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Home is Where the Heart is

Bernice and her daughter Donna enjoy themselves on the hood of a car, during a family vacation.

On a recent winter night, a happy 98-year-old Bernice Phillips sits among her children and grandchildren on “sewing night” in her home in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

She stitches together fabric pieces with her beautiful brown wrinkled hands, making a blanket for her great-grandchild. Phillips wears a purple O’odham-style outfit with a white cardigan and picks up a purple necklace, pointing at it with the biggest smile, and says, “Pretty.” She puts it on with excitement, purple being her favorite color.

Phillips is one of the oldest living elders in the Community. She is the daughter of Community members George Perkins and Susie Grant-Perkins. Phillips married twice and had seven children: Dorgene, Donna, Barbara, Diane, Leander, Andrew and William. She has 21 grandchildren, 54 great-grandchildren and 51 great-great-grandchildren. She will be 99 in November.

Bernice as a student in Tucson. Bernice in her early adult years, as a mother.
Bernice loved to take and collect photos for her scrapbook. Bernice at home sewing and posing with a blanket she made with all her children's names on it.
If you know Phillips, you know she holds her religion dear to her heart. She has always been a religious person, and that’s how most people know her. She is active at the Senior Center. A few years ago, age began to take its toll on her, physically and mentally. Memory loss is her biggest battle; she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Phillips’ story begins in 1918, when she was born at her family’s old house, near the rodeo ground at 92nd Street and McDowell Road, four days before World War I ended. In a world of chaos, she brought some light to her family.

Phillips grew up on a farm with horses, cattle, chickens and even a jackrabbit. Her family lived off the land, like most people during that time. Her mother was a basket maker. This is how she spent her years before she started at the Tucson Indian Training School, a Presbyterian Indian boarding school.

Bernice holding her nephew wayne, as her cousin Viola stands with them to pose.
“One of her nieces talked her into going to school in Tucson,” said Barbara Wood, Phillips’ daughter. “I believe she started school when she was in the sixth grade.”

Phillips later found a job as a babysitter for a professor at Arizona State University. She rode her bike to the Mesa/Tempe area every day, where she cared for a little boy. She even traveled with the family to California once. This is a memory that Phillips never forgot.

During World War II, a roughly 21-year-old Phillips wrote letters to service members. She received pictures from overseas.

That was around the time that Phillips started cleaning homes. She stepped in when her mother-in-law became ill and couldn’t work. Phillips cleaned many Scottsdale homes and did it for years. After that, she worked as a teacher’s aide, a librarian at the day school, in an office as an attendance monitor, and at Helping Hands.

“She was always helping people and was always putting other people before herself,” Wood said. “She was so nice to everyone. She just loved to help anyone she could. Even if it was just to help a veteran pass their time at war, or help clean someone’s home. She loved making other people happy.”

Bernice was surrounded by family on sewing night back in January.
Her children grew up wearing clothes that she made. Her children achieved perfect attendance in elementary school. Every Easter and Christmas, her daughters had new matching dresses and her sons would be dressed nicely.

“She would give us a chocolate Easter egg or bunny at school. I always wondered how or when she made the time to do this for us. She always wanted us to feel loved,” said Phillips’ daughter Donna.

“When we’re driving around and we drive by her old house, she always tells us to take her home. Every time she travels somewhere, even for a couple of hours, her heart is set on going home. I’m here now, trying my best to care for her,” said Daniel Wood, Phillips’ grandson and legal guardian.