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A Kennedy nanny, 100, has tales to tell

The walls in her home hint at her remarkable journey.

There are pictures with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan, a commemorative plaque from Robert Kennedy’s children, and a congratulatory note from Barack Obama.

For 44 years, Ena Bernard was part of a family that amounts to American royalty. She started at the bottom, or, in her case, with the bottoms -- wiping them, patting them and threatening to swat them when their owners didn’t follow the rules.

Now 100 years old, with her memory growing spotty, Bernard lives in a modest home, surrounded by mementos of those heady years as nanny for Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy, when she faithfully watched over their 11 children as if they were her own.

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A black-and-white picture on her living room wall shows Bernard watching with a guardian’s eye as Bobby Kennedy pushes his daughter on a tricycle. There’s a close-up of Bernard at a dedication ceremony with two of the Kennedy children sitting in her lap, where they often were.

There’s a ceramic Dalmatian at her door, a gift from Ethel Kennedy.

And there are four decades’ worth of tales as part of the Kennedy clan -- at their homes in Massachusetts, Washington and Palm Beach, Fla.

She landed the job with the Kennedys by chance. She began working as a nanny for a prominent Costa Rican family before she was a teenager. That was her ticket to the United States. An employment agency sent her to two interviews, one of which was with Ethel Kennedy.

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At the time, Ethel and Bobby Kennedy had only one child.

“I just had a lot of love in my heart for children,” said Bernard. Nowadays, sitting in a wheelchair in her brightly lit living room, she still has the kind of arms that look like they can take away all the worries in the world.

Her voice is soothing, though wavering with age, and she switches between English and Spanish when the English word just doesn’t capture her thought.

Chris Kennedy, 45, remembers that well. “She would praise us in English and get mad at us in Spanish,” Kennedy said by phone from Chicago.

The Kennedy children grew to cherish her threats of a “pow-pow” -- a smack on the hand -- which she never carried out.

In fact, an award they gave her when she turned 100 says: “For Ena, who captured the hearts of the whole family and whose 50 years of giving Pow-Pow has made us all better.” Bernard, they say, brought to their house the kind of small-town values that kept them grounded.

She told the children stories about growing up in Costa Rica, like the time she accidentally almost walked on a crocodile’s back. She served them a side of fried plantains with almost everything.

“I don’t have one memory of Ena ever raising her voice,” said Kerry Kennedy, now 49 and living in New York. “She loved kids and she loved animals, and she thrived in a house that was overabundant with both.”

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Bernard’s own daughter, Josefina, became a part of the Kennedy family as her mother was.

Josefina Bernard recalled the time as a teenager when she stayed out late at a dance and didn’t get home until 3 a.m. Bobby Kennedy was waiting up for her.

“What time is this for a young lady to come back home?” he asked.

The memory brought tears to her eyes.

“He said to me, ‘Your father is not here. I am your father now.’ ”

After Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, Ena Bernard continued with the family in an expanded role.

“After our father died, my mother had to play both roles,” Chris Kennedy said. “Ena backfilled and was always loving and supportive.”

When the children were grown, Bernard continued doing odd jobs for the Kennedys.

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Her daughter said she later brought Bernard back to Florida “kicking and screaming,” because she was getting frailer and needed a warmer climate.

To Bernard, who has six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, the love she has given is coming back to her in many ways.

When she turned 100 in June, the nine surviving children of Ethel and Robert Kennedy celebrated with her at the Signature Grand in Davie, Fla.

One of the gifts was the personal note from Obama, the president-elect.

“In life we think of bravery as something that happens on a battlefield,” Kerry Kennedy said.

“The rare form of courage is what Ena is all about. It’s the day in and day out, and take care of others with patience, love and joy.”

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geast@sun-sentinel.com


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