Bert was ready to die. And she was sort of cross that God wouldn't let her. "Every day you keep me alive," friends say she argued with the almighty from her hospice bed, "you lose money." "There's not going to be anything left to give away."
It had been a slow decline for Bernice Eugenia Williams Crabtree, a Brandon native who didn't let chronic obstructive pulmonary disease interfere with a healthy, crusty sense of humor.
By the end, though, the feisty bingo player and faithful churchgoer struggled to walk across the room — even with an oxygen tank.
She died on Oct. 26, 2008, at age 83. She had no survivors, no family, just a legacy to leave behind.
Nearly half a million dollars, her entire estate, went in bits and pieces to 16 local organizations.
Her estate was finally settled last month, the last checks cut and deposited.
"She died and left two big things: her friends and her estate to help a whole lot of people," said Laura Ross, 61, of Brandon, who handled Bert's will.
Everything Bert owned was given away. Her clothes — even the dress she was supposed to be buried in — went to ECHO, the Emergency Care Help Organization in Brandon. Her music records were sent to a friend's son. Her jewelry was doled out to friends' grandkids.
Even the assortment of glass and ceramic frogs, which she had accrued through the years after somebody decided she had an affection for frogs, were given away at her memorial service.
A little memory of a woman who was charitable in life and still generous in death.
• • •
Bert grew up with nothing.
A Depression-era baby born in Brandon when it was still just a place for cattle to roam, she got a job at a phone company to help her family out. This was before women worked.
"She saw how people would do without so their children had," Ross said. "She never forgot that."
At the end of World War II, Bert married Clinton Crabtree. Her husband ran a consulting business, and she helped do the taxes. She played the part of a corporate wife, hosting cocktails and dinner parties.
The marriage lasted 40 years and took her around the world to England and France.
And how she loved Paris. But Bert still found her way home to Brandon.
In her later years, Bert became known for wearing a red flapper dress, the kind with fringe from head to toe. Forget a little black dress, Bert would say. Every woman just needs a red flapper dress.
Still, Ross said, "she never had a lavish lifestyle, even when she had the money."
Instead, Bert placed value elsewhere, counting herself rich in relationships. After her brother's death in 1958, her divorce in 1986 and her mother's death shortly thereafter, Bert found family in friends.
When she moved to a manufactured home in Valrico after her divorce, Bert maintained a literal open-door policy.
As long as you appreciated her sense of humor, Ross said, you could always talk to Bert.
She listened to the stories of people at First Presbyterian Church of Brandon, where she worshiped for 40 years. Even when she was too sick to attend services, she wrote cards of encouragement to everyone on the prayer lists.
She listened to her friends' children while they raced toy trucks and sipped imaginary tea.
She listened to young women with big dreams.
She listened while she swam with children with muscular dystrophy. She listened while she volunteered in homerooms, with the Cub Scouts, with children with mental disabilities.
"From the highest place to the lowest place," Ross said about Bert, "she treated them all the same."
• • •
Remembering Bert seems to give her friends energy. Those who knew her well gain momentum with each story, gleefully animating her dry wit.
Ross: "Bert was someone you had to enjoy."
Pastor Rebekah Maul: "She was hilarious!"
Friend Bill Penrose: "She was quite a tiger."
All of them tried to imitate Bert's childish grin. She would catch your eye, so you knew she was joking, and give you a devilish smile.
That's the one memory that Ross mentions over and over again: the merciless, mirthful teasing. Especially after Ross donated the wrong dress to charity — the blueish-green one Bert wanted to be buried in.
Ross never heard the end of that one.
"She just wanted to harass me," Ross said, "and she did so successfully."
And this is the only time Ross cries when she talks about Bert.
She takes a sip of tea and changes the subject to charities.
• • •
A month ago, Ross wrote and delivered checks to 16 local organizations selected to receive a portion of Bert's legacy.
To First Presbyterian Church of Brandon: a chunk of money to rebuild the cramped kitchen Bert constantly complained about.
To ECHO: a donation that will chip in for new, larger headquarters the organization hopes to find next year.
To the University of Tampa: a contribution in memory of her brother Bucky, a UT alumnus.
The list goes on, but it's hard to tell what each charity meant to Bert. Many of the groups, it seems, never knew her personally.
"It came as a surprise," said Debbie Meegan, executive director of the Brandon Outreach Clinic. "It was absolutely the best news ever."
Bert, a woman Meegan never knew, will pay for more than a year's worth of the clinic's prescriptions.
"What was really amazing," Meegan said, "was to see how she made sure she spread it around and did a lot of good for a lot of organizations.
"I'm smiling right now, just thinking about her," Meegan said. "Can you see me?"
Stephanie Wang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.