly women in Mount Horeb who seemed to enjoy picking on her, their hatred probably born of some kind of misplaced moral righteousness.

Yet she never, ever said a cross word with me. With me, she was always kind and gentle.

One time, when I tried to sell books to raise money to help pay for one of her annual trips to Las Vegas, where she was honored along with other aging burlesque performers, I received a furious series of messages from a woman who accused me of taking advantage of Bonnie by telling her story. She said I was a misogynist, part of a patriarchic cabal that worked tirelessly to oppress women, including Bonnie. I asked her to actually read what I had written about her and then reconsider her verdict. She refused. I was a man, and that seemed to be all she needed to know. I told her that Bonnie asked me to help tell her story, and she replied that stories are worthless, and the only way to help Bonnie was to give her money. “If you really cared about her, you would give her money,” she sneered in a message I received on my 40th birthday. The books and the radio interviews and the newspaper articles meant nothing compared to cash, she claimed.

It’s the angriest I have ever been at another human being in my life. I didn’t care that she accused me of being a nefarious person, or a misogynist, but to insinuate that stories–particularly Bonnie’s stories–somehow didn’t matter was the most absurd thing I have ever heard. (I did give Bonnie a little money, but who in their right mind cares about that? The cash came and went. Its value was purely arbitrary, and it did little. When the world ends, the atoms that made up those bills will not be any more lifeless than they already are today.) But those stories, well, they are worth far more, and they burn bright while we are here, and for a little while after we are gone. Anyone who cannot see the light is willfully obtuse.

Not to mention, reducing Bonnie to a mere victim was an outrageous reduction against which she, so devoutly independent and fierce–would chafe. She was the victim of many things, but that did not define her. In the end, she was the conqueror, not the conquered.

Another time, after writing a profile of Bonnie in the local newspaper, I receive a nasty letter saying that I had “glorified a porn star.” Written in the tell-tale script of someone elderly and angry, it went on and on about how indecent she was, and how horrid I was for writing about her lifestyle.

Such is the power of stories. Anything that can make people that angry must brim with meaning.

There is something called “The God Helmet.” It is sometimes called “The Koren Octopus.” Invented by Stanley Koren and Michael Persinger, two neuroscience professors, the contraption, which is a yellow helmet with a bunch of tangles wires sticking out of it, is intended to give people religious experiences by stimulating their temporal lobes. But you don’t need to wear a contraption to have these experiences; all you need to do is pick a person, then talk to them, and listen to them. Listen to their stories. Tell their stories to others. Listen again as they tell them again. Stories are one of the few things that grow every time we give them away, and our stock is never depleted. There is a reason why the Bible, a collection of stories, is the bestselling book in human history, rather than “The Wealth of Nations.” Because money cannot transcend death. Stories can.

Thinking you have to wear a special helmet to see God in the world around you is like wearing special socks that fool you into experiencing oxygen.

About death, Dylan Thomas wrote about the sorrow of dying people whose tongues “had forked no lightening.” Bonnie’s life was full of lightning, and then, this morning, all went dark and quiet. The storm of life has passed.

She wished to donate her body to science. How marvelous! The same corporeal vessel that was splashed topless across all the pages of those gaudy magazines, which had slinked across so many stages, would be used to further our scientific understanding of our species. How funny, that those scientists wouldn’t know the story of that body as they examined and tested the tissue. Because Bonnie was not just any body. But in the end, she had shrunken too small to be used by the medical school. She did not leave much behind. It seemed she took much with her when she left.

For some reason, another piece by Thomas always makes me think of her. It’s called, “After the Fair.” In it, a girl wanders a quiet fairground at night, hungry and afraid. She ends up being taken into the trailer of the carnival’s “fat man.” “No one can beat me for fatness,” he proclaims in a high-pitched voice.

They sit in his trailer and cook toast. Then the thin girl tells the fat man about an abandoned baby in one of the dark tents. They go and pick it up, and it cries and squalls. So they turn on the carousel, with its lights and music and whirring, and they ride it through the night. They are not going anywhere; just in colorful, noisy, beautiful, pointless circles. But that is enough. One by one, the carnival folk wake up and come outside, to find the fat man, the thin girl, and the little baby, riding around and around, the very opposite of entropy, illuminated by the lights.

Light is all around us.

All those years ago, Bonnie stood in the doorway of that farmhouse in Black Earth and told her parents she would see her name in lights. Today, I think about that memory a little differently than I used to. Because she, like most who walk the Earth, wasn’t just in lights (on the stage, on the covers of magazines, on the marquee). She wasn’t just illuminated by the lights. No, she was the very light itself.

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