Harriet Bristol didn’t have any immediate family. She didn’t have a host of friends left. She was a very private person. Come to find out, she had led quite an inspiring life.
Somehow, I felt a connection, which is why I was one of four people who stood under a shelter that cold, rainy day to attend her funeral recently at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.
Although we rarely saw each other, Harriet parked her car next to mine in our condo’s underground parking area.
One day last summer, when my husband, Arnie Bigbee, went downstairs to get his car to run errands, he found Harriet standing behind her car, key fob in hand, hopelessly trying to unlock her car. It didn’t work. The battery was dead.
Harriet wasn’t driving very often then. When Arnie observed the oxygen tank beside her, he asked if she needed help. She said she wanted a few groceries and that she needed her car to get to the store.
Arnie was not only able to deal with AAA, which came 45 minutes later and got Harriet’s car started, he also drove it for 45 minutes to charge up the batter and then did her shopping.
From then on, Arnie did the little shopping she required and drove her car once a week. Eventually she decided to sell her car, although she was reluctant to part with it at first. A single, independent woman all her life, it was difficult for her to accept.
Harriet was 83 and had been given a terminal cancer diagnosis. It was clear that she would not be driving again. A few weeks later, she told Arnie that she was on home hospice.
It wasn’t surprising in early March when Arnie received the call from Jennifer Kavaloski, Harriet’s fiduciary representative. Harried had died.
She told him Harriet’s funeral would be March 24. He assured her that he would be there. When he told me about it, I said I would accompany him, with an unexplainable nagging feeling of connection to Harriet.
As we entered Fort Snelling National Cemetery on that cloud-filled rainy day, we met two vehicles — one containing Harriet’s ashes and one with two other people — waiting to proceed to the shelter where the outdoor service was held.
As we drove up and parked, a volunteer honor guard stood in the rain, rifles at ease. We introduced ourselves to Jennifer and the other woman. She said she was Harriet’s former work colleague.
A Fort Snelling representatives said a few words, the honor guard fired two rounds in her honor as a retired U.S. Air Force service member and taps were played. It was all over in less than 10 minutes.
Standing in the cold looking out at the countless white gravestones in meticulous rows listening to the sound of taps, it was an incredibly moving experience.
A soldier presented the folded American flag to Jennifer. We exchanged a few words and we all left.
I kept thinking about how Harriet died alone. I was glad I came.
As we drove away, the journalist in me wanted to find out more about Harriet. I had just learned that not only was she a career Air Force veteran, which impressed me as unusual for women of her age, but she had worked at the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. I thought that had to have been an interesting place to work.
First I went to the Hennepin County website and filled out a data request form on the Sheriff’s Office website. Hat’s off to them for responding so quickly to my request.
I learned that after retiring from the Air Force, Harriet started working at the Sheriff’s Office as a senior clerk typist Jan. 31, 1977. She was promoted to detention deputy in 1985 and retired Feb. 27, 1999.
Although I don’t know how many years she lived in our condo complex, I’m thankful my husband was able to support her during her final months.
Oh, and I learned about our connection when I read her obit in the Star Tribune: Harriet was born July 7, the same day as my birthday.