morning, evening

you put on a show-
your dancing leaves turn from green to gold -
shimmer in the breeze,
then fall - 
to the waiting earth - participant in the silent drama.

you put on a show.
you wait
as the autumn wind removes your yellow dress
and your branches lift themselves - light -
into the air.

              -Mary Elyn Bahlert, 10/2022

Birch Companion: photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 2020

reflecting, remembering, Uncategorized

First memory

I like to ask people what their first memory in life is. I was touched by the first memory of Georgia O’Keeffe as she sat on a blanket on the grass in her childhood place, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin – the vividness of her sight, the colors, the shapes, the sky, the grass. Her first memory shaped – or was shaped by the artist she was/would become. I imagine it is so for each of us.

Mom was not with me. That would have made an impression on me. Instead, I was talking to Mom on the telephone, under the watchful presence of Agnes Hundreiser, my mother’s friend who had come to take care of me during the day when Ron was in school and Dad left for work at the steel mill. Mom told me I had a baby sister. And then she asked me: “what should we name her?” I answered “Ann,” giving the name of my mother’s own sister, my Auntie Anne. That must have been the name of a sister, in my mind. And my own mother’s name was Mary, so my thinking followed!

“How about Susan?” Mom asked. And so it was: I had a baby sister named Susan.

I expect siblings shape our lives in so many ways, conscious and unconscious ways. Was I jealous? I expect I was, my role as the “littlest one” suddenly changed to Big Sister. And I suppose that jealousy has played out in conscious and unconscious ways in my life. I was often protective of Suzie, a role given to me by my place in the family and a role taken up by me by temperament.

The trajectory of Suzie’s life has been much different than mine. We have so little in common. Still, when something goes wrong in our lives, sister is the first to know, after partner, of course. When Suzie was diagnosed with colon cancer at 65 – the same age our father had been diagnosed with colon cancer – I was the first person she called. And when I could not be with her at the doctor’s appointment, she taped the meeting so that I would know, and understand what she was facing.

I sat for a bit: should I name this post, “Little Sister,” or should I name this post, “First Memory.” For some reason – I don’t know the reason – “First Memory” won out. It’s hard to separate ourselves from the influence and the power of a sibling, that I know.

Little sister, big sister: Susan Lynne and Mary Elyn, photo, circa 1956, Milwaukee, Wisconsin


“I don’t belong here.”

When I was in the early, early years of puberty, a moment in my life – happened? took place? I remember it – have always remembered it, with complete clarity.

I stood at the front screen door at the bottom of the steps that led from my family’s rented upper flat. I looked out at the street – 28 and Locust Street, our building facing 28 Street. From that house I walked to Peckham Junior High School, under the train tracks at the factory site of Master Lock Company, with my neighborhood friends. I was not a happy pre-teen child – my mother’s anxieties pushing against my own desires to grow up. But I have no memory of my mood that day, or what had brought me downstairs on that warm day.

As I looked out at the street, I had a thought: “I don’t belong here.”

In fact, since the time I was a young girl, I had not identified with my parents. In my memories, I am looking out at that world as if I am a stranger, passing through. I knew my parents loved me, saw that in Daddy’s eyes and his happiness in his family, and knew somewhere deep inside that Mom had her own fears and so she was afraid for me, a girl-child.

I did identify with my school teachers, old-world women with polka dotted dresses and hair that was set weekly at the beauty salon. From the time I was little, I used the small space in my bedroom to teach an imaginary class, full of the classmates who were my friends. I made an elaborate systems of attendance charts and folders with each child’s name. And I watched myself teach in the mirror at the back of bedroom door.

My life has been very different from my parents, who were old world people, my mother the first generation of an immigrant family to be born in the United States, Ukrainian her first language. She did not graduate from high school – she received her GED certificate when I was in college. My father went through the eighth grade in country schools, and my father spoke in a dialect of North Eastern Wisconsin that I still hear in the people who grow up there. They were solid working people, and my mother, who had been working at Cutler Hammer until she married my father, quit working when she married to take her proper role for that time and class and place: housewife. That was my world, and by the time I was in junior high, I was painfully aware of distinctions of class. I saw the nice clothes of my new friends and I looked with great interest at all the details of a friend’s one family bungalow house, which her parents owned. One day, Mr. O’Reilly, the Junior High Guidance Counselor who taught health classes, pulled me aside to ask where I lived as he spoke to another teacher; he wanted to show his ability to identify the social class of his students. I surprised him when I told him where I lived with my family. In a way, I’ve always felt as if I “pass” for middle class; my education and vocation match who I was becoming.

All of this is to ask: is that what I meant that day, looking out over the narrow city street, the sidewalks lined with elm trees that met like a canopy over the street?

I expect I’ll never know; I have not forgotten – I have not forgotten that moment, and I have not forgotten where I come from.

Vlas Markov Srebny and Feodosia Machsuda Srebna (Alex Markowski and Frances Markowski), with family, circa 1905. Mary Markowski Bahlert, my mother, the little girl with hand on her father’s knee.

may my heart always be open to little – e.e. cummings

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

e. e. cummings