Where I came from

When I was five years old – five years and one month old – I started the long walk from 11 and Ring Street in Milwaukee to 9 and Ring Street, where I entered kindergarten at LaFollette Grade School.  Those two blocks were long walks for a little girl.  I expect – although I don’t remember – that my mother must have anxiously walked with me the first day or so, pushing in a stroller my baby sister, Susan, who had been born that March.  After that first day or two or three, I walked those blocks with the other children from my neighborhood.

When I return to drive through those streets now, I see how short the blocks were, moving west to east, toward “the Lake:”  Lake Michigan.  I think of myself as growing up on the shores of Lake Michigan; it’s not too much of a stretch to think that way.  The shore of Lake Michigan formed my compass-point, my sense of direction,  for many, many years.  “The Lake is on the east,” I think, “so I must be facing north, and to get there, I have to turn left, to the west…”  etc.  Years later, when I land in the Bay Area of California, I find that directions are figured differently.  “Turn right at the second gas station, then get into the left lane.  You’ll turn left at the next stop light.”  When I work at my first job in graduate school, someone hears me giving directions and says:  “You must be from the Midwest.”  Good guess.

That’s how our lives grow, how the edges of our lives expand:  by walking those few blocks to kindergarten, leaving home for the first time.  The edges widen by talking to kids whose lives inside their narrow flats are different.  I hear about dads who are mean, for example, and I hear about mothers who laugh a lot.  Until I leave my house in September of 1954 to walk those few blocks, my imagination does not hold space for those possibilities. 

I am nostalgic for those streets, for those city spaces, for the shadows under the big elms that parade along the streets, for those narrow stairs with the small window on the right at the top, that lead to the second story flat with its small front room, tall windows, its small bathroom with the clawfoot tub that was used by 5 people without a thought that it could be otherwise.   My nostalgia wants to be satisfied, so I ride my laptop via google earth to the front of that flat; I walk with google the two short blocks to La Follette School.  I still see the beauty that was there, and I see the poverty, the simplicity of those flats, as well.

On the way to school one day, I learn that I am not Catholic.  Michelle, my neighbor across the alley (which runs next to my house), a year older then me, asks me one day, as we walk to school:  “Are you Catholic?”  I don’t know.  That night, I ask my mother if I am Catholic, and she tells me no.  I do not know the fraught history that lies behind her answer, and I will not know, for many years, the fraught history and the longing that goes with not being Catholic, in me. 

At LaFollette School, I am introduced to a kind of diversity, for the first time.  I sit near the front, always, our seats assigned alphabetically by teachers in navy blue polka dotted dresses.  In those narrow rows, in those wooden desks with holes for ink pots still marking the right hand side, I sit beside the children of first and second generation immigrants.  I do not know that many of my classmates speak a different language at home.  In my house, I often hear Ukrainian words, spoken with a kind of mysterious wink; from time to time, when my grandma visits, she and my mother speak their native tongue. 

In autumn, the elm trees that line Ring Street turned bright colors.  As  I walk, I often catch a maple seed – a helicopter to enchant children – as it floats to the ground.  Over the street, the trees meet to form a ceiling that arches from one street to the next.  In later years, Dutch Elm disease would take the elms away, and when I see these streets now they are just beginning to be tree-lined again, after many years. 

In winter, snowbanks form a path for children, four foot high, on the strip of land between the road and the sidewalk.  After a winter storm, the tops of the snowbanks form a hardened, frozen, flat sidewalk parallel to the cement sidewalk.   At the corner, I climb that tall bank of snow and stand taller than any adult, until I take the steps – made by other children – down again, at the place the alley meets the street.  After I’ve crossed the alley, I climb the snowbank again.

In spring, I walk to school as the glorious, wide, lilac bushes on front lawns float their purple flowers, their scent into the air.

meb/2021

A New Rhythm

Over the past two years, life has developed a new rhythm. I didn’t choose to move into a new rhythm – the choice was made, and given to me, as it was given to everyone else. In the first days of the COVID sheltering-in-place mandate, the streets were quiet. If I needed to drive myself, it was seldom, and for short distances. For the most part, I stayed close to home.

You have your story of COVID-time, I’m sure. This is my story.

Activities that were meaningful to me – classes at a Senior Center, or volunteering as a chaplain at a local hospital – stopped immediately. My familiar routine was erased, also. A few friends stayed in contact as they adjusted to this change in all our lives; one friend, who is the last person to call – ever – called me one evening just to chat. At Thanksgiving, we had to forgo the usual family gathering in San Francisco for a ZOOM call, listening to each person talk about what their life was like now.

Some days, my husband and I would drive a distance – 30, 40 miles – to walk. Over time, we developed favorite places, places to which we’ve returned again and again. We came to enjoy walks at the Martinez Slough, where we watched the water ebb and flow from the tide, sometimes allowing us to see a shipwreck in the Carquinez Strait, sometimes not. Often afterward, we’d drive through the neighborhoods of Martinez, sightseers with a lot of time on our hands. Or we’d walk downtown, alone on the empty streets.

We walked in downtown Oakland, too, not far from our home. In the weeks after the George Floyd protests, we took our time, looking at the graffiti that lined the buildings on Broadway. We stopped to take pictures. We discovered places in our city we had not seen before, or places that we had only driven past in our cars.

As the months passed, we became more accustomed to this new, quieting rhythm, and we added new sites to our list of walks. One day, we drove to Half Moon Bay, where we walked along the shore of the Pacific Ocean, and then we walked on the high ridge that overlooks the shore. Because we live across the Bay from San Francisco, whose skyline we can see from our front window, we started to drive across the Bay Bridge – a dream to drive in pandemic days, with so little traffic! – to a different neighborhood on each visit, for a long walk on the hills, taking in the sites of the new places that we discovered.

One day in the fall of that first year, we drove to Apple Hill in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains for the yearly Apple Festival. We were grateful that the booths and stands, open-air, were open, yet were not filled with people from a long line of tour buses, which they had been in the past. The sight-seers’ loss was our gain as we enjoyed the quiet and safe surroundings.

Those early days of the pandemic are in the past, now. The busy street a block from our house is busy again. During the day and at night, I can hear the traffic passing, cars filled with folks busy in their lives. Now, although I continue to go to the grocery store early in the day – a habit I developed during the pandemic – even then, it can be busy, with lines of people waiting to check out.

Now, we are waiting – again – for another spike in COVID cases to complete its work, and, now, having learned about the ability of the virus to evolve again, and again, those early days are a long time ago. This is a new time, it seems.

Still, what will our lives be like when we are not barraged daily with new virus updates – the number of deaths, rising again, news stories of the famous who have lost their lives to COVID, COVID as the central and first news story, day after day?? We listen to the news each day, noting whether or not COVID is the first story of the newscast.

I’m in an in-between time, once again, in my life. What will interest me now? Where will I ever want to go, after this pandemic has moved into endemic mode? What will this new stage of my life, a stage I am not entering alone, but with all the other inhabitants of this world, be like? What will have changed, and what will not have changed? I guess, mostly, this is a time of questions.

Driving into Oakland from San Francisco on the Bay Bridge, March 16, 2020. The ship pictured was a cruise ship stranded in Oakland at the beginning of the pandemic. Photo credit: Mary Elyn Bahlert

Light

A practice I’ve started during the time of COVID has been to note in my calendar the time of sunrise and sunset each day. I am privileged to have a beautiful front window without window coverings that opens the sky, the tall stand of eucalyptus that rises behind the houses across the street, and beyond, San Francisco Bay and the City. Since my retirement, that window has been a window not only onto my street, but into the magic and mystery of the changing light. Sometimes now, I stop for a few moments, struck by the beauty of light landing in a place I have not seen it before, or struck by the beauty of the color of things in this moment’s light.

Wanting to capture the light, I have stopped many times on my walks in the neighborhood to try to capture what my eyes are seeing: the light falling in a certain way on some late blooming flowers, or darting through a tree that stands beside the sidewalk. The photos are lovely, but often they do not capture what my eyes have seen and my mind has interpreted. Still, I am grateful, always, for that one moment when the world and time and the sky and sun meet in one particular place, a place to which I am a witness.

And the days pass, slowly in the moment, but quickly as I mark sunrise and sunset into my calendar each morning.