Renny Whiteoak

My mother loved books, and although she had not graduated from high school (she received her GED when I was enrolled in college), she made sure she passed on her love of books and learning to her children. So once every two weeks, she walked my sister and me to the Center Street library, where she checked out several books, and where Suzie and I also found books to take home and to read.

Somewhere over the course of my childhood, my mother received a set of bound, green covered books, fictional accounts of a family from Canada: The Whiteoaks of Jalna (written by Mazo de la Roche, Collier and Son, publishers). I still have the six volumes, a wonderful set of books I set out to display on beautiful fir shelves in our living room. When I was old enough to read these books, Mom and I read the books. And we talked about what we had read, those fictional people, whose lives were much more privileged than ours, that beautiful country land, such a stark contrast to the streets lined with narrow, rented flats in the city.

What I remember most about those books is how they awoke my mother’s fancy, as well as mine. We loved the characters. We talked about the happenings in the books, as if we had witnessed these happenings in our own lives. And we admired – maybe even had a crush – on the eldest son, Renny Whiteoak.

Renny was a red-headed, ruddy young man, strong, good looking. Over the course of the books, he grew from a young person into a young man. And both Mom and I fancied, from time to time, that we had seen Renny. Sometimes, as we rode in the car (Mom learned to drive and got her driver’s license when I was in Junior High), one of us would point out a young man on the street: “look, there’s Renny!” And we’d both agree that we’d seen him, again.

Mom sparked my imagination, and I expect she sparked mine because her own was lit. She would remind me – in later years, when I discovered my anger at what my folks had or had not been able to give me – that she had grown up in a different way than I had. And that included making space for books, for imagination, for a world that would grow to be larger than the world I was coming up in.

Now, I love seeing those green covered books on my shelf. They hold a lot of memories for me. Lately, I’ve been reading again – for the fourth time, I believe – Jane Eyre. As I remember the legacy my mother gifted to me, I expect I’ll be reading about Renny Whiteoak again, too. Maybe I’ll even see him on the street.

Here’s to Renny! – photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 6/2023



We’ve returned from a journey to Istanbul, and traveling to another great, distant city reminded me of a trip Jeff and I took, over twenty years ago, now.

My husband and I had finally made it to Paris. “Finally,” because I suppose I’d always wanted to see Paris, one more of the great cities of the world. We had had one trip to Paris cancelled at the last moment when my sister’s partner died unexpectedly in Hawaii, and so, at the very last minute, we changed our plans to be present to her as she took care of the details of his death. We had a small, meaningful memorial with a small group of his friends on his little boat in a harbor in Pearl City. During our few days there, we had lunch with the father of our nephews, my sister’s ex-husband, and I turned to Jeff at one moment and said: “we’ll always have Paris.” Indeed.

A few months later, we made the trip.

We stayed at a lovely old hotel with our room a walk up on the third floor, its windows overlooking the Seine across the way. We arrived so tired from our always-busy lives that we almost slept through the first full day! The front desk called us to ask that the maid be allowed to clean a bit in our room, so we dressed and made our way down the stairs and into the waiting city – Paris!

I’ve always loved cities. I expect I’ve always loved cities because I grew up in the city, and feel comfortable with cities. I have good sense about what places are safe – and those that are not. I love the country, of course, but my first love is city life.

The next morning, I was ready to go out from our hotel before Jeff, and so, we agreed to meet at a cafe on the corner, a short walk from our hotel. I walked to the cafe, ordered a latte and croissant, and sat there, enjoying the morning, star-struck in a way: “here I am, in Paris!”

After a few minutes, I got up to walk along the Seine. I watched as vendors set up their booths, walking toward Notre Dame, in the distance. I walked and walked, and I found my way to a little known museum dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Holocaust. As I left the site, I looked over at Notre Dame, got my bearings, and walked slowly back to the hotel. Before I arrived at the hotel, I saw Jeff in the distance. He saw me and walked toward me, appearing frantic. “Where were you???” he asked. “I was walking.”

Later, he told me that he had been beside himself with worry! He’d involved the front desk clerk that I was not to be found at the cafe where we’d agreed to meet, and he enlisted the clerk to help him. The clerk had assured him – again and again – that I was okay. This was a Jeff I did not know well – he’s by far the calmer of the two of us. What he couldn’t understand was that I hadn’t kept the date.

When we ended our trip with a dinner a few days later, we offered our simple, repetitive prayer at dinner, remembering the ups and downs of this trip. We end every trip this way, reflecting on what comes to mind, what stands out in memory. With each memory comes the response: “And God was with you.” Jeff mentioned the exciting morning he’d had, waiting on the street for me to keep our date for our first morning in Paris. I began to laugh, to giggle. I didn’t understand.

After all, I’d simply been enjoying the morning in Paris! And here we were – the trip almost ending!

Istanbul at night, Photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, May, 2023 – a view of another great city of the world!

community, reflecting, remembering

On the Journey

I was searching, it felt as if I was always searching, had been searching for a long time. Searching implies an object – what was I searching for? I had the idea that I could go into the ministry – but I had no church experience of a community of faith. I had only a history that included a family distrust of “Church,” and three years of study in a fundamentalist denomination. After confirmation, I had abruptly left what I knew as “Church.” I thought the social movements of the 70’s were more about Jesus and what he taught than what I had known of Church. In particular, I had noticed and admired the work of Father James Groppi in Milwaukee, a Civil Rights leader in my hometown and adjoining ‘hood.

After college, I embarked on a career with the Social Security Administration, and after three months of intense training as a Claims Representative in Minneapolis, I was assigned to the District Office in Green Bay, Wisconsin. At the time, I was happy to have been assigned to Green Bay, which was a couple of hours north of Milwaukee. I didn’t know at the time how lonely I would be, how lost as I began my professional life as an adult.

And part of me was still searching. I was always searching. For what? For love? For meaning? For connection? For depth? For community? All of these were to be answered, although I didn’t know it when I was searching. And part of me is searching, even now, which has given my life and faith a depth and richness I would not have had otherwise. I’ve always been open to new understandings, to new learnings. I’m grateful for that.

After a couple of years, as the Social Security Administration took on the administration of SSI – Supplemental Security Income – the staff in the SSA office at Green Bay grew. From my first days, when I was the first woman CR, staff numbers grew. My first colleagues – who ruled the roost as only white men in power can do – were challenged to accept women who were at least as good at what they did than the men had been.

I was still searching. One of my colleagues was a woman named Joan, who was a bit overwhelmed by the work as a Claims Representative, but whose life I noticed. She was a white woman from Wisconsin, married to a disabled African American man from the South. Joan always wanted to go deeper, and I sensed a depth in how she wanted to relate to others. She didn’t engage in the politics of the office, often spending her breaks reading a Holy Book – the Holy Book of those people who are called Ba’hai, the teachings of their prophet. In a way, Joan was difficult to relate to, but I liked her depth, the way she looked at others as she spoke to them. Joan and Nat invited me to dinner at their house, and there, after the meal, we talked.

Joan and Nat were the first people I knew who took the faith they professed seriously. They allowed my questions. They didn’t expect rigid answers, the answers of a “right faith.” They wanted to talk, to learn where I was going with my questions. They took me seriously, as well as the faith they professed. When I asked about becoming a Bahai’, they didn’t surround me with evangelical fervor – they encouraged me to explore my journey, to see how my journey unfolded.

And my journey unfolded in another direction – in a way. I’ve written about returning to Milwaukee, still working for the Social Security Administration, and following my heart and questions to the people called Methodists, to my friend and guide Harvey Stower, and into the ministry.

I’m grateful for the journey, and for the questions, which still arise, will continue to arise. I’m grateful for all those whose path has lit my way. I’m grateful for the ongoing quest of faith, of trust in life as life offers itself. And I’m always grateful for the beacons of light who have lit my way – for Jesus, for Joan, for Nat, for Harvey – for all the others.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul - View by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 5/2023

Little blue gym shorts

I expect I could find those little blue gym shorts on an Amazon search, if I wanted a set! Those little blue gym shorts marked my passage into Junior High and High School. And they were a sign of that time in history – my personal history and in the history of schools.

I wasn’t good at gym, but I don’t remember having a sense of dread about gym, either. That’s good. I was shy and had a few good friends – which holds true in my life even now.

I loved the classes, I loved learning, and that is an attribute I carry with me today. My mother loved to say: “you learn something new every day -” a bit of wisdom she held on to tightly. Although uneducated, her people were inquisitive, and learning satisfied that quality, it seems.

But I’ve lost my train of thought: little blue gym shorts. Shy, I hated having to change clothes in the locker room, but here I am, remembering – so I survived the trials a public education granted me. Now, when I read about the learning curve of an Olympic contender, particularly a woman, I notice how her life was shaped by being an athlete even from childhood. I am not an athlete. I was not an athlete.

But what did the athletic girls do in the years when I was in school, graduating from high school in 1967? Women in sports had to pass through a lot of hurtles, including academics. I was good at the academics, in fact, academics came easy to me. So the hour of gym class every few days was a blip on my screen of uncomfortable times. I did it. I made it through.

I’ve checked Amazon – no luck on the blue gym suits. Now, it seems as if girls get suited up in leotards. But I can find a set of “little blue gym shorts” on a google search. Vintage! The gym sets are vintage! And, I expect, so am I.

1930s-40s bloomer gymsuit, blue cotton sanforized 1940s gym suit romper playsuit, medium large size

Chicago, Chicago…

I’ve written about the trip I took to New York City with my friend Vicki, while I was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  Big cities have always been a joy for me to navigate, even now, in my elder years, when I travel.

Some of the fondest memories I have of my earlier life involve the trips I took to Chicago while I was an employee of the Social Security Administration in the 1970’s.  All of the trips – there were many – hang together in my mind and memory, as if one.  

I worked as a Claims Representative and then a Field Representative at Social Security offices in Green Bay, Milwaukee, and Waukesha, Wisconsin, starting in 1973 and until I was offered the position of Consumer Affairs Officer for the Food and Drug Administration in downtown Milwaukee in the fall of 1980.  Unknown to most folks, at that time the professional education offered by the government for staff was excellent.  And so I had the privilege to take executive level courses in various fields, including public relations and communications.  Doing so involved my spending a week at a time in the Loop in Chicago.

I’d board the train in Milwaukee and arrive in the Loop after 90 minutes.  From the train station, I’d walk to my hotel – my reservation waiting for me – at the Palmer House in downtown Chicago.  After checking in for the evening, I’d take myself out to dinner at a nice downtown restaurant.  Being on my own, traveling alone, and eating at a restaurant alone might have been a stretch for me at the beginning, but I found that I liked the freedom of having my own time.

In the morning, I’d arrive at the government offices, a short distance from the Palmer House, and begin the class, which lasted for five days.  In the class, I had new friends and acquaintances, and after the first morning, I had companions to explore the city during lunch break and in the evenings.  

On one trip, I had my hair cut at the Vidal Sassoon studio in the Loop, the year that his famous bob cut was all the rage.  On another trip, I shared the elevator in the hotel with a comedian who was famous at the time.  As I walked to the restaurant in the hotel one evening, I saw Ella Fitzgerald and her entourage as they navigated getting her safely checked in to the Palmer House.  

As the week ended, I’d walk back to Union Station to meet my good friend Sue – who passed many years ago – for a cocktail at the station before I boarded the train that took me back to Milwaukee, to my regular life.

A theme in my life seems to be that my life has expanded as I’ve grown older.  As a young person, my life expanded as I met new people and new experiences, going places that I’d heard others talk about, but never imagined for myself.  Maybe my mother’s imagination – her dreams for me – held those places.  I know she was proud of my expanding world.  As for me, I’m grateful.  

“Chicago (My Kind of Town)”, Fred Fisher, lyrics