It happened sometime between third and fifth grade, so long ago that Ardene Bartness can’t quite remember.
The 21 Bible verses she memorized, she’s never forgotten.
“When I was growing up in Minnesota, every year a child would memorize the story of the birth of Christ and deliver it in a Christmas program, and I was asked,” she said. “I memorized Luke 2:1-21, because Luke does it so well.
“It was a big thing for us to be asked. I memorized those verses.”
Now 78 and living in Puyallup, she still knows them – even though as a schoolgirl she never had the opportunity to recite them.
The youngest of 14 children, Bartness was looking forward to that Christmas program in the early 1940s with the excitement only a child can muster. She was a shy girl, and it would be the first time she’d ever stood in front of a large group.
But it never happened.
“As the program neared, I had a 105-degree temperature and ended up in the hospital,” Bartness said. “I remember my mother saying, ‘She’s going to die,’ and my father saying to her, “No, she’s too mean to die.’”
Years passed, and the Christmas program honor always went to someone new each holiday.
“I never forgot those verses,” she said.
Still, aside from the times she practiced that first year in front of her parents, no one heard her speak them. Bartness didn’t tell anyone she still remembered those 21 verses from the Christmas gospel.
“I never even told my children about it as they grew up. I guess I thought it would be like showing off,” she said. “I never told my husband, Bill, the story. We had three children, seven grandchildren; I know I’ve told one of my granddaughters.”
Then, four Decembers ago, she went to her church, Living Word Lutheran in Puyallup, for a meeting with other members and church office manager Lydia Auge.
“We were getting together to talk about our Christmas Eve service, and just in passing Ardene mentioned she’d memorized the story of the birth of Christ,” Auge said. “I was stunned. I mentioned it to our pastor, and he said, ‘Well, ask her if she’ll do it.’”
So Ardene Bartness, a two-time cancer survivor and the grandmother of seven, finally got her chance.
“A lot of people thought I was reading it, because I was holding the Christmas bulletin in my hand, but the first time I did it, it was the most wonderful thing,” she said. “I wasn’t nervous, and I recited it without a mistake. Afterward, I was shaking like a leaf.”
Auge was in church that night.
“We were in awe,” she said. “Ardene was like an old-time story teller, and everyone, especially the children, just loved it.”
That Bartness remembered those 21 Bible verses – verbatim, in the King James version — was remarkable.
“How did I remember it all these years? It meant so much to me at the time I first memorized them that all my life, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d recite them to myself,” she said.
That she was there to deliver them was something of a miracle, too. Bartness survived two bouts with breast cancer, that 105-degree temperature as a school girl and a farm accident that could have killed her if not for her father’s momentary flash of superhuman strength.
“When I was 2 or 3, I was run over by a farm machine my father was working — a wheat binder,” she said. “I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been, and the binder rolled over me. My father just happened to look back, saw me, and ran back.
“He lifted the binder up, rested it on his knees and pulled me out. The next day, I was told, he couldn’t lift it off the ground no matter how hard he tried.”
Less than a month from now, on Christmas Eve, Bartness will recite Luke 2:1-21 for the fourth consecutive year at her church.
“She has the manner of someone from the ’50s, a really grand lady,” Auge said. “Ardene has a way about her, almost an innocence, and everyone stops and listens when she begins. She puts a lot of feeling into it.
“She memorized this more years ago than most of us have been alive. It’s amazing.”Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638