Forever 17

When I was a child and I thought about growing up and going out into the world on my own, I was often confused and even frightened by the possibility that I would be leaving the family I knew (well, leaving it physically – I have since learned that we never really leave our family of birth). But somewhere, “deep inside” of me, I had an idea that has never left me. I would grow up to be 17.

Why 17? I don’t have a clue!!! Didn’t then, and don’t now!

But the strangest thing, and something completely clear to me, is that I have always been 17. Take a look at me – I’m still 17!

I love to lead small groups – I volunteer to lead two small groups in the community in Oakland even now – and one time, I was leading a group of women. I asked them the question: “How old are you – inside?” As each women thought about it and then spoke aloud her inner age, heads around the room nodded. We could see it! One woman – a woman to me at the time, very old, although I am older now than she was then, told us that she was 18. She was right!

And so, this 17 year old old has entered her elder years, a retired person now. As my father told me, many years ago when I looked at him in disbelief, a child with her whole life ahead of her, “life sure goes fast.”

It sure does.

Even autumn is beautiful… photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 12/3/2014, Oakland

reflecting, remembering

New York City

My husband likes to call me a “City Girl,” and when we travel, I like to add another city to my mental list of cities where I have walked, where I’ve stopped at a cafe for a cup of coffee, where I’ve seen the places that others recollect about having traveled to a particular place. Over the years, I’ve been happiest as a traveler when I’ve had time to simply walk a city; when Jeff and I stayed for several weeks in London as part of a “house exchange,” my happiest moments were the times we took the Tube into the city and walked slowly from one street to the next, noting the differences of that place, comparing what we were seeing to other places we’d been.

In my Junior Year of college, the University offered a trip to New York City to students during spring break. I wanted to go, that’s for sure. But how was I going to swing it? The $ 250.00 was more than I could see myself saving from my part time work at the carwash on weekends. One day, as the weeks to spring break quickly passed, my mother walked up to me in the kitchen of our flat, and from her hand, she handed me $250.00.

Where did she get the money to gift me the trip she knew I wanted? My parents’ habits around money were simple, working class habits. Dad brought his paycheck home every week, and Mom cashed the check at the grocery store, waiting in the line to the office booth at the front of the store, the booth where Green Stamps were redeemed, the booth where she paid the utility bills once a month. Later, at home, she carefully budgeted the cash in a folding paper folder made for that purpose; she and dad got an allowance, there was the money allowed for food, for utilities, and there was the money saved for Dad’s vacation in the summer, when we’d go to Door County for a week. She kept the budgeted cash in the bottom drawer of their dresser.

I’ll never know where Mom got the $250.00 she handed me that day, or whether it put her back a bit in the family’s budget. I don’t think so. I think she had carefully considered giving me the money, that she knew where it would come from, and I doubt it affected their budget.

I can see Mom’s face as she handed me the gift. I can see that she was opening a door for me, a door to a life she hadn’t had for herself, a door to some vision or dream she had for me, her only child to go to college. In her world, that $250.00 was an extravagant gift, certainly more than I had seen before. I’m still grateful for that extravagance, that gift with dreams and hopes – not spoken, but conscious dreams and hopes – attached.

I traveled to New York that spring on a bus with my friend, Vickie. There, we took in the Broadway show, “Hair,” we ate our meals in restaurants, at a New York deli, we walked and walked, and we lifted our hands into the street to get a taxi from here to there.

Later in her life, after my father passed and she had built a new life for herself, volunteering at St. Joseph’s Hospital, making new friends, my mother and her friend Mary took the bus trip offered by a local Senior Center to Washington, D.C. Later in her life, her world opened for her, and I’m grateful. After Mom passed, her friend Mary told me about the fun they’d had, traveling together, two elders, free women. Just like I had traveled to the big City with a good friend, many years before.

I’m grateful not only for the extravagant gift, but for the dream, the hope that was in and with that gift. Just as she’d passed the bills to me that day, she’d passed on that hope and that dream. In many, many ways, I’ve lived a life that my mother could not hope or imagine for herself. She dreamed it – for me.

Mom and Dad, October, 2022, New Berlin, Wisconsin


When the phone rang

Summer mornings in a small, narrow, Milwaukee flat, I’d sleep in a bit when I wasn’t in school, and spend my summer days bicycling through the city streets with friends, reading, or sitting on the front porch, taking in the sun, summer days so precious in the Midwest.

Every morning at 9, I heard the phone ring on the heavy black rotary phone that sat in the alcove in the small hallway that separated the bedrooms and the bathroom with its claw foot tub. Mom hurried from the kitchen to the hall, and from my room I could hear my Dad’s deep voice, loud above the noises in the factory, as he talked to my mother on his break from work. He must have made sure he had a dime in his pocket every day to be able to call home. He talked; she listened, saying a few words now and then. Then she’d go back to her housework, and the house was quiet again.

Later each morning, the phone in the alcove rang again. Mom walked from the kitchen to the hallway again, this time to answer the call from her sister, my Auntie Anne. Anne talked; Mom listened, answering with a word or two. Years later, I’d learn that Auntie Anne was a victim of domestic abuse, but I expect she didn’t talk about that, even with her sister. It will be a mystery that continues in my life as to whether my mother knew. Like all of us, I was surrounded by family secrets, unspoken agreements that had been alive before my days and will be alive when I’m gone.

Mom hung up the phone and returned to her work. Sometimes, she’d call to me to come out of my room, to go outside – it was summer! Or she’d see me reading in the big arm chair next to the door to the front porch, calling again to me to go outside – it was summer! The air is heavy in the Midwest, heavy with humidity and with secrets.

nostalgia, reflectin, reflecting, remembering

Dinners with the Bug

In my late teens, after the Bug and I had graduated from high school and I started college at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she and I often met to go out on weekend nights. Bug and I had been friends in high school, and we worked together at a movie theater on the north side of Milwaukee, where I was a “vendette” – selling popcorn and sweet treats to the movie patrons – and where the Bug was the cashier who sold tickets at the front window. Several of the kids who worked there were also friends of ours from high school – Pat, who I still talk to on the phone from time to time, now that we’re in our seventies – her brother, Bobby, who died from complications of Crohn’s Disease, a few years ago, and my cousin, Mark. That was my first job, which apparently led to my adult addiction to popcorn (which continues today). Bobby and the Bug dated a few times; he was the one who gave her the name: the Bug.

The Bug and I had many adventures together during my last year of high school and my college years, which ended when she married in her early 20’s. Bug’s wedding and marriage and motherhood were the fulfillment of her dreams, which included her and her husband building a house exactly like her parents’ beautiful home. As far as I know, they still live in that house, outside of Milwaukee. Bug was hysterically funny. I can’t remember anything that she said that was funny, but I do remember one time, when I was driving, with her in the passenger seat, that I had to pull over to the side of the street because she had me laughing so hard.

After we started college – the Bug stayed a year or two, then left school to go to work – she and I had a routine that I remember today as an opening to a way of life that I hadn’t experienced in my working class family. I had my own money then, the money left over after paying tuition and books and transportation to school on a city bus. About once a month, Bug would come over to pick me up at my house. She was always welcome there – all of my friends were welcome there – and my folks loved to see the Bug. When she arrived, we wrote the names of several of Milwaukee’s fine restaurants on slips of paper, and gave them to my Dad, who sat in his chair across from the television, put the slips of paper into his cap, and chose one. Dad would read aloud the name of a restaurant. Then, the Bug and I set out for the evening to the place he’d picked out of the hat.

At first, I felt awkward. My life experience had not included places like these. I had grown up with supper at five in working class flats and small, crowded kitchens, had been raised on home cooked meals, often Ukrainian peasant food. I carefully observed the other patrons on our evenings out, chose something I hadn’t eaten before, and the Bug and I enjoyed the ambiance and our friendship. I know we laughed, and talked about things as only young women do. Over the years, I’ve eaten in many fine restaurants, and I’m comfortable. At first, I wasn’t comfortable, as these evenings out with a dear friend had opened a door in me and outside of me – to another world. The Bug’s father owned a small company of his own where he made toys for carnivals, and her home was very different than mine, which I observed, carefully. Her parents honored the weekend by going out to dinner, the two of them, on Friday nights. My awareness of class, to this day, shapes my world, and it shaped my world then.

Thank you, Bug.

Borscht, photo and soup by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 11/2022