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Listening

Listening

I was privileged to be present the day that my husband, Jeff, read aloud what he had written for the Native Corps. In Nome, AK.  The Elders gathered in a small room around a large oval table to hear the story of how 2 native boys had led “Three Lucky Swedes” to the gold that was rich on the beach at Nome.  The year of this event was 1898. That event led to what has been called the “Nome Gold Rush.” 

Over the years, the Three Lucky Swedes had been credited with finding the gold. The natives told another story.

Jeff had previously edited a book of the letters and photos of two brothers who arrived in Nome from San Jose, California, in 1899, two young men seeking their fortune.  He pieced together their story from a cardboard box of the letters and photos that had been sitting high in a dusty closet of the son of one of the miners.  In the course of putting the book together, Jeff had traveled often to Nome, and there he met with the white settlers, and then, with the Natives, who had their own story to tell about how the gold had been discovered.  His invitation to write the native account of the gold rush had come from the Native Corps because the natives had never forgotten the kindness of the two young men, gold-miners from San Jose, their kindness an anomaly in the native experience of white people.  Oral history had kept the young men’s kindness alive.

After many interviews and in collaboration with the Native Corps., Jeff had been asked to write again about the Nome Gold Rush – this time, from the point of view of the natives.  On the day that Jeff was to meet with the Elders, I was invited to accompany him.  I will never forget that day, a highlight in my own life.  I sat at one end of a long table next to my husband, encircled by the people who would hear their oral history as written words, for the first time.  They sat silently as Jeff read the account, based on their own words, based on the stories they had been told, and then told again to this stranger.

His writing told the story of how the two native boys, not knowing the value of the gold in the white man’s world, had led “Three Lucky Swedes” to the gold on the beach.  When he had finished reading, he closed the small book and sat back in his chair.

A long time passed.  Silence.  Finally, out of the silence, one Elder after another spoke, without interrupting one another.  They reflected on the words they had just heard, often prefacing their thoughts with the words: “this is what I was told.”  Their memories edited what had been written. And their memories brought into that room the living, breathing oral history that had held this story for a long, long time.

I sat, silent also, observing and experiencing the wonderful moment that lay before me.  I sat in the silence that the people held – in their persons –  as in the silence of the Holy.  There was no arguing about facts.  The stories were their own facts.

I think often of those moments in my life.  I have never forgotten the depth of what I experienced, witnessed, and knew in that room. 

The whole of creation is listening. Photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 5/2021

p.s. In Nome, two statues stand to commemorate the finding of the gold that led to the Gold Rush in Nome. One statue remembers the Three Lucky Swedes. Another, dedicated in Nome a few years later, remembers the Two Eskimo Boys.

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Rise!

Daffodils bloom again, every year. Here in the West, daffodils bloom early, in February or early March. So spring comes again, early. Every year, I am filled with joy when I see the first daffodils. In the Midwest, flowers that are dependent on the winter freezes are still waiting to rise again from the cold earth. But they will rise.

We bloom, again and again, also. I’ve seen it in others. I’ve known it in myself. That freshness, that new mind, that spark of energy that was not there before, arises from the ashes of grief, of anger, of hurt. We bloom again, after the war has gone; we bloom again, after a long time, often. Like the long winter in the North, sometimes it takes a long time for the rising to take place – but there it is.

I don’t pin my hopes for the rising on someone else. I know it’s up to me, this hard work of surrendering to what life has placed in my path. And I know that I’ll have to do it again, if my ego-self will just get out of the way for a moment to let me remember. I love the depth of Holy Week, when the tragic journey to Jerusalem – where the powers hold their mighty weapons – has met its tragic end: a reminder that this rhythm of holding on tight to the life I have will give way to the letting go, the long, long letting go.

Many times, I remember that the hard way gives way to glory, after a long walk down a jagged, rocky path. I have to remember to hold on to hope when things are muddled and grief-filled, endlessly – it seems.

Spring comes, fragrant, green, lush. A reminder that the winter does not last. A reminder that sorrow is a path, that sorrow, also, does not last.

Happy Easter!

Korean Lilac, photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, spring, 2022
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Liga

Liga was my mother’s godfather. Whenever he arrived at our house, he was dressed in a suit coat. He looked like a retired businessman. I remember his presence, quiet, and he seemed kind. I don’t think I ever had a conversation with Uncle Liga. When he couldn’t work any more, he rode the Milwaukee buses in his suit – always a hat, with a top coat in the winter. In his final years, he lived in an old, narrow apartment close to downtown. The place was dark, made darker by the sounds of traffic on the busy street it faced.

Liga died in the bathtub of that old apartment. At that time, after Dad had retired, my mother and father went to check on him every few days. When he didn’t answer the ring to his doorbell, the apartment manager unlocked the door of his place. My father found Liga, dead. Later, Dad said he couldn’t sleep for several days after he found LIga. “I loved Liga,” Dad said.

Liga worked in the foundry with the other men who arrived from Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century. They left before the Revolution of 1917, a revolution that brought a new life, but not the life they had hoped and dreamed for their land. When I knew him, he was alone. I have a picture of him, from the pictures my mother saved and gave to me. It looks to have been taken in the “old country.” Liga, a young man – handsome, with thick, black, wavy hair – sits in a chair, dressed in a top coat and tie, looking sternly into the distance. A young woman, also formally dressed, stands behind him, her hand on his shoulder. What happened to her? What happened to him? Where did those beautiful young people go? In my mind, Liga was always an old man. And when I knew Liga, he was always alone.

Many Ukrainians fled Ukraine for work and food and an education for their children. They arrived in the New World, and settled in the industrial cities of the Midwest, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee. Others settled in Canada. They brought with them their hard work, their ability to live with very little – they were descendants of freed serfs – freed to remain landless, illiterate, and poor, apparently – and a need to drink. Oddly, I don’t associate Liga with drinking.

Most holidays, Liga joined us at the holiday table and in the living room afterward. He was there when we enjoyed the Christmas tree lights, and he was there when we tapped together the ends of colored, painted eggs at Easter, to see whose would crack first. The one whose egg didn’t crack was the winner!

Every few months, Liga arrived at the front door of our flat, where he rang the bell and waited for one of us to run down the stairs to answer the door. In the summer, I would often go to open the door for Liga. He would greet me, shyly and gently. Then, he and Mom sat for an hour or two at the kitchen table. She read to him the latest letter from his family in Canada, which had been carefully carried in his pocket. Sometimes a photo – black and white, of a favorite niece – was included in the letter. Then, Liga told my mother, line by line, his answer to the letter. She translated his Ukrainian into English. When Mom addressed the envelope, Liga always handed her a couple of dollars from his pocket, to put into the envelope with the letter. A few dollars from a poor man, sent as love.

When I think of Uncle Liga, a place in my heart is warm.

remembering, wisdom

“You learn something new every day.”

My mother did not graduate from high school, although she received her GED while I was in university.  I know for certain she did that so that I would graduate with a degree, since I was wavering, and had taken a semester off during my senior year at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.  She didn’t tell me her reason to do it then, but I knew.  When she received her certificate, I sent her a spring bouquet.

Mom quit school early to work.  She married young, also, and had a son within a year – Ron, my brother.  Mom was bright.  Now, when Mom comes up in conversation, I tell folks that she should have been a teacher – a kindergarten or first-grade teacher.  The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who lived in flats in neighborhoods of poor folks, it was enough that she learned to read and write.  She taught her father to read English when she was a girl.  In my mind’s eye, I can see her, bright and determined, her feet wrapped around the rungs of a wooden chair in a cramped Milwaukee flat, as her father, Vlas, paced – determined, also.  He was smart, although illiterate in his native language.  He made that long trip across the ocean, left the familiar village of his homeland so that his children could learn to read and to write.

So Mom knew the value of education, although she could not see to get a degree herself.  The life of a working class woman in that era intervened.  She was married and divorced by the age of 22.  She worked hard at Cutler-Hammer in Milwaukee, where her employers noticed the bright, hard-working young woman.  Although she had greater earning potential than my father, she quit her job when she married again. That’s how things were done. 

When I was girl, I walked 3 blocks to the Center Street Library – on 27th and Center – with Mom, every week.  She must have read all of the books  in the “mystery” section of that library.  It was in those days that I learned to love the smell of libraries.  In a library, it seems we can smell the riches of what is carried in the aisles.  Twice in my life I have worked in a library – in high school, and again in seminary.  For awhile as an undergraduate, I flirted with the idea of becoming a librarian. Books would save me, many times, during my life.

The old Center Street Library at 2620 West Center Street, Milwaukee, photo circa 1920

When Mom and I left the Center Street Library  to walk home, we each carried two or three books to read for the week ahead.  I see now that Mom was living her mantra, handing it to me:  “you learn something new every day.”  I was not able to see that for many years, but now, in my own learning, I understand. And I came to see that the learning that comes every day is not always in books!

Mom taught me how to wash clothes, too.  During summers when I was a young girl, my babushka-d Mom would take me down three flights of stairs to the shared basement of our flat to show me how to wash clothes.  I remember the smells – the damp and soapy smell of the basement, the hot, steaming water of the wringer washer.  Into the first load went whites – sheets, pillow cases, underwear.  Into the second load of the same water went towels and colored clothing.  Into the last load went Dad’s work clothes.  I know the smell,  I can see the beautiful wooden stick Mom used to lift the clothes from the washer into the first rinse water, and then into the final rinse before the clothes were taken in the large wooden basket into the yard to dry in the humid air.  As I write, I can smell the air, too.

If I could have one item of Mom’s, it would be that wooden stick, smooth, smelling of soapy water, imprinted with Mom’s hands, her weeping and her worries.  Like most of what has been held and used over the years, that wooden stick is gone.

I see Mom’s broad, strong peasant hands, hands that in later years would be crooked with arthritis.  She was a worker, teaching a little girl whose work is ideas and books and the fabric of words.   “You learn something new every day.”  I took those words into myself, and I made them my own.

The path I have taken through life has been the path of learning, too, not always from books.  I keep your mantra, Mom.