Mary Bernice Rayner grew up near the Union Stock Yards at a time when cows got loose and ran down the street until they got wrangled back to the nation’s slaughterhouse.
Each day after her high school classes ended, she headed to the Stock Yards to work as a secretary, using shorthand and typing learned at St. Augustine’s.
There weren’t a lot of extras in a family of six kids in a small two-flat on 46th Street. The third-oldest, Bernice was born in 1929 “six days after the [stock market] crash,” said her daughter, Laura Ward. To make ends meet, her mother, the former Mary Browne of Knocknagoshel, County Kerry, took in washing. Her father, Thomas Rush of Charlestown, County Mayo, worked as a railroad laborer. On Sundays, everybody went to Mass at St. Gabe’s.
In largely Irish Canaryville, “You just grew up a little street-smart and hardworking,” said her daughter.
When Mrs. Rayner’s health started to fail, she had one request for her funeral, Ward said, “Find a good version of ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ — not the Blues Brothers.”
At the end of her send-off at St. Cajetan’s, a slinky performance undulated out of the speakers.
People cried, clapped and smiled.
“It was Eric Clapton’s rendition of ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ — a really good one,” her daughter said.
Mrs. Rayner, who never wanted to live where she couldn’t hop on the Dan Ryan and go downtown to the theater, museums and ballet, loved Chicago so much that she was flummoxed when a grandchild moved to the Pacific Northwest.
“She said, ‘Why would anybody want to leave Chicago?’ To her, it had everything,” Ward said. “It was a beautiful city, even with all its corruptions.”
Mrs. Rayner died Aug. 22 of complications from lung cancer at her apartment in Beverly’s Smith Village. She was 86.
She was fun, erudite, take-charge and direct.
“She told it like it was, and deal with it,” said her sister, Theresa Rush.
Her work ethic helped her cope with setbacks and sadness. After nursing her 26-year-old son, Michael, through his death from AIDS, she found solace comforting others with the disease. In her mid-60s, she started driving to the North Side to work the overnight shift with AIDS patients at Lake View’s Bonaventure House. “She wanted to honor him,” her daughter said.
She met her husband, Ricci Realty owner Robert “Jim” Rayner, through friends. The Rayners settled around 80th and Knox in the Scottsdale neighborhood near St. Bede’s. She gave birth to two daughters, Laura and Susan. They adopted their son, Michael. In those days, adoptions were usually closed. When their son was 18, his birth mother — who found him through records — called the Rayner home to say she thought he might be the baby she placed for adoption. Bernice and Jim Rayner “totally accepted her and encouraged him to have a relationship with her,” Ward said.
When her children were older, she joined the “secretarial pool” at Advocate Christ Medical Center. She rose to be executive secretary to the president.
“Any time anyone wanted to know what a word meant, they’d ask her,” said her sister.
In college, Michael confided to his mother he was gay. “She was very accepting,” Susan Rayner said. “She was definitely pro-gay marriage and civil rights. . . . My dad was fine with that, the whole family, nobody shunned him at all.”
As Michael’s health deteriorated from AIDS, his mother stayed with him and his partner “many, many nights helping them and taking care of him, IVs,” Ward said. He died in 1993.
Mrs. Rayner retired in 1998 and helped care for Ward’s children while Ward was in the process of divorce. “She was like a second mom to them,” her daughter said.
Later in life, Mrs. Rayner worked overnight shifts at PADS homeless shelters. She bought the fixings and organized peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich assembly lines to make PADS lunches.
“She didn’t understand how when people retire, how they can sit around, do nothing and watch TV. Every day she wanted to do something meaningful,” Ward said.
Mrs. Rayner enjoyed going to Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Hubbard Street Dance, the Joffrey Ballet and Second City. She was entranced by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a 2007 production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” at Court Theatre. The Rayners went on driving vacations to the Carolinas, New York, Niagara Falls, Philadelphia, Toronto and Williamsburg, Virginia. In her 60s, she went river-rafting with her grandchildren in Tennessee.
She didn’t like cooking. “We joked we didn’t find out about fresh vegetables until we went to college,” said Susan Rayner.
Perhaps because of a Depression upbringing, she could be thrifty. As Susan Rayner said in her eulogy, “Not all that long ago I ordered a glass of wine at a restaurant, which prompted her to loudly exclaim, ‘You’re paying $10 for a glass of wine?’ ”
Until a couple of weeks ago, she was playing bridge, Susan Rayner said. And “she didn’t like it when she had to play bridge with people who were not as good as her.”
Her husband died last year. Mrs. Rayner is also survived by a brother, Michael, and two grandchildren.