Remembering Verna: Loss felt through the generations

Thirty years after the disappearance of Verna Susan Bjerky the precocious teen's life was celebrated, her spirit set free, her community and family helped to heal.

Irene Bjerky (r) and Clare Chrane (l) join their fellow family members in welcoming guests to the service held in remembrance of their sister and daughter

Thirty years after the disappearance of Verna Susan Bjerky the precocious teen’s life was celebrated, her spirit set free, her community and family helped to heal.

Verna Bjerky was a bright and beautiful almost 17-year-old when she went missing on May 2, 1981.

Her mom, Clare Chrane knew something was wrong, but back then it was hard to convince police, at first, that Verna was not just another runaway. Thirty years later they are all still painstakingly looking for answers.

On the day she disappeared Verna was hitchhiking from Hope to Kamloops to see her boyfriend who worked on the CPR. She would have travelled right past her family home in Yale. “But she didn’t make it even that far,” says sister Irene, who organized a memorial service on May 12, 2011 in her sister’s honour. Despite the passing of the years, the service was attended by over 100 friends and family who filled the quaint historic church in Yale nearly beyond capacity.

The service, presided over by Reverend Jeff Kuhn, was a simple one, a slide show filled with photos of the pretty blonde girl, a chance to speak of a teen described as strong, full of life, love and joy —  yet a challenge.

Verna had left her home in Yale early, as did Irene, leaving school for the world of work. “It is tough growing up poor,” said Irene, whose young sister was filled with ambition to join a circus, to become a firefighter. If things had been different she would have been strong enough to followed Irene into the man-dominated trade of boiler making. There are 500 boilermakers province-wide, and Irene is one of 22 women to have the drive, the strength, to make it in the trade — now the money is good. But her past is never too far from memory.

Her young sister never had a chance in life, a possible victim of serial-killer Clifford Olsen who prowled the province in the early eighties before being captured and convicted in a string of child-murders.

“I wrote him a letter once; he just said, no, no, no back to me. I don’t like to talk about him; I don’t like giving him any public attention.”

There is a sadness-born strength that keeps the entire family going, mom Clare Chrane, reminded of her still missing daughter each Mother’s Day, a few years later she lost a second daughter in a motorcycle crash.

But today is Verna’s birthday, a chance to gather to remember her. And although the family knows that she is no longer alive, she is out there somewhere.

“It has been awful. Just knowing that her stuff was found by the pipeline crossing, near the slough on Highway 7. Somebody put a rock in her purse and slung it into the river. That is where it was found six months later when the river went down.”

Irene and her family have held two big searches for Verna’s body, backed up by a host of volunteers, and “many more personal searches every year, where one or two or five of us go out into the bush and look for her.”

Today was their chance for healing and letting her spirit go.

“Everyone is getting older, lots of people who knew Verna are dead and gone, we wanted to remember her before it is too late. Mom is 73, Verna would have been 47 today.”

Clare Chrane’s gentle and graceful style also hides incredible strength. She greets each guest with a hug as family and friends gathered at the Chrane family plot, in the Yale Pioneer Cemetery, to lay flowers beside a new gravestone for Verna. It lays side by side the many other granite stones that mark the lives of the many members of this historic Yale family.

An hour later, and surrounded by her grand children, Clare glides through her peaceful hillside property near the cemetery, where she hopes to someday build a summer home. There is joy in their voices, strength of mind, and sorrow in their hearts. Irene busies herself serving up smoked salmon, sandwiches, coffee and tea for their guests. Cakes and cookies are already laid out. Brother Dan gently converses with the many guests in a hushed tone. Earlier in the church he had boldly told of his feelings of guilt in remembering the last time he had seen his baby sister who was rushing off to a party, leaving for basic training in Nova Scotia, and then calling his mom on Mother’s Day only to be told of his sister’s disappearance. There was little he could do to watch out for his baby sister so far away; there was little he could do to help his mom that day.

“Verna’s smile lit up a room,” remembered Dan Bjerky. “I can see a lot of her in my own daughter… she is blonde and has a bit of that temper,” he added.  For a single moment a slight smile crossed his face.

“We gave her, her name too.”